Burden of Success

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. –- On Nov. 15, North Carolina was a top-10 team with plenty of potential. Less than three weeks later, the Tar Heels fell off the map after a 4-3 start and remained under the radar until finally breaking through on Saturday night. After perfecting its play as an underdog, UNC must now prove it can perform as a favorite.

As the start of the college basketball season inches closer to Halloween and more preseason tournaments flood the cable guide during Thanksgiving week, the importance of winning early has also skyrocketed for a national media that is apparently taking its cue from college football. So when North Carolina stumbled out of the gates with losses to Minnesota, Vanderbilt and Illinois, the label was quickly applied that Roy Williams and his young bunch of Tar Heels were headed for a reproduction of 2009-10.

Williams, however, told anyone that would listen that his team would continue to improve as the season went along. The road out of the depths of a NIT season can be long and bumpy, and the Tar Heels showcased that with ugly win after ugly win. But those types of victories add up, and as North Carolina enters the ACC Tournament, it does so as the No. 1 seed after winning 17 of its last 19, including a 14-2 mark in conference play that clinched the outright regular season championship.

Sophomore guard Dexter Strickland indicated on Tuesday that North Carolina's ability to enter stealth mode on the flight back from Illinois allowed the Tar Heels to grow and develop without the pressures that come along with lofty external expectations.

And while the national spotlight was pointed eight miles down 15-501 for the first four months of the schedule, this North Carolina program became whole again after fracturing last season. The final piece fell into place once Larry Drew bolted for L.A., and now those bonds are tight enough to endure any hardships that may fall in the Tar Heels' path over the next month.

"I think it starts off the court," Strickland said. "We all get along. We go to the movies together and do different things together as a team. My first year here we didn't do that. Everybody gets along with each other and everybody is comfortable with one another on the court and that's big for us."

Over the past two months, the Tar Heels have shown the ability to stay poised when playing from behind and win close ball games down the stretch with stingy defense and clutch shooting. Williams has praised his team's toughness throughout the ACC season and that attribute will be put to the test over the next four weeks.

Not only has North Carolina shed its label as a one of the many playing for second place behind Duke, but the Tar Heels enter this new phase as a favorite with a roster lacking significant postseason experience. Six of UNC's top eight players will be seeking their first ACC and NCAA Tournament wins over the next two weeks, while juniors Tyler Zeller and Justin Watts saw minimal action during the '09 national title run.

Then again, having experience and some age doesn't guarantee success, either.

"Coach [Dean] Smith said, and I think it's still appropriate, you build your momentum once you get into the tournament and I think you get comfortable after you get there," Williams told reporters during his press conference on Tuesday. "I don't think anybody's comfortable. You pick the oldest team in the league with the most seniors and there's still an excitement about the tournament. You don't know how you're going to react until you get there.

"Our guys, it's all new to them. We're going to try to prepare them, but until they get out there and see what's going on, it's going to be up to them."

The Tar Heels aren't concerned with the sudden burst of national exposure or the lack of experience on the roster. After all, that same level of experience is responsible for earning the No. 1 seed in the ACC Tournament.

"I think it's good for us," freshman forward Harrison Barnes said of UNC's move into the limelight. "We definitely have a lot of momentum going for us right now. It's good to be in a different position from always being the underdog. We need to learn how to play on top. We need to learn how to play better holding a lead. I think that will just help us down the stretch as we go in to the NCAA Tournament."

Williams has never placed an inordinate amount of importance on the conference tournament, instead focusing his energy on the NCAAs that follow closely behind. But if there is any underlying reason for concern, this weekend provides the perfect opportunity to whet the postseason appetite.

"He told us he's packing three suits," Barnes said. "He plans to be down there for three days. As a team, we have to take on that approach that we want to win another ring. It was fun for us to celebrate Saturday and if you want the opportunity to celebrate again in a week, why not play as hard as you can?"

The Tar Heels begin their postseason run at noon on Friday against the winner of No. 8 seed Virginia versus No. 9 seed Miami.

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