Ramping Up the Intensity

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Eleven of No. 3 North Carolina's 16 ACC games over the next eight weeks are against opponents that currently reside outside of the RPI's top-50. Another down year in the conference places the onus on UNC to maintain the necessary intensity level in order to thrive in the postseason.

USA Today's Jeff Sagarin has the ACC rated as the nation's fifth-best conference, trailing the Big Ten, Big 12, Big East and Mountain West. Kenpom.com also has the ACC rated fifth with the SEC replacing the Mountain West in the fourth spot.

According to Sagarin, the league is 4-11 against top-25 opponents and 10-25 against the top-50. Exclude UNC and No. 5 Duke from the mix and the ACC is 0-8 against the top-25 and 2-21 against the top-50.

As the Tar Heels prepare for their eighth-straight home game – and ACC opener – against Boston College on Saturday, their intensity level has become a focal point. During the previous seven games at the Smith Center, North Carolina's average margin of victory was 30.6 points per game.

After a horrid start to a 50-point blowout over Nicholls on Dec. 19, UNC head coach Roy Williams was critical of both his team and himself in his postgame press conference.

"For us to be the team we want to be, we have to be willing to invest," Williams said. "And we have to do it on game night, not just talk about it. I did not get this team ready to play this game. That's just bad coaching on my part. We weren't focused; we weren't ready to play."

Roughly two weeks later after a lackadaisical start to the second half against overmatched Monmouth, Williams provided some insight into the negatives of lopsided games.

"As with all teams, as least every team I've ever coached, it's hard to be up 20 at half and expect to win by 50 every time," the ninth-year UNC head coach said.

Translation: It's difficult to maintain effort and intensity for 40 minutes when you are walloping your opponent.

Just a few short years ago, intensity in ACC play was a given. The alternative was to get embarrassed up and down the court. But as the conference's dominance over the basketball landscape has gradually eroded away, a 40-minute performance is no longer a requirement to winning games.

Remember the 30.6 average margin of victory over the last seven games? That's a good estimate for the outcome of Saturday's matchup against Boston College.

When asked about getting his team up for the 5-9 Eagles during his weekly press conference on Friday, Williams replied: "The good thing is our players listen to us. They don't form their own scouting reports, most of the time."

Williams also brought up UNC's 48-46 boxing match victory over the Eagles in Chapel Hill last season, but that comparison loses its relevance when considering that Boston College lost five starters and 10 lettermen from that team.

Senior forward Tyler Zeller told reporters that he would have no problems in looking past Boston College's record and stats in preparing for the ACC opener.

"For me, personally, it's easy," Zeller said. "I think for the freshmen it's going to be more difficult. I know the ACC is a whole new level of basketball. You have to be more intense, you have to be more focused."

Williams admitted that his team is not a naturally intense group.

"I think we have to emphasize it," Williams said. "I think they care a great deal, but we don't have any of those wacko guys flying around."

He mentioned players like Tar Heel greats George Karl and Steve Previs and Kansas standout Jerod Haase as being those "wacko" types. For a more recent example, Tyler Hansbrough earned the nickname "Psycho T" for his constant and overflowing intensity level.

Zeller played alongside Hansbrough during UNC's 2008-09 national championship run.

"They were a lot more intense all of the time," Zeller said of that title team, noting that his current squad can match that level on occasion.

What it comes down to is opportunity. Regardless of the quality of opponent, a bad Boston College team carries more weight than anyone on UNC's schedule to date.

"This is our one chance – we're always talking about chances to get rings or championships," Zeller said. "You have to play 16 games to be able to get that championship, so this is the beginning of it. You have to be able to go out and play. Even if it's the last team in your conference and it's the last game of the year, you still have to go out and play like it's the first game of the year. Every game you have to be ready to play and intense. You can't really lose any in conference and expect to be able to win it."

The time to show up and show out is upon us. There are no more excuses for being outplayed or outhustled. This Tar Heel team is capable of elbowing its way up the crowded hierarchy of UNC basketball. The first step is 16 regular season games, starting with Boston College.

"It will be interesting going into conference play to see how everybody steps up and plays and see if they can play at a higher level, play more intense," Zeller said. "We get to see what we're really made of now."

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