Finding Success on the Road

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – There was legitimate concern following North Carolina's debacle in Tallahassee six weeks ago whether or not the Tar Heels could find whatever it was that was so clearly lacking before March rolled around. Since that loss, however, UNC has won five straight road games.

When a reporter asked Roy Williams on Friday about his team's improved play on the road since the 90-57 loss at FSU, he quipped: "Well, if we were breathing, we were better than we were down there."

The ninth-year UNC head coach then listed several intangibles in describing his team's bounce back.

"I think we are more attentive to the details," Williams said. "We are more focused. I think we're more attentive to the intensity level that you have to have mentally and physically. And I think all of those things – I don't know that I would pick out any one over the other – but down there we were beaten in every phase of the game.

"I think the attention to detail and trying to focus and play the best we can possibly play and not just swagger out there and act like it's going to be easy is the biggest thing."

After dropping three of its first four road games – losses vs. UNLV, Kentucky and FSU; win vs. UNC Asheville – UNC has won its last five by an average margin of 11.8 points. Obviously, talent level plays a role in separating the first four road games from the last five, but Harrison Barnes and Tyler Zeller both pointed to improved team chemistry when asked about the winning streak following Tuesday's win at N.C. State.

"Early in the season when we were at UNLV and Kentucky and we were in hostile environments, we didn't really do the best job of everyone coming together and everyone being focused, being calm and relaxed and poised," Barnes said.

But while Williams admitted that as a coach he didn't have quite as good a handle on that aspect as his players do, he doesn't believe team chemistry was the lone factor involved, especially with regard to the FSU loss.

"We didn't lose at Florida State just because we didn't put our hands together and sing Kumbaya," Williams said, adding, "We were not ready to play down there."

The Tar Heels may have dodged a literal bullet in that Seminole aftermath, thanks to a Special Olympics camp that UNC held the next day. The players returned to a long practice on Monday with roughly 40 hours of reflection available.

"We were here a long time, but I think it was something we needed," Zeller said on Friday. "We watched a lot of film. It wasn't a brutal practice, but it was a very tough practice. It was something that we knew we had to pick up the intensity. We refocused. So I think we've done a fantastic job since then of just making sure in practice that we get better every day and trying to strive to be the best team we can be."

Zeller acknowledged having some concern about his team's ability to bounce back from that 33-point drubbing in Tallahassee, but also knew that UNC suffered a similar loss at Georgia Tech in January 2011 and responded with a 17-3 record and an Elite 8 appearance to close the season.

Besides, the game film provided enough embarrassment to force immediate change.

"If you're half a step late, that's bad enough, but we were a step or two late and that's unacceptable," Zeller said.

Williams grades his team on four key factors – field goal percentage (both offensive and defensive), rebounds, turnovers and free throw attempts. He told reporters that rebounding draws the most emphasis with field goal percentage close behind.

That collection of statistics provides a telling look into North Carolina's play on the road this season.

In its first four road games, UNC connected on 44.7 percent of its field goal attempts (107-of-239) while its opponents shot 44.0 percent (114-of-259). North Carolina posted a 0.89 assist-turnover ratio (55-62) compared to a 1.12 A/T ratio (55-49) by its opposition, and also lost the combined total rebounding (160-147) and offensive rebounding (53-48) statistics.

The Tar Heels had success getting to the free throw line (25.5 attempts per game), but knocked down just 63.7 percent of those opportunities (65-of-102).

In its last five road games, UNC has only shot 41.6 percent from the floor (138-of-332), but has held its opponents to 37.9 percent shooting (120-317). North Carolina has delivered a 1.56 A/T ratio (78-51) compared to a 1.0 ratio (50-50) by its ACC counterparts.

The biggest difference has come on the backboards and at the free throw line. The Tar Heels have outrebounded their last five opponents by a 238-187 margin, including a 95-70 edge on the offensive glass. And while UNC has attempted fewer free throws (24 per game), it has knocked down 74.2 percent of those freebies (89-of-120).

That recent production has helped UNC climb in the categories that make up kenpom.com's "Four Factors" breakdown, which are essentially the same statistics that Williams focuses on during his grading process – effective field goal percentage, turnover percentage, offensive rebounding percentage and free throw rate.

Despite a 116th ranking (50.4) in effective field goal percentage, which adds a 50 percent boost for made 3-pointers, UNC ranks 24th (44.5) in effective defensive field goal percentage. North Carolina also ranks first nationally in defensive free throw rate (21.0), six in offensive rebound percentage (41.1) and 10th in turnover percentage (16.5).

Road game performance plays a role in defining the quality of teams as March approaches. It's one thing to scratch out a win at home with tens of thousands of fans willing you to victory, but that advantage vanishes in tournament play and all you have left is your talent and your teammates to rely on.

Williams said it best during his radio show on Monday night: "If we're a good team, we should be good anywhere."

North Carolina returns to the road on Saturday with a 4 p.m. tip at No. 25 Virginia.

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