It's one thing to not get up for Nicholls State or Monmouth during the nonconference schedule. It's quite another not to get up for Kentucky in the Elite Eight. But that's what happened last March in Newark, N.J.
"It was certainly the approach," Harrison Barnes said when asked about the lingering regrets surrounding that loss. "Just the fact that we didn't come out with the same enthusiasm, the same aggressiveness that we came out with, for example, in the Marquette game the game before. We were click-click on every point. We just thought that since we had beaten them before, then we'd probably just do it again in the tournament. Nothing would change. And unfortunately, that didn't work."
The fact that this group of Tar Heels took a breath so close to a Final Four appearance raises concerns that it can happen again. Especially when it happened just this past Sunday in allowing Florida State to jump out to a 16-point first-half lead.
"That's the most recent one that sticks on our mind," Barnes said. "And since it was so close to tournament time, we won't have that drag since we realize, ‘Okay, this is what happens.' Teams are going to be good now. They're here for a reason and you can't just expect to have a slow start and come back."
Kendall Marshall agreed, saying, "It was a learning experience, and I think it's going to help us going into the tournament."
If there's an Achilles heel for this North Carolina team, it can be found in its intensity level. And if any of UNC's potential six opponents see that weakness display itself early, the Tar Heels may not have the ability to come roaring back.
During one 114-minute stretch that spanned three games in early February, North Carolina missed 25 of 27 3-pointers. Over roughly the next 100 minutes of game action, the Tar Heels knocked 21 of 43 treys.
The bad news is that there has been more stretches of poor outside shooting than good since the calendar changed over to 2012. North Carolina finished the 16-game ACC regular season schedule ranked 11th in 3-point field goal percentage (30.3) and followed that up with a 30.9 percent effort (17-of-55) in the ACC Tournament.
The shooting touch just comes and goes, depending on the play. Barnes is shooting 17.4 percent (4-of-23) from behind the arc over his last six games. Reggie Bullock, despite a seven-game stretch where he drained 16 3-pointers, made just 1-of-10 when UNC needed them most with Henson out of the lineup against N.C. State and Florida State in the ACC Tournament.
The good news from that loss to the Seminoles is that P.J. Hairston found his rhythm with a trio of threes in the second. That performance marked the first time the freshman had knocked down more than two 3-pointers since New Year's Day after shooting 48.6 percent (17-of-35) in his first eight games of the season.
"I'm practicing well, shooting the ball well," Hairston said. "I feel like my shot is there. I haven't really missed a large amount. I've probably missed ones that were contested, but all of the wide open ones I've hit."
But the player that's provided the necessary balance on the perimeter over the past several weeks is the one that most never expected – Marshall. The Cousy Award frontrunner is shooting 48.0 percent (12-of-25) over the past seven games after shooting 27.4 percent (14-of-51) in the first 27 contests of the season.
Barnes is the linchpin to North Carolina's perimeter capabilities, however. He's the primary scoring option to counterbalance Tyler Zeller's post presence, so his outside shooting must improve as UNC moves further into March.
"The biggest thing, especially now in the tournament, is getting your teammates going," Barnes said. "You always want to get your teammates going and get them confident because trying to just take over the game is harder when your teammates aren't going. My biggest thing is going to be to try to feed off them and try to get them going, and then from there, it will be easier for me to get penetration lanes and open shots."
North Carolina doesn't need a lot of production from beyond the arc, but its margin of victory – or defeat – will be apparent in that stat line.
JOHN HENSON AND HIS DEFENSIVE VALUE
C.J. Leslie single-handedly showed the college basketball world how vulnerable North Carolina's defense is without the ACC's Defensive Player of the Year on the interior. The N.C. State forward took advantage of Henson's replacement, freshman James Michael McAdoo, in scoring 19 points on 8-of-10 shooting in the first 22:20 minutes of play during the ACC Tournament semifinal contest last Saturday.
A solid defensive stretch by Justin Watts and foul trouble prevented Leslie from playing a bigger role in the final minutes.
Florida State learned from the Wolfpack's approach and attacked UNC's interior early, scoring its first five baskets at the rim. That willingness to go inside created perimeter opportunities and the Seminoles capitalized.
N.C. State shot 44.8 percent from the floor and Florida State connected on a staggering 58.9 percent, a season-best for a UNC opponent.
As expected, UNC's media availability on Thursday was centered on Henson's status for the NCAA Tournament opener against Vermont on Friday.
"He has to feel comfortable that he can play and then I have to decide whether his play will be effective," head coach Roy Williams told reporters. "And I am being extremely honest, I do not know. I talked to my staff after practice [on Thursday] trying to see if I could get some input from them as to which way to be leaning and I am not leaning in any direction. So I really don't know."
Regardless of whether Henson sees the floor on Friday night, the Tar Heels still need to improve their patchwork defense with him out of the lineup.
"James is not necessarily a shot blocker, but he is strong down there," Henson said. "It's a different dimension to our team, but we've got to figure it out and keep playing."
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