Stretch Run Underway

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – The final three weeks of No. 12 North Carolina’s 2014-15 regular season includes four road trips and a pair of home tilts against rivals N.C. State and Duke. The stretch run begins at Pittsburgh on Saturday.

It’s only been six days since UNC outran Boston College, 79-68, yet in light of the news of Dean Smith’s passing, the length of time seems much more substantial. The Tar Heels’ ACC bye fell in a seemingly preordained slot this week, thereby allowing Roy Williams and the entire UNC community time to reflect and celebrate Smith’s legacy.

Linnea Smith, Dean’s wife, brought the round leather ball back into play during a conversation this week with Williams, saying, “You know, there is a basketball season still going on.”

There are seven games left on UNC’s regular season schedule, and while the Tar Heels only trail No. 2 Virginia by two games in the conference standings, the Cavaliers hold the tiebreaker and a much easier closing slate of games.

More importantly for UNC, however, is the potential for a double-bye in the ACC Tournament in four weeks. The Tar Heels are currently tied with Duke and Louisville for third in the ACC standings at 8-3 behind Virginia (10-1) and Notre Dame (10-3).

The critical location of the mid-week bye in conference schedule served dual purposes. First and foremost, it provided the Tar Heels an opportunity to heal up physically and refocus mentally on the task ahead. It also provided a break in a brutal run of games.

“The five-game stretch - at Louisville, Virginia, the No. 1 team in our league at home, and then three more on the road – it’s not a very easy stretch, by any means,” Williams told reporters on Friday. “You would like to have those spread out a little more…

“It’s a tough period anyway for everybody because you get to this point and you’re not close enough to the tournament to see that light at the end of the tunnel and you’re beaten up and your team is hurt. But it is nice to have a lot more of those games at home to try to help you get through that.”

Next Wednesday’s rivalry matchup at Cameron Indoor marks the fourth road game in five contests and 17 days for the Tar Heels, although looking past Pittsburgh on Saturday is not an option. The Panthers (16-9, 5-6 ACC) are 12-2 at home and squarely on the NCAA Tournament bubble.

“We never look ahead,” sophomore guard Nate Britt said. “This is a strong conference. You can any team on any night and lose a game, so I feel like we can never look ahead. I’m pretty sure none of my teammates and none of our staff are looking ahead. We’re just focusing on this one game and taking it one game at a time.”

The true test in Saturday’s game will be how UNC responds to Pittsburgh’s aggressive style of play. Questions surrounding the Tar Heels’ toughness have been a talking point for the past two seasons.

“On the defensive end of the court, they play a lot more physical than some of the other teams,” Britt said. “I don’t know, for some reason, I feel like there’s a whole lot more contact, and that’s the way we’ve been practicing this week to try to prepare for them.”

Defense played a role in Williams’ decision to start Britt and forward Isaiah Hicks over starters Kennedy Meeks and J.P. Tokoto at Boston College last Saturday. Britt and Hicks have continued to run with the white team during practice this week, according to Britt, although the starting lineup against Pittsburgh won’t be finalized until game day.

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