CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Justin Jackson hadn’t planned to watch any of last April’s national championship game between Duke and Wisconsin.
Several of his teammates, including Kennedy Meeks, had decided against watching the Blue Devils rally for the title. Jackson, bored in his room on that Monday night, eventually turned his television on to watch the game play out.
“The hardest thing was to know that we could have been there,” Jackson told reporters at the ACC Operation Basketball media event on Wednesday. “Knowing that we could have beaten both of those teams, obviously Duke in the regular season, but then Wisconsin in the Sweet 16, I think that was the hardest thing.
“It wasn’t necessarily the rivalry between us and Duke or anything like that, the worst thing was the fact that we felt like we could have been there if we had just done some of the little things.”
Deep in the underbelly of the Staples Center, only minutes after UNC’s loss to Wisconsin, Roy Williams implored his players to remember how they felt in that very moment in hopes of not repeating a Sweet Sixteen loss – or worse – in 2015-16.
The Tar Heels, voted No. 1 in the ACC preseason media poll, are also ranked No. 1 along with Kentucky in the preseason USA Today Coaches Poll. With four returning starters and nine of its top-10 scorers back from a season ago, UNC is poised for a deep run through March and potentially in to April.
“Our goal is to win the national championship,” junior center Kennedy Meeks said. “… I just think for our team right now, it’s a big-time opportunity.”
When asked if his players heeded his pleas in that Staples Center locker room, Williams said he had been “fairly pleased” with 16 of his teams 17 practices thus far.
Williams, of course, has never been one to dismiss preseason polls and the hoopla that such happenings invite.
“In ’09, I think at that time we were the first unanimous pick in the Associated Press poll to be No. 1,” Williams said. “I was asked if that bothered me, and I said no, because we were really good. I don’t think we’re at that level yet, but the good news is we have the whole season to play. We’ve got some really good parts and hopefully we’ll be one of those teams that will still be talked about at the end of the year that has a chance.”
Williams has noted on several occasions that his ’05 and ‘09 title teams added top-20 caliber recruits in the form of Marvin Williams, Ed Davis and Tyler Zeller, which his current team has not. As a result, the primary, if not only, method for the 2014-15 Sweet Sixteen team to evolve into a 2015-16 Final Four team is for improvement at the individual level.
Without a lockdown defender, according to Williams, growth on the defensive end will have to come from a unified effort with all five players understanding help rotations to offset on-the-ball challenges. UNC’s first 10 practices were primarily defensive in nature, according to Jackson.
“This year we’re taking defense a lot more personal because of those games we lost last year on the road,” Meeks said. “The Wisconsin loss, we had them up seven with 10 minutes to go. We had Duke up 10 with four minutes to go and they both played in the championship game. I think for us, our big thing right now is execution and being a tougher team.”
Williams doesn’t shy away from talking big picture with his players; in fact, he encourages that approach, both in the micro and macro. If you’re going to dream, dream big.
“I hope they’re embracing the idea that everybody thinks we’re going to be pretty good,” Williams said.