Jim Hawkins/Inside Carolina

Tar Heels Playing Best Ball Entering Sweet 16

No. 1 seed North Carolina plays No. 5 seed Indiana for a spot in the Elite 8 on Friday night (9:57pm/TBS).

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – When North Carolina opened preseason practice back on Oct. 2, the expectations were high and the days ahead were plentiful. On Monday afternoon, the top-seeded Tar Heels took the Smith Center court for their 92nd practice. This one was likely different, as it was the first of so many not guaranteed.

It would have been odd for UNC to practice and play for the last time on N.C. State’s home floor. Saturday’s 85-66 victory over No. 9 seed Providence assured several more practices in Chapel Hill, and at least one more game in the win-or-go-home pandemonium that is the NCAA Tournament.

“Our goal coming in here was to have another practice at the Smith Center, because that means we’re still playing,” senior guard Marcus Paige said in the cramped hallway outside of UNC’s locker room at PNC Arena after the win. “We’re there now. We’ve got to get rested, recover, and prepare for Philly, where Indiana is waiting. And they’re a great team that just beat a great Kentucky team.”

Despite being the nation’s preseason No. 1, this group of Tar Heels lacked the abundance of talent that stocked the best teams of the Roy Williams era in Chapel Hill. The 2005 national championship team had four NBA lottery picks. The 2009 national championship team had three first-rounders and a second-round selection in Danny Green that is starring for the San Antonio Spurs. The 2012 Elite Eight squad had four of the top-17 draft picks.

Such talent, not to mention a wealth of experience, allowed those teams to focus their goals on playing – and winning – on the final Monday of the season.

“They were extremely gifted; they were focused,” Williams said of his ’05 and ’09 teams on Saturday. “Both of those teams were focused on one goal, winning the national championship. This team right now is focused on being the best team they can possibly be, and we have some big-time dreams and goals, and we've got an opportunity to see what's going to happen over the next couple weeks.”

More importantly, Williams added this tidbit: “I'm getting more and more confident with my team every day.”

For a team in which offense came easy and defense served as a mental hurdle for much of the season, its leader’s blossoming faith speaks to the poise and intensity the Tar Heels have showcased over the last four weeks. During that stretch, UNC has won nine of its 10 games – its lone loss came at fellow No. 1 seed Virginia’s John Paul Jones Arena – and held its opponents to 39.7 percent shooting.

In postseason play, the Tar Heels have been even better defensively, holding opponents to 34.7 percent shooting in the second half.

“We've harped every day about getting better, getting better,” Williams said. “And if we do get better every day, we'll be playing our best basketball at the end of the year. I think we've played our best basketball of the entire season these last couple weeks.”

The reward, of course, is another week of practices at the Smith Center before hopping aboard a plane destined for Philadelphia. The Tar Heels are planning for more practice time on their home floor next week.

“We're not done,” Paige said. “We feel like we still have a lot of work to do. We feel like we can still play a lot better. We didn't come to this point in the season to get to the Sweet 16. The Sweet 16 is a stepping point to get to where we want to be, which is in Houston.”

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