Heels study, practice and heal

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – It's Finals Week for the Tar Heels, so for now, their head coach is taking it easy on them. "Life can't be any easier than what they've got right now," Roy Williams said Friday afternoon. "They don't have to get up and go to class, they take three or four tests in a week and half, practice a couple times and go shoot a few hoops. It's a pretty good life."

Williams, who spoke to the media Friday afternoon at the Smith Center several hours after returning from a recruiting trip to St. Louis, plans a lighter practice today and the more typical, rigorous schedule tomorrow in preparation for hosting Akron on Sunday.

"I could go out and do what they're doing today at 53, but I'd be dead at the end," he said. "If I try to do what they're going to do Saturday, I'd be dead after five minutes. If we say we're going to practice, we're going to really practice. It'll be intense and we'll give them some information on Akron. We'll do that tomorrow and try to get them focused on playing a big time game on Sunday."

With one of the focal points – and concerns – for the season, being on the potential harm injuries can have on a team that lacks depth, the players' health was a major topic of discussion with the media.

First is David Noel, who suffered a torn ligament in his right thumb on Nov. 8 and was expected to miss eight weeks.

"They've put a smaller splint on there and we let him go through part of a practice on Wednesday, but I do not have any idea when they're going to release him to play," Williams said. "My guess is they'll allow him to do this for a couple more weeks before they make a decision."

And while Jawad Williams and Jackie Manuel are returning to form, Raymond Felton suffered a setback in Sunday's game against George Mason, though he is expected to play against Akron.

"[Raymond] didn't do anything in practice on Wednesday and yesterday all he did was shoot free throws," Williams said. "He strained his Achilles in the game and we've held him out of most everything. Jackie's [knee injury] will get progressively better as he gets some lighter days, so I'm hoping this helps him. And Jawad will be fine as long as he doesn't get hit in the same spot.

"We're heading in the right direction, but we've got to stay healthy," the head coach added, while tapping his knuckles on the table. "If you don't stay healthy, it makes no difference."

As for the ever-vague status of sophomore center Damion Grant, he is now participating in some "dummy" practice, as Williams called it, but doesn't appear close to a return.

"Damion Grant started doing some very light running up and down the court and some of our sets and that's basically it," Williams said.

Carolina fans watched a new addition to the team on Sunday, as walk-on Jesse Holley saw action for three minutes (scoring four points), which included a brief stint at the end of the half.

"I just tried a little lark the other day and put him in for 30 seconds and said ‘Can you guard that guy?'" Williams said. "It's hard to put someone out there and expect him to be successful if he has no idea what we're doing. This is probably a more important week for him than anybody on our club because I can't evaluate him until he knows what's going on. He has really impressed me with his feel for the game – needless to say he's impressed me with his athleticism. We'll just have to see how he does when he starts knowing what he's supposed to do.

"In practice the other day, he was going so fast the ball couldn't keep up with him and he ran over a guy – so I just yelled ‘First down!'"

Injuries and lack of depth aside, Williams has many reasons to be encouraged and excited with the play of his team thus far.

The Tar Heels are 5-0, having escaped a near road upset at Cleveland State, beating a solid team in Illinois and exploding in the second half against a game George Mason team. For the first time in three years (Jan. 8, 2000), UNC has shot better than 60 percent in a game – and they've done it twice (against ODU and GMU). Though defensively and on the boards, there is clearly much room for improvement.

"I love the attitude of the kids and I love the way they're adapting," Williams said. "I think they're being unselfish, I think they're trying to do a better job of guarding people. We've got to do a better job of it because we're not anywhere near as strong defensively as we need to be if we truly want to be a Top 10 team. We're nowhere near as good on the backboard as we need to be if we truly want to be a Top 10 team.

"Of the top 15 teams in the nation, we have games against nine of those top 15. We've got to understand that we're playing some very good opponents every night we go out, to try and get ready for the really good opponents."

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