Noel, Heels prepare for ACC opener

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Fourth-ranked North Carolina (likely with the addition of injured sophomore David Noel) will look to snap a four-game losing streak to Wake Forest, when the nation's top college basketball conference begins league play in the Smith Center Saturday at 4 p.m.

Carolina and Wake are two of 21 Division I teams currently undefeated. But even though the Tar Heels hold a 146-61 lead in the series, the Deacs have won the last four meetings.

"Nobody on our team has ever beaten Wake, but I have," UNC coach Roy Williams said during a press conference on Thursday.

Depending on how he does in practice on Thursday and Friday, Noel could make his debut against the Deacs after missing the start of the season with a broken thumb. He has been cleared to play by team doctors.

"He just has to show me that he can play effectively," Williams said.

Jackie Manuel missed some practice on Wednesday while continuing to nurse a sore ankle and recovering from slamming his head on the floor against Akron, but he should also play.

The Tar Heels (6-0) have at the very least met the high expectations set for them to this point in the season. But Williams emphasized the upcoming portion of the schedule is played at an entirely different level.

"Every night you go out in the conference, you can get beat," Williams said.

And with Carolina coming off perhaps its most lackluster performance of the young 2003-04 campaign, a 64-53 decision over Akron, in which the Tar Heels shot just 30.4 percent from the floor, Williams said practices were going to be tougher this week - as tough as he thinks the team can handle.

"I still think I'm treating them with kid gloves," Williams said. "We just don't have enough healthy bodies for me to push them too hard and it's really hard to push a team that hasn't had a lot of success. I had some teams at Kansas that I could just push and push, but I can't do that with this team and I don't think I ever will be able to."

Unlike the week before the match-up with the Zips, when UNC practiced just once in six days, the Tar Heels will get in three workouts in a row prior to the tip-off against the Deacons. On Wednesday, Williams said he had no doubt he had gotten his message across to the players on the importance of starting the ACC season strong.

"When you get in the family," Williams said, "the intensity is up, the excitement is up along with the concentration of your team. There is nothing like playing in your own league. The coach understands that, hopefully our team will as well."

Manuel said he and his teammates have gotten the message.

"A week is a lot of time to turn things around," Manuel said. "We'll be ready."

UNC boasts one of the best starting fives in the country, and the addition of Noel to the lineup could begin to ease the burden of the Tar Heels' most glaring weakness - depth.

Jawad Williams leads all Carolina scorers with 19.3 points per game, with Sean May averaging 19.0 and Rashad McCants' chipping in 17.3. Point guard Raymond Felton has 51 assists against just 22 turnovers, but is still looking to regain the shooting stroke he demonstrated down the stretch last season.

"Teams like that are hard to prepare for," Wake coach Skip Prosser said. "You have to guard all of their guys. They have five excellent players. Carolina has really good play calling, but it takes really good players to execute them."

May, the only true post player in the starting lineup, is also pulling down rebounds at an 11.3 per game clip.

"Sean is going to be very tough mentally, before he leaves here," Williams said. "From just a basketball perspective, I like his hands."

According to Prosser, it is May that has made the biggest impact on the Tar Heels' early success.

"He catches everything and then scores," he said.

Despite a career-high rebounding night, in which 10 of May's 21 boards - a Smith Center record - were offensive, he made just 3 of 18 field goals against Akron. Since then, he has watched the game three times.

"I just wanted to see why I was missing all those shots, and why our defense was so bad," May said. "We just didn't have any effort. We were just out there; we weren't really ready to play. We can't have those types of lapses."

The Deacons (6-0), ranked 14th in the writers' poll and ninth in the coaches' poll, are coming off a 78-66 win at SMU on Monday. Sophomores' Justin Gray and Eric Williams each scored 22 points and freshman Chris Paul had nine assists and six steals to lead Wake.

Paul, Gray and Taron Downey make up a three-guard lineup that mixes well with frontcourt mates' Williams and Vytas Danelius to give the Deacs a balanced offensive attack. Six players are averaging at least 8.0 points per game, with four averaging in double figures.

"We don't worry about how big you are," Prosser said. "It's how big you play. They're talented and selfless. When one of [the guards] hasn't played well, usually two of the other ones have and that's given us good balance."

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