"I remember how bad we all felt last year when we were over at Coach's house and we didn't hear our name called, but we've got three games left before then," said an optimistic Sean May.
The Tar Heels (18-9, 8-8 ACC) have won four of their last six games, and are a lock to return to the NCAA Tournament after a two-year hiatus. After losing 36 games over the past two campaigns, UNC is 10-8 in this calendar year after starting the season 8-1.
But while Carolina's coaches and players admit they're ultimate goal is to peak for the Big Dance, they also attest to their focus for the conference tourney which begins Thursday, with the fifth-seeded Tar Heels set to meet No. 14 Georgia Tech (22-8, 9-7) at 2:30 p.m. on Friday.
"Do I love the tournament? No, but since we have to go play, let's play our absolute best," UNC coach Roy Williams said on Thursday. "Let's go up there and make the sacrifices to win the whole daggum thing. In some ways it's just a real big cocktail party for four days – the way the people put so much emphasis on the NCAA Tournament."
The Tar Heels are the winningest team in ACC Tournament history with a record 15 championships. UNC has played in the title game 27 times in 50 years, with a 75-34 all-time record.
But in fact there is more than just pride at stake. With a championship, or at least a solid showing, the Tar Heels could improve their potential placement come Selection Sunday.
"If we win the ACC Tournament, instead of going into the NCAA Tournament as a seventh- or eighth-seed, we could get a four- or five-seed," said May, who is averaging 15 points and 10.1 per game.
May is the only player in the nation to pull down at least 21 rebounds in two seperate games this season.
"We're a scary team to play, because against good teams we play really well," May said. "Coming into tournament play, everybody is good. I would think that teams would not want to play this Carolina team because we are so explosive and can blow teams out of the water."
UNC is arguably playing its best basketball of the season, despite Saturday's 70-65 setback at Duke last Saturday. Williams said while he doesn't want his team to dwell on its tough loss to the Blue Devils, he doesn't want them to forget it either.
"It shouldn't be totally behind them, because we should have learned from some major mistakes we made," Williams said. "If we didn't learn from that, we're dumb. We we're in a real tough environment…but I want us to pull some positives from that game as well. When you have the ball with six seconds left and a chance to win the game, you competed. And at the same time, I don't think we should pat ourselves on the back. I'm not into moral victories."
The Yellow Jackets, coming off a 63-60 win over Florida State, represent one of the most athletic and deep teams in all of college basketball. The two teams split their regular season match-ups, with each winning at home.
"We have some momentum going into this Carolina game, and if we can continue that, it can only mean good things for us as we continue down the road," Tech coach Paul Hewitt said. "I'm very pleased with the way we finished up the season. We are playing some pretty consistent basketball. Now we have the chance to play against a very good North Carolina team and see where we are."
In last year's tournament, the seventh-seeded Tar Heels, who suffered their worst ACC loss ever – a 96-56 drubbing at Maryland three weeks earlier – hit 11 three pointers and upset the second-seeded Terrapins 84-72 in the quarterfinals. But in the semis against Duke, UNC's likely Saturday opponent should it get by Tech, the Blue Devils shot 60.6 percent and hit eight of 11 first half three-pointers in an "easier than the final score would indicate" 15-point win over the Tar Heels.
"This team is a lot different than last year," said May, who made his first appearance in the lineup after breaking a bone in his foot earlier in the season. "We played pretty well last year in the first game, but then we got knocked off by Duke. It may have hurt our team chemistry a little bit when I came back."
UNC is 101-26 all-time in Greensboro, including wins in 11 of its last 12 contests. The aforementioned loss to the Blue Devils is the only blemish. The Tar Heels have a 31-11 record in ACC Tournaments played in the Greensboro.
"It's all about who wants it the most," David Noel said. "It's all about pride. We have to go up there and play, so why not go up there and win it."
"Raymond got hit again today, but he's fine," UNC coach Roy Williams said on Wednesday. "He made it all the way through practice today, but he didn't get through all of the first two practices this week. Jackie is the only one who didn't practice today, and I'm hoping that he will be able to practice tomorrow. He had an abscessed tooth that was cut out yesterday. It's just another thing for him to have to worry about."
"I'm just going to go out there regular. It's a little sore, so if I get bumped on it…but I'm OK," Felton said. "I dived on a loose ball today and fell on my hip and it kind of hurt for a second, but I expect it to be 100-percent when we play."