Heels Try To Regroup

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. --- North Carolina's trip home early Friday morning was what UNC associate athletic director Steve Kirschner called the worst flight he's ever been on. And it had nothing to do with the Tar Heels' disappointing 84-77 loss at Georgia Tech a couple of hours earlier.

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    Due to storms and high winds across the south, their chartered plane fought through a turbulence filled trip that ended in a bumpy landing and caused several players to get sick.

    Tyler Hansbrough, who absolutely abhors flying, decided to take the team bus home.

    When Roy Williams realized they had reached safety after the landing, he jubilantly and jokingly shouted, "Tyler Hansbrough: The smartest one of us all."

    In an ironic catharsis, the airborne events helped put Carolina's last two losses in perspective. It may have actually helped to ease the tension surrounding UNC's first real crisis of the season – the timing of which has led many to now seriously doubt the Tar Heels have what it takes to fulfill lofty preseason expectations.

    "It's just basketball," Williams said on Friday during a press conference at the Smith Center.

    But disturbing may be the best word to describe some of the trends that have developed during Carolina's current two-game slide, which barring a miraculous turn of events this weekend, has cost the Tar Heels a No. 1 seeding in the ACC Tournament.

    Carolina might be on the brink of a harsh ending to a season once seemingly consisting of omnipotent potential. Yet, the Tar Heels can still achieve their most coveted goals as well.

    Chances are a win over Duke and a subsequent run to their first ACC Tournament title in nine years would be enough to land a top seed in the NCAA Tournament, with local beginnings in Winston-Salem.

    In the meantime, eighth-ranked UNC (24-6, 10-5 ACC) must defeat Duke in its home finale Sunday at 4 p.m., or face the possibility of mandatory participation on Thursday in the conference tournament.

    Wake Forest would need to upset Virginia in Winston-Salem on Saturday for the Tar Heels salvage a share of the league regular season championship.

    But if UNC is going to mount any kind of post-season run close to what was expected by many analysts just a few weeks ago, it's going to have to reverse its fortunes.

    The players insist they respect the urgency of their team's current situation.

    "Everybody is disappointed about what's happened over the last two losses," said Wes Miller, who will play in his final home game on Sunday. "But the reality is, that's what's happened, and we've got to turn it around now."

    Tough losses on the road at Maryland and Georgia Tech – two teams fighting to secure NCAA bids – are not that surprising, and the Tar Heels remained competitive in both. It's the similarities found in the two losses that have UNC fans squirming.

    "It's very clear what we need to improve on," Hansbrough said. "I don't think we're heading down the wrong path. We're going to come together as a team and be ready for the tournament."

    Two glaring issues concern the way the Terps and Yellow Jackets shot and rebounded better than the Tar Heels – areas they normally dominate. The differential in the shooting percentages are nominal, but rarely do Carolina opponents win that statistical category – and Tech's 60 percent from three-point range in the first half on Thursday capped a run that UNC couldn't recover from.

    North Carolina led more total minutes in its last two games than Maryland and Tech combined. The Tar Heels just didn't hold the scoreboard advantage when it counted – at the end.

    "You could just talk yourself into that something has happened, but the bottom line is the other team shot the ball a heck of a lot better and rebounded it a lot better," Williams said. "Tech was sensational in the first half. I felt like if we really played, we'd have a chance in the second half. We just didn't make enough shots."

    Both UMd and GT manhandled the Tar Heels on the boards in the first halves, but UNC pretty much broke even in the second half rebounding.

    "We didn't rebound anywhere near like we wanted to, but we did meet up with up with teams that are at times exceptional rebounders," Williams said. "But we also didn't box out. We didn't go after the ball as hard as they did."

    And a third, perhaps most prominent deficiency, is UNC's defensive regression. At its best, the Tar Heels' defense has been good but rarely great. Lately, it's been suspect at best.

    "We can play better defense and we have to play better defense," Williams said. "Two games in a row, we've met up with probably the two hottest teams in the league in their buildings – and we came up short."

    Some attribute the above to questionable toughness among the Tar Heels' personnel. Williams says effective rebounding and defense will come with improved focus and attention to detail.

    "You don't have to be quite as tough, if you make a good box out to begin with," Williams said. "Toughness can be improved by better technique and experience. Hunger is a part of toughness as well. Being willing to absorb contact, be willing to make that reaction immediately without thinking about it. In other words, ‘Hey that ball on the floor belongs to Carolina, not Georgia Tech.'"

    Williams said his definition of toughness begins with picking yourself up when someone knocks you down. The Tar Heels are down but not out. If they can bounce back like their coach expects over the next 10 days, the grim reality of last week's losses could be forgotten.

    "I think my team is a little shook, a little alarmed," Williams said. "They don't understand what's going on right now, but they've got to understand they've got to play better. But people in Florida feel the same way people in Chapel Hill right now. They lost three in a row last year, and then won the national championship. People don't get dumb that quickly.

    "It's a wonderful group of gifted kids that are going through a difficult time," he said. "We're not going to panic. I lost eight games in a row my first year. We lost three out of four last year and two were at home.

    "I tell you what, I'll be back up today at practice, and they better come along with me."

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