Heels Ready For ACC Play

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – North Carolina enters Atlantic Coast Conference play on Sunday against No. 19 Clemson as the top-ranked squad in the country with an undefeated record, but there are nervous overtones surrounding the program after a lackluster early season schedule and the absence of several key reserves.

"It's great to talk about problems and adversity when you're 14-0," head coach Roy Williams said during his Friday afternoon press conference. "That's a pretty neat deal to have happen… I am pleased with the record [and] I am pleased with the way that we have played at times. I'm not pleased with our lack of consistency – I think that's the one thing that I've been harping on more than anything."

Part of the inconsistency concerns stem from an ever-changing roster. The Tar Heels are just over a third of the way through the season, and already four different players have missed at least one full game due to injury or personal issues.

While Williams indicated that backup point guard Quentin Thomas is likely to play on Sunday, sophomore forward Alex Stepheson is expected to miss his second straight game as he deals with a family illness back home in California. Junior guard Bobby Frasor is also out for the season with an ACL tear.

The fifth-year UNC head coach prefers a lineup featuring nine players, but in Wednesday's 90-61 victory over Kent State, North Carolina played only eight – two of whom (Will Graves and Mike Copeland) netted career highs in minutes played.

"It does concern me," Williams replied when asked about his shortened bench. "I can go through Danny [Green] and feel very confident – I said the other day that I felt like I have six starters anyway – and then after that it's a little bit of a reach. It helps to have Quentin back, and with each game that we can get Will [Graves] some more time, I think that helps him. But there's no question it's a big concern for us."

Clemson (12-1) presents an aggressive, pressing style of defense that creates havoc for opposing programs. The Tigers lead the league in steals (10.77) and rank fourth in forced turnovers (18.5), capitalizing on their relentless nature to tire their opponents out down the stretch. North Carolina is banking that speedy Ty Lawson will frustrate the Tigers defense in their full court press, not the other way around.

"There's no question that they like to wear people down, but that's what we like to do also," Williams said. "If we have Quentin, then we have seven or eight guys that I've played and have some confidence in and that have been in the games at tough moments. So whether or not that's enough, we'll have to wait and see."

Head coach Oliver Purnell's squad also represents something new for the Tar Heels – a nationally-ranked opponent. The only marquee names on North Carolina's out-of-conference slate have been Kentucky (6-6) and Ohio State (10-3), two teams struggling in transition years for their respective programs.

But Williams defends the quality of his schedule, and there is evidence to back up his claims. North Carolina has beaten eight teams ranked in the RPI top-125 and four in the top-40. By comparison, fellow ACC contenders Clemson and cross-town rival Duke have combined to played eight teams in the top-125 and four in the top-40.

"We've done some good things and we've done some good things against quality people… If you put a bigger name on those teams, everybody would say, ‘Wow,'" Williams said. "Well, they're better than some of those bigger names."

But the media is not the only group of people that Williams has had to convince of the strength of UNC's schedule – he's had to do it in the locker room, as well.

"He kept telling us that this might be the best team that we've played so far," sophomore guard Wayne Ellington said. "He's said that about three times this season so far. Now that we're going into the ACC, he doesn't have to tell us anything. We're all focused in and we understand how tough everyone is in our conference – especially Clemson."

Regardless of the issues surrounding the Tar Heel program, as Williams stated above, North Carolina is still 14-0 and has held the No. 1 ranking for nine weeks – the third-longest stretch in program history. Junior All-American Tyler Hansbrough (22.4 points and 9.6 rebounds per game) is having his most dominant season to date, and Ellington (16.7 ppg) has developed into a versatile offensive weapon.

Since the season-opening 72-68 victory over Davidson, UNC has won 12 of their last 13 games by double digits. The lone exception was a nine-point defeat of Kentucky, after leading by as many as 20 in the second half.

With so many things working well for the Tar Heels this season, maybe a little adversity is what this program needed headed into the brutal ACC slate.

"You could say we have something to prove," Ellington said. "Everybody's been asking, ‘Who have we played?' and things like that, but I don't get too worried about that. We're ready for the league to start."

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