With archrival Duke (17-1, 5-0) playing to their potential, North Carolina is on fragile footing during the final days of January, as the Jan. 19 home loss to Maryland (12-8, 2-3) has the Tar Heels looking up to the Blue Devils in the standings.
But head coach Roy Williams indicated on Wednesday that his team had two of their best practices of the season in the days following UNC's loss to the Terrapins, but the fact that it took a defeat to gain his players' attention cannot be seen as a good thing for a program that many penciled into the Final Four before preseason practices ever started.
"It was unfortunate that it took a situation like that to put everybody back in the mindset that we needed to be in order to have productive practices and practices where we're getting better," junior wing Marcus Ginyard said. "…I do feel personally that we let a game go that we shouldn't have lost. I think that just for our personal goals, we are behind. And with Boston College being right behind us in the rankings, I guess it would just be great for us to come up with a win and not let them catch up."
But while the national media and UNC fan base is looking anxiously toward next Wednesday's showdown with Duke, Ginyard and his teammates understand that they can ill afford to look past the Eagles (12-6, 3-2).
Boston College holds a place in Tar Heel history for being the underdog that knocked off the defending champion and top-seeded UNC squad in the 1994 NCAA Tournament's second round (75-72), but head coach Al Skinner has built a solid, tough program that split the last four meetings with the Tar Heels.
It's become a preseason ritual of sorts for fans to look at the preseason rosters of these two teams and count the number of McDonald All-Americans on UNC's team, while saying ‘Who is that?' when looking at Boston College's lineup. But Skinner sees talents where most other coaches do not, and has posted 164 wins in his past seven wins at Chestnut Hill.
His current squad is led by the ACC's second-leading scorer Tyrese Rice (20.0 points and 4.8 assists per game), who visited Tulane and East Tennessee State before getting a late offer from Boston College during the spring of his senior season, and senior center Tyrelle Blair (6.5 ppg, 4.28 blocks per game), who transferred from Loyola University-Chicago two years ago.
All-American Tyler Hansbrough's battle with Blair in the post will be pivotal in Thursday night's contest, as double teams will be commonplace and blocks will be expected. Williams said that his junior forward has improved his offensive awareness in the paint, despite claims that Hansbrough's reluctance to pass out of double teams has stalled UNC's half court offense at times this season.
"I think he's getting better at making a quicker move, or passing it out quicker," Williams said. "He's recognizing [double teams] quicker, and he does have that focus and he does have desire and determination that he can put the ball in the basket. I guarantee you that I am never going to try to make him into a point guard – that when throw the ball to [him], I want him to shoot the sucker."
After four days of light practice and rest, the Tar Heels hit the hardwood Monday and Tuesday afternoon to begin preparations for Boston College, and both player and coach were pleased with the intensity level as the ACC slate increases in difficulty on Thursday.
Keeping pace with Duke with hopes of eventually replacing the Blue Devils at the top spot in the league carries an even greater meaning this season – the ACC champion will most likely earn the No. 1 seed in the East Region, which will be held in Charlotte, N.C., after opening round action in Raleigh, N.C.
"It would a shame not to get that, and not to play in North Carolina the whole way," Ginyard said.