Not Satisfied

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. --- You'd have expected a happy locker room. For yet another game, the Tar Heels had outrebounded their opponent by double digits, made more free throws than their opponents attempted, and scorched the nets with 56 percent shooting, including 50 percent from beyond the arc.

Sparked by two decisive runs -- one late in the first half, and one in the middle of the second -- Carolina had comfortably dispatched an upset-minded Wake Forest club, energetic and brimming with confidence after its recent defeat of Duke.

But walking into the players' lounge Sunday night, you'd have thought Wake was the victor.

Marcus Ginyard slumped forward over a table, looking incredulous when a reporter asked about positives from the victory. "It definitely speaks of the talent [on this team], considering all the things we didn't do well tonight, and for us to come out with a win like that," he said grudgingly. "But in late March, you're not going to win on just talent."

Danny Green, who shook off some recent doldrums to notch 15 points and nine rebounds, was similarly down. Asked about whether a three-pointer he hit around the midpoint of the second half was the final nail in Wake's coffin, he shrugged off the question and rattled off a short lecture on how the Demon Deacons' guards had sliced up Carolina's defense.

"We were doing fine until tonight," Green lamented. "We have to get back to practice and starting working to play better defense. We've got to stay in front of the ball, because they were penetrating too easy."

And Green wasn't finished, turning the lens on his team's 20 turnovers, many of them of the unforced variety.

"A lot of our turnovers were silly -- losing the ball off someone's feet, or just not catching it with two hands, not paying attention," he said. "We had a couple of opportunities for easy baskets on fast breaks and we turned the ball over after a simple bounce pass, it would slip out of our hands or something like that."

The win may have felt good for the 21,000 in attendance, but the calendar turn to March comes this week, and the Tar Heels are not satisfied.

Small signs are encouraging. Voids left by illness and injury are getting filled by the likes of Will Graves and Mike Copeland, virtual afterthoughts only a few weeks ago but now key contributors off the bench. Execution in the halfcourt is a little crisper. Box-outs are held a little longer. Ball reversal is a little quicker. Defense on the pick and roll is a little tighter.

And sooner or later, Ty Lawson is going to get past that bum ankle and start revving up the team's engine again.

But don't try to tell that to Ginyard, at least not this night.

"The little things? Yeah…," he said, his mind searching for examples he couldn't recall. "I guess it's encouraging to see some things are changing, especially with guys coming off the bench and being a positive. But there are some bigger things that are obviously problems -- taking care of the ball, guarding the ball. You've just got to get better."

"We did not play well," he added, with a head shake and a deep sigh.

Quentin Thomas, perhaps the player with the greatest reason for optimism these days, tried to put things in a better light. "We need to get more stops," he said, "but I think our defense has gotten better in the last couple of weeks."

But even Thomas, coming off an impressive seven-assist, three-turnover night, said he doesn't see the team ready for March. "Not really. We've got to play better, work as hard as we can each practice. Dealing with injuries and adversity like we've had to, the team needs to come together. But I do think we're starting to do a good job."

The word "starting" jumps out of Thomas' statement, and it echoed throughout the locker room Sunday evening. Even if the players' version of the story this night emphasized weaknesses, the ingredients needed for a deep tournament run are coming into view.

"I think a lot of guys are gaining some experience, and all over it makes us tougher," Tyler Hansbrough said. "Coach always stresses, no matter who's not playing, it's still North Carolina, and we're going to do the things that we do. I think it's really carried over lately."

What is toughness? On a shaky night, Carolina dispatched a talented conference rival convincingly, surviving a potential trap game and running their record without Lawson to an impressive 6-1. That's toughness.

No, the Tar Heels haven't yet played a complete game. But they are starting to see what's needed now. And if Sunday's performance is what they can do on a couple of flat tires, look out.

"We're still a good ways away from our potential," Ginyard said.

But will they get there in time? We'll know soon enough.

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