Road Warriors

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – When No. 3 North Carolina rolls into Lawrence Joel Coliseum on Sunday to battle No. 4 Wake Forest, it won't be worried about the Demon Deacons' 26-2 home record over the past two years. The Tar Heels have excelled away from Chapel Hill in recent years, boasting a 15-game road winning streak of their own.

North Carolina relied on a 8-0 road record in ACC play in 2007-08 to claim its 26th regular season conference championship, and has posted a 25-7 ACC road record since the start of the 2004-05 campaign.

The Tar Heels are holding their opponents to 38.5 shooting (170-of-441) away from the Smith Center this season, compared to allowing a 40.9 percent effort (210-of-514) inside the 21,750-seat facility.

So how has the veteran squad been able to consistently deliver in hostile environments? "They've done a great job of focusing on what was going on on the court, of what was being said by our bench," Roy Williams told the media during his Friday press conference. "They've figured out some way in their minds to handle all of the noise and pretend it was all in their favor."

Williams should know – the Hall of Fame head coach twice won his complete road schedule while at Kansas, and he refuses to look at road games as a negative event.

"I try to get them to understand and feel that we can win regardless of where we play," Williams said. "And it is a little extra adrenaline flow when you feel like you've got them right where you want them down the stretch and the crowd starts leaving early. I think that's a big positive."

That approach has worked well, especially with a program possessing 385 starts on the roster before the current season got underway.

"We all understand how important it is to win on the road, and it's tough, especially in the ACC," Hansbrough said on Wednesday night. "It's something that everybody on this team has bought into and we know what to expect, because we've been there and we've seen it all."

For all of the question marks about Dino Gaudio's ability as a head coach, the second-year Wake Forest coach has done nothing but post a 22-2 record at Lawrence Joel, and has only added to the eight-game win streak against in-state competition. And while North Carolina was the last team to defeat the Demon Deacons in Winston-Salem, it's the 2005 battle that featured Chris Paul and Raymond Felton as dueling point guards that earned the most attention on Friday.

Oddly enough, the Tar Heels were ranked third and the Deacons fourth – identical to their current rankings – on that cold Saturday afternoon. Wake Forest connected on all 32 of their free throw attempts in the 95-82 victory, which marked the first time they had played while both were ranked in the top five. Sunday will be the second time.

"Instead of saying it's tough, I'll say it's great," Williams said, when asked about the raucous crowd at Lawrence Joel. "God, I love those atmospheres. The wilder and wackier and louder… But I think it's a great atmosphere. I love that. And they've done a good job of it. [The '05 game] may have been as loud as I've ever heard in an ACC arena."

The problem for North Carolina is that this Demon Deacon squad is the best Wake has fielded since Paul entered the NBA Draft following the '04-'05 season. Guard Jeff Teague (19.6 points and 4.2 assists per game) and forward James Johnson (13.5 points and 8.2 rebounds per game) lead an athletically talented group that has been dominant on both sides of the floor, ranking first in the ACC in both field goal percentage (51.2) and field goal percentage defense (36.4).

Those numbers look eerily similar to the numbers that North Carolina has posted in its four losses over the past two seasons, allowing its victors to knock down 47.7 percent (126-of264) of their shots while connecting on just 38.2 percent (110-of-288) of their own field goal attempts.

Add that to the fact that the Tar Heels needed 20 minutes to warm up against College of Charleston on Wednesday after dropping a home game to Boston College several days before, and North Carolina will have to return to its early-season form to avoid an 0-2 start in league play.

Upon seeing that Harvard had upset Boston College by double digits on Wednesday, Williams reminded his team about the difficulty of the road ahead.

"It's not going to be easy," said Williams, who is 8-6 at UNC in top-10 matchups. "People don't care who you are and they're not going to roll over. In fact, you're going to get everybody's best shot. Should I have had to say that to a veteran team? No. We've already been through it. But they pay me a lot of money to think of [stuff] to say, so every now and then I try to do it."

For the Tar Heels, road games have recently provided a measure to narrow their focus for a full 40-minute – or more – period of time. That may be the best possible news for a program that can ill-afford to fall into an early hole in the ACC season.

"If we don't play great, we don't win – bottom line," Williams said.

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