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After pedestrian performances against Florida International (88-72) and Valparaiso (88-77) sandwiched around a 47-point shellacking of N.C. Central to open the season, North Carolina finds itself out of warm-up opportunities to work the kinks out.
Starting in New York, the fire will be white-hot with plenty of national media types on hand to stoke the flames. Exactly one month ago at the ACC's Operation Basketball event, Roy Williams could only shake his head at the preseason rankings that pegged his inexperienced roster as a top-five caliber squad.
Sunday's win over Valparaiso only confirms that the Hall of Famer continues to know more about his own program than the media does. The Crusaders – picked eighth in the Horizon League – outscored North Carolina 32-17 during a 10–minute stretch in the second half, leading to a devilish Tuesday practice for the Tar Heels.
"I think we were fat and happy, there's no question," Williams told reporters during his Wednesday press conference.
The seventh-year UNC head coach indicated that his Tar Heels didn't pay much attention to detail against Valparaiso and added that more than 90 minutes of film review on Tuesday was in some ways "embarrassing" to his players.
Seniors Marcus Ginyard and Deon Thompson have been saddled with leadership responsibilities this season, and if this team expects to win any of the games in this beckoning holiday gauntlet, that success begins at their feet.
"It better be really good because it's extremely important," Williams replied when asked about crucial leadership will be in surviving these next four weeks. "And we didn't have good leadership on Sunday. Everybody was going through the motions – ‘Let's get this game over with and get in the locker room and get out before Coach gets here.' Marcus and Deon – particularly those two – have to step up and do what leaders do."
The schedule is daunting – No. 15 Ohio State, No. 12 California or No. 24 Syracuse, No. 2 Michigan State, No. 5 Kentucky and No. 3 Texas. To make the challenge even more difficult is that each of those opponents would like nothing more than to knock off the defending national champions as an early Christmas present.
Roy Williams has welcomed difficult nonconference schedules during his tenure at North Carolina, but he admitted on Wednesday that he maybe should have passed on the Texas arrangement at the new Cowboys Stadium in Arlington. ESPN setting the ACC-Big Ten matchup against the Spartans didn't help matters, either.
When asked what he can do to help guide his nine freshmen and sophomores through the rigors of this nonconference test, Williams responded as honestly as he could.
"In some cases, what I do makes no difference," Williams said. "It's what they do against those teams. We can gain a great deal of confidence. We can lose a great deal of confidence. So I think my job is to do the same thing that I do every day and that's that I'm going to be consistent with how we teach and what we teach and how much we push them and try to get them to understand that it's still early in the season and good things can happen."
While Williams and Ginyard were in foul moods following Sunday night's victory, some of the other players that are seeing their first significant action chalked it up as a learning experience. Sophomore forward Ed Davis referred to the game as a reality check, while sophomore point guard Larry Drew suggested that it was just another opportunity to get better.
Even the Tar Heels' lone junior – wing Will Graves – indicated that the problems were easily correctable.
"It's more of a matter of focusing and just keeping our intensity up," Graves said. "I feel like if we attack New York – if we're proactive and not reactive, we'll be fine."
It's sometimes easy to value a win against a lesser opponent, or even a tough victory when you're sitting on the bench watching players like Tyler Hansbrough and Ty Lawson do the dirty work. But for this group of Tar Heels to live up to its preseason billing when ACC play rolls around, it's going to take participating in some hard-nosed prize fights and earning some battle scars for the reality of the situation to sink in.
Because while Valparaiso valiantly tossed out a barrage of body blows on Sunday, Evan Turner and the Buckeyes will bring an arsenal of knockout punches to the Garden on Thursday night. The Tar Heels won't be able to avoid all of them, but how they respond to the ones that Ohio State does land will provide the first answer to the litany of questions surrounding this program.