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March 5, 2012While the overwhelming majority of UNC's student body is taking a few days off for spring break this week, North Carolina's basketball players are getting right back to work Monday morning with a 10:00 am practice less than 40 hours after demolishing Duke by 18 points Saturday night in Cameron Indoor Stadium to win the ACC regular season title.
The Tar Heels will spend a couple of days in Chapel Hill early this week practicing before traveling to Atlanta for the team's opening game in this weekend's ACC Tournament---a quarterfinal matchup at noon Friday against the winner of Thursday's game between No. 8 seed Maryland and No. 9 seed Wake Forest.
With its decisive victory over the Blue Devils Saturday night, UNC sent a message around the country that they could be a force to be reckoned with during the postseason.
After some in the national media appeared to have written off Carolina's title chances following the embarrassing loss to Florida State in Tallahassee in January and the heartbreaker buzzer-beater loss to Duke that ended the school's longest-ever winning streak in the Smith Center, UNC was able to fly under the radar a little bit as they won seven straight games to close out the regular season.
"I think everybody has forgotten about us a little bit, which is perfectly fine with me," said John Henson, a likely first-team All-ACC player and quite possibly the league's Defensive Player of the Year.
"We go down to Florida State and lose by three million, and everybody is jumping off the bandwagon, saying no team that's going to lose like that can be that good of a team, but our team kept playing," said head coach Roy Williams.
"Then we lose to Duke and everybody has got a great opinion of how stupid we are and how bad we are, we kept playing."
Coach Williams is impressed with the way his team handled those negative situations with grace and emerged through them tougher and more together than ever before.
"My team has had some bounce-back to them all year long. This team has had some toughness," Williams said. "The best thing about my team, they're pretty tough. That's some pretty big things to bounce back from and I think they've done a nice job of it, and right now they're the ACC regular season champions."
Winning 14 games in ACC play this winter---which included a stellar 7-1 record on the road---was largely based on Carolina's ability to adapt to the flow of individual games and find ways to win that aren't always conventional to UNC.
Like up in Charlottesville, when UNC scored just 54 points as Virginia put the clamps down on Carolina's preferred fast-paced style, but the Tar Heels played remarkable second half defense to hold the Cavaliers to just 20 points and beat them at their own game.
Or in places like Blacksburg or Coral Gables, where UNC took the best punches of teams that came out hot early and built halftime leads, only for the Tar Heels to take control down the stretch and prevail.
Or like in Raleigh and Durham, where UNC took it right to local arch-rivals N.C. State and Duke on their home floors and handed them humbling defeats with textbook execution and intensity.
"I think one thing that's become a strength of this team is we've found different ways to win. We've found ways to win being behind. We've found ways to win low-scoring games, and we've found ways to win high-scoring games," said point guard Kendall Marshall. "I think it's great we're finding ways to win not just going 100 miles an hour all the time."
It's been evident as UNC has been winning in a variety of fashions over the past several weeks that they learned from early-season losses to teams like UNLV and Kentucky, as well as the conference setbacks to the Seminoles and Blue Devils.
The Tar Heels felt that the Kentucky and first Duke games were right there for them to win, but lapses of execution in key moments cost Carolina in both instances.
Hustle and effort were largely the culprits in the losses to UNLV and FSU, but the Tar Heels have elevated themselves dramatically since the Runnin' Rebels and Seminoles taught them some of those hard lessons.
Notably, the FSU loss taught Carolina about coming back and not getting down on themselves.
"The UNLV loss, that was just them playing. We were kind of passive that game, and they dictated the tempo," Harrison Barnes said. "I think in the Kentucky game and the Duke game, we had it. We were in control of those games and we kind of let it slip out of our hands. At Florida State they just kicked us. There's no explanation for that."
"But you learn. Each situation is different. Florida State, that just taught us that you have to bounce back. Kentucky and Duke, in late game do you want to sit on the ball or do you want to keep attacking? This is what happens, offensively, defensively, if you sit on the ball," Barnes added.
Carolina's players appear to have taken those lessons in stride and now as they get ready for this weekend's run of games in Atlanta's Philips Arena, the Tar Heels are working mainly on themselves in practice and refining what they do.
That they'll be playing three different teams in three days if all goes well doesn't leave much time for heavy film dissection or opposing team analysis---at least not on the part of the players.
But having already seen everyone that they would face in the ACC Tournament, the UNC players know they'll have to be ready for a variety of different things that opponents will throw at them.
"Sometimes the game is going to be physical. Sometimes you're playing against a team that can shoot the ball very well, and things like that, you've got to be able to adjust to it," said Marshall.
"Each team plays a different style of basketball. You've got to make adjustments for every game. We have a lot of weapons, so we feel like we should be able to attack people in a lot of different ways," added senior big man Tyler Zeller, a strong candidate for ACC Player of the Year.
Some may have written off North Carolina's ACC Tournament or NCAA title chances a month ago, but in the fickle, 'What have you done for me lately?' world of sports prognostication, the Tar Heels are once again a darling of the college basketball world following Saturday night's demolition of Duke.
With Michigan State losing over the weekend along with the Blue Devils, UNC once again has a legitimate shot of earning a No. 1 seed in the upcoming NCAA Tournament, although they'll likely have to run the table and win the ACC Tournament to guarantee it.
For the UNC players' parts, they've made a good effort at drowning out all the noise---both negative and positive---and they're heading to Atlanta looking to gain even more shared toughness and cohesion as they ready for the Big Dance.
"No question (people had written us off)," said Barnes. "The biggest thing is continuing to work. I think this team has done a great job of blocking out the expectations, the external things, and not letting it get to us as a team, especially after the Duke game, the first one. I just think it's a testament to this team to how we've persevered."
"We do (need to play tougher)," added Henson. "Hopefully we can make some noise in the ACC Tournament. We're ready for it. We'll come to practice and be ready."
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