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December 21, 2012North Carolina heads into Saturdays final pre-Christmas contest against McNeese State looking to get back in the win column after Wednesday night's humbling loss at Texas.
It's another Lone Star State opponent, but one that should pose less challenge to UNC.
Although McNeese has won five straight, the Tar Heels should feel motivation to come back to the court with energy and emotion and a mindset to get better as they stare at a week off for the Holidays before getting into the meat of its winter schedule.
"I think we've got kids that are being challenged more than they've ever been challenged," said UNC head coach Roy Williams earlier this week.
"I do believe for young teams, you've got a chance to maybe improve a little more drastically (than more veteran teams)."
"I said in the spring, summer, and fall we have a really young team, and who knows what is going to happen?" Williams continued.
"I felt that my team was going to get better and better as the season goes along, as long as you play healthy. If guys stay healthy and avoid guys missing practice, this is an extremely important time for you."
The Tar Heels have to play much better defensively coming off two average-at-best defensive performances in its last pair of outings.
UNC gave up 61 second half points in its last home outing against East Carolina, only to turn around and let Texas shoot the lights out against them for much of the first half in its last contest.
"At times last year we were really good defensively, but we had guys who could guard around the basket better. Right now we don't have anybody to take away those easy ones," said Williams.
"It's hard, because my favorite (solution) would be to beat them to death. Can't come out unless you've got two black eyes and a bloody nose. I don't know what that solves except making the coach a macho guy."
"From a one to ten, ten being the best, I feel we're at a six. I feel we can do much better than we're doing now. The toughest thing that we have to improve and get better at is defense," added senior guard Dexter Strickland. "It's just knowing how Coach wants us to play. It's more experience, more confidence."
"I remember me being a freshmen, and coming out of high school my coach wasn't really focused on defense. It was all focused on offense because it was me, Kyrie Irving and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. But coming here (to North Carolina) you have to play defense or you're not going to win."
"So just understanding simple things like you have to go through the screen, don't go under the screen. I think it's a struggle for them (the freshmen), but we're getting better. It's still early in the season and we have a lot of things to improve on," Strickland added.
"The main thing is just overall defense," added sophomore forward James Michael McAdoo. "The things that we're taught as far as sprinting back, rebounding, stopping the ball on the break. Those are things we really pride ourselves on, and we've done it great in practice."
"We've been okay in games but we've had big breakdowns, and a great team can't have those."
"Once our defensive savviness just picks up, I think that will make offense so much easier for us. When we really start buying in and seeing how good we can be, we don't really worry about offense. It will just come," McAdoo continued.
Another key for Carolina against McNeese State will be looking to build more confidence in its post game offensively---not just in terms of scoring, but also offensive rebounding.
"The one thing we're trying to emphasize, we've got to get the ball inside. And I've said this when I had Danny Green and Wayne Ellington, the best three-point shooting team I've ever had," Williams said. "We are trying to emphasize it (going inside)."
"The kids themselves don't have as much confidence. I think a lot of it is the big guys have to produce, and the perimeter players have got to get more confidence throwing it in there."
"It's hard. It's difficult for kids to understand that. Trying to get them to use their body and establish the position that they want. It's something you have to keep emphasizing. It's just part of the learning process," Williams continued. "Kids are taught differently in high school. There are different emphases in high school."
"All of those guys (the freshmen big men and sophomore Desmond Hubert) are still learning, getting those minutes. We knew they've have to play a pivotal role," added McAdoo.
"If we just crash the boards on the offensive end every time, we'll get one (an offensive rebound). I feel like a lot of it is just getting lucky, or just effort."
McAdoo contends that its not a chemistry or off-the-court issue that's affecting this team's ability to score in the post or get offensive rebounds.
More than anything, it's just a group of young players not quite ready for the big stage.
But given the makeup of this year's UNC squad, guys like Brice Johnson, Hubert, and Joel James have no option but to step in and help this team with some legitimate productivity if this Tar Heel team is to get over the hump and produce respectable results this season.
"You can be the greatest team in the world, but if you don't take what you've practiced to the game, it doesn't matter," McAdoo said.
"I know that we are (close), just being around the team. Off the court we're fine. On the court and in practice, we're great."
"Like I say, in the games we just have to carry it over, all the things we're doing in practice and executing in practice, for the public to see."
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