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January 13, 2011

UNC meets VT, shuns ACC criticism

In some circles, it's Duke and then everybody else in the ACC.

In others, it's Duke and then nobody else in the ACC.

There's no question that the Blue Devils are the favorite to defend their title and repeat as national champions in 2011.

As the No.1-ranked team in the country, Duke is representing the ACC quite well, Wednesday night's loss at Florida State notwithstanding.

But, some wonder, are there any other threats in the conference? Are there any other teams that could claim the ACC title and make a run into the depths of March?

"We just play," UNC head coach Roy Williams says. "We can't control what happens. We talk about playing our best all the time regardless of what somebody's evaluation of us is, period, much less the (ACC)."

Williams admits that sounds like coach-speak, but he also adamantly says that it's the truth.

He doesn't make up the rankings. He doesn't create the schedules. He doesn't pick the tournament teams in March.

He doesn't do any of those things.

All he can do is coach, and that's what he's going to do when Virginia Tech comes to Chapel Hill Thursday evening for Carolina's ACC home opener.

The Tar Heels have quietly completed the first half of their season with an 11-4 overall record. Granted, Carolina has been the beneficiary of inferior competition - only a Dec. 4 win against then-No. 11 Kentucky will jump off the schedule - but its four losses have come to teams whose combined record is 49-14.

What we learned, if anything, from Carolina's 62-56 win on the road at Virginia last weekend remains to be seen, but it was the type of game that got away from the 2010 Tar Heels squad.

Down by seven at half and 10 with a little more than 11 minutes to play, Carolina didn't succumb to careless turnovers and the pressure of an ACC road game. It didn't flee at the sight of adversity. Instead, Carolina chipped away.

"I loved our toughness because things weren't going well," Williams said. "If you fold up your tents, you have no chance. But if you keep plugging along, something good may happen and that may lead to something else."

As Williams sat in the huddle and told his players they must have a will to win, the Tar Heels began that process of plugging away.

Leslie McDonald hit a 3-pointer. Kendall Marshall and Justin Watts knocked down a free throw each. Harrison Barnes hit a jumper. Tyler Zeller sunk two to cut Virginia's lead to three. Zeller made four free throws to tie the game at 50 with less than four minutes to play.

Carolina made 10 more free throws in the game's final two-and-a-half minutes, and suddenly this group had grasped that "something else" Williams alluded to. They had outscored Virginia by 13 points in the second half on the road, and they had won a game that required a little heart, a little character, a little pride.

"It's just about us deciding we are going to be tough," McDonald said. "We just put in our minds that we were going to come back and win that game."

Carolina must bring that attitude every night in the ACC, including Thursday against the Hokies, or it will quickly and quietly fade away into another somber summer.

Virginia Tech has compiled a 10-4 (1-1 ACC) record but has yet to earn any respect due to unimpressive numbers and a résumé that lacks any signature wins.

VT got throttled on the road at Kansas State in its second game of the season and lost at home to Purdue on Dec. 1. Those are the only two ranked teams the Hokies have played all season.

But when Malcolm Delaney is directing your offense and Jeff Allen is providing an established post presence, you still remain a dangerous opponent.

Delaney has averaged 18.6 points per game this year, and Allen is averaging 13.4 points and 9.8 rebounds per contest.

Terrell Bell gives VT head coach Seth Greenberg three solid seniors in his starting lineup - it was four until guard Dorenzo Hudson was sidelined for the season with a foot injury - to go along with sophomore Erick Green and junior Victor Davila.

In many ways, Carolina and Virginia Tech are two teams in the same boat with a multitude of others in the ACC. The conference has only one team currently ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 - Duke - but there's depth and a battle brewing in the underbelly of the ACC.

Boston College, Maryland, Miami, Virginia, North Carolina State, Florida State and Clemson all have at least 10 wins.

As common as it is to assume Duke will glide through its schedule and waltz into March as a feared 1-seed, we know it's not going to be that easy.

It's never that easy, as evidenced by Duke traveling to Florida State Wednesday evening for its first road ACC game of the year and losing to the Seminoles. Maryland entered Cameron Indoor Stadium last Sunday and gave Duke a game before ultimately losing by seven points.

Fortunately, this isn't the BCS. Nobody needs to run the table to win a championship.

So while the ACC continues to be criticized across the country as being in the midst of a down year, Carolina will meet Virginia Tech before heading to Georgia Tech on Sunday.

The Tar Heels will try to build on the confidence and momentum they found in Charlottesville and they will ignore the headlines. They've been there, done that.

Come March, we will have a clear picture of the contenders.

Until then, Williams will continue to mold this year's squad of players. He will continue to preach toughness and defense and "the little things," and he won't allow the Tar Heels to give two thoughts about what Duke is doing down the road or what the purveyors of opinion are saying about the quality of the ACC.

They'll just play.






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