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March 10, 2011

Darwinian progress

The Carolina basketball team is the living, breathing example that evolution exists.

The Tar Heels began this season as a basketball amoeba. The word amoeba derives from a Greek word meaning "to change," and it refers to single-cell life forms.

An amoeba moves by consistently changing the shape of its body. UNC has changed consistently, going from a group of talented but inexperienced individuals to a tough, defensive-minded unit that is getting better on the offensive end of the court by the day.

It has evolved from a half-court team reliant almost exclusively on its defense to a team capable of playing fast or slow.

"We've had teams that have won two national championships and five other Final Fours, and I've never had a team that I've been more proud of than this team right here," Coach Roy Williams said. "They've handled some adversity.

"They've grown immensely in so many ways, from the first day of practice until right now. They are still accepting coaching like it was the first day and trying to get better."

The players' dedication to learning has impressed Williams and his staff so much he told the team how the coaches felt.

"About three weeks ago," Williams said, "I went into practice one day and told them one of the things we as coaches had talked about and thought about was how fortunate we were, and how much we enjoy coaching them.

"It's been a special season in a lot of different ways."

This is also a season that is just beginning in many ways. Now that Carolina has become one of the nation's genuinely elite teams again, it means winning the ACC Tournament and the national championship are not unrealistic goals.

"We have one championship," freshman point guard Kendall Marshall said. "That's not enough if you want to be great."

Williams said that he has enjoyed working with this group because of its willingness to listen and strength to overcome obstacles.

"This team has impressed me every single day with some of the things they have done in practice," Williams said. "My goal has never been to quit when the regular season is over with. My goal every year I've coached is to win the regular-season championship because I think that is extremely difficult to do. It's something I'm very proud of.

"I don't think my guys are going to say, 'Gosh, what a great year we've had,' and just go through the motions. I don't think that is going to happen. I think they are still hungry.

"And they see themselves getting better," Williams said. "When you see yourself getting better that gives you more confidence -- you get greedy; you want more."

There is reason to believe the Tar Heels can get more, too. They are coming off their most impressive performance so far, defeating Duke 81-67 to finish first in the regular season.

UNC held Duke to 35.5-percent shooting while shooting 52.4 percent from the floor. UNC's ratio of 3-point attempts to shots from the floor was in a far better range than it has been at times this season.

The Tar Heels went 4-of-9 on 3-pointers while going 33-of-63 overall total field-goal attempts.

Williams said defensively, this team is still not as good as it can get. If the Tar Heels fulfill that promise, then there are even better days ahead for sure.

As the ACC schedule progressed, one consistency is Carolina's interior defense became so strong that it pushed opponents out to the perimeter for many of their shot attempts each night.

One concept within the theory of evolution is that the fittest survive. Williams said there is little doubt the Tar Heels journey has followed such a path.

"In my opinion, the adversity that we have faced has been unusual and really challenging," Williams said. "We were counting on Will Graves two weeks before the season starts. Our quarterback [Larry Drew], our point guard, leaves. Those are not just a guy getting a sprained ankle.

"The adversity has been serious adversity. In each and every instance, I said, 'OK, let's move forward; let's move forward.' I think our staff did a really nice job getting them to focus on that part and not woe is me."

Marshall says the key has been all the parts rely more heavily on one another when something affects the whole.

"We've become tighter as a team," Marshall said. "We knew if we wanted to become successful, our chemistry and our character would have to come out. We've soared above and beyond that, but we know there is so much more to be accomplished. We want to be able to make it as far as we can go."


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