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January 4, 2011For North Carolina's basketball team, this week can be compared very neatly to a bridge gapping the non-conference and conference schedule.
Any good bridge needs a solid foundation---a support system---and UNC seems to be starting to find that foundation a little more with each passing day as it heads into the most critical phase of the regular season.
This particular week is all about continuing to build that support system, as the Tar Heels are engaging in a intense series of practices starting Monday and through the rest of the week leading into Saturday's Atlantic Coast Conference opener at Virginia.
"This is a good time period for us. We have five days where we're going to go two-a-days at least two of those five days," said UNC head coach Roy Williams after Sunday's win over St. Francis (Pa.). "And I'm hopeful that will be something that will really help us."
In college basketball, where the gap between the fall and spring semesters often collides closely if not directly with the gap between the start of non-conference and non-conference play, this week for the Tar Heels becomes akin to ACC Boot Camp.
For the players, who aren't in classes this week but in Chapel Hill nonetheless, there's no excuse not to hit the court and hit the court hard.
"Two-a-days---yeah, I'm looking forward to that," said junior point guard Larry Drew II, smirking and rolling his eyes. "But it's all necessary. It's all going to be beneficial in the long run. We just need to be in the gym as much as possible."
"It's going to be tough. Everybody was huffing and puffing when Coach mentioned it, but at the end of the day it's only going to make us better, so we can't complain too much," said sophomore guard Dexter Strickland.
"It's good for us (to have two-a-days)," said senior forward Justin Knox. "We came here on a basketball scholarship and that's what we love to do, so there's no complaints about that, having two-a-days."
"I think we're going to start two-a-days Monday just to get ready, so hopefully we'll come out ready to play," said freshman point guard Kendall Marshall.
"It's very big. Coach tells us this is probably the closest thing to being a pro right now---there's no school and all you're focusing on is basketball," Marshall continued.
"There's nobody here on campus---it's like we're the only ones here---so we're just bonding and just spending more time together and doing the little things," Drew added.
"We've got to really focus with all the practices we're going to have before we start conference play, and I think we'll be in pretty good shape," added Knox. "We need to get better this week. This is an important week for us because we've got our first game in conference play (Saturday)."
One might ask the question whether UNC might just stick to one practice given they've been playing well of late, but of course none of the Tar Heel players would ever broach that topic with Williams.
"That's not going to work. You're not going to attempt to ask him that," said Strickland with a laugh.
"We're not in class yet," said Coach Williams. "Everybody is selfish. It's human nature---everybody. You guys (the media) are. I am . Everybody is."
"But the great teams are the ones that do a great job of hiding that and making that (your individual needs and desires) second or third down the line and not first. So we've got to continue doing that."
Williams feels good about the team's morale heading into league play, but of course like any coach with a young team he's anxious to see how they'll perform on a bigger stage.
"Right know they feel pretty good about themselves. Are we ready to play an ACC schedule and an ACC level? We'll find out pretty quick," Williams said.
"I think we're in a good mood right now and need to have a great week of practice."
The UNC players agreed with Williams in regards to their collective mood---which is important going into a week where they're going to have to work together and push through together to get the most out of it.
"I think this team has a ton of confidence right now, as we should," said Drew. "Chemistry is great. Guys are having fun out there on the court and off the court too."
"We had a really good road win in Madison Square Garden against Rutgers, and we won (over St. Francis) by nearly 50 (points) and we did all the little things that we should have done. So I think that right now our morale is where it should be," he added.
"It may be (tough this week in practice), but we've got to work with each other, help each other out, and pump each other up during practice when it might be a tough day. We've just go to help each other out," said Knox.
"The battles in practice have been going well. Everybody is just going at each other, making each other better. Practice has been going good," said freshman Reggie Bullock.
"Basically we're just gelling as a team right now. People are learning each other's tendencies. We're just sharing the ball and trying to build on the things we need to work on so we can go through this ACC play."
Without question the Tar Heels have to step up both their precision and their intensity to measure up to a league slate in the coming weeks that includes road games this month at Virginia, Georgia Tech, and Miami, and home contests against Virginia Tech, Clemson, and N.C. State.
"I don't know that any coach would ever say they're really ready (to begin ACC play)," said Williams. "Opening up on the road in the ACC is not easy regardless of where you go, Virginia has beat us to death last year, so I remember that."
"The ACC is a different beast than the other pre-conference games we've been playing. And I know that, the other guys that have been there know that," said Drew.
"The freshmen, they're going to get their first taste of it, but I think we're all ready for it," he added.
"Non-conference to conference, it's a whole different game," added Strickland. "It's a whole another intensity. The players are bigger and stronger and stuff like that. So we've got to practice hard, keep going harder, and do what Coach says and win."
"I think we're getting there. The first (ACC) game is next Saturday, and I think we're playing well right now, especially defensively, and I'm excited," said Marshall.
For a veteran like Knox, who has been through the wars before as a three-year contributor at Alabama, he's got a little bit more perspective than many of the younger players on Carolina's roster.
"For those not experienced like the freshmen it may seem different (going into conference play), but honestly it's not," Knox said.
"It's still the game of basketball. And all you've got to do is play your game, and that's what we need to do."
Drew, for one, feels the team's focus is on the mark heading into this critical week of extra practice time.
"This team this year, its focus is right where it should be. Everybody is playing hard. We're playing smart and we're playing together," Drew said.
"It's the Carolina Basketball Way, and we're just looking forward to starting the ACC."