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January 28, 2012Sunday's 6 p.m. game against Georgia Tech at the Smith Center should jump-start the Tar Heels.
A brutal 78-58 loss at Georgia Tech in 2011 left the Tar Heels reeling, pushed then-freshman point guard Kendall Marshall into the lineup and eventually sent former starting point guard Larry Drew II running home to California.
Drew enrolled at UCLA and will return to playing games next season.
This year's low point occurred at Florida State. The Seminoles buried and embarrassed the Tar Heels 90-57.
The combination of those two games will drive the Tar Heels today.
"We were not the team we could be or are now [at FSU]," junior forward John Henson said. "It was a tough, tough loss. It is going to fuel our flames and keep us going."
So there is an element of redemption for Carolina (17-3, 4-1 and tied for first place in the ACC) in this one. Georgia Tech is 8-12, 1-5 under first-year coach Brian Gregory.
"People talk about Georgia Tech last year, but we never want to go back to Florida State," senior forward Tyler Zeller said.
There is one more important factor - Carolina's mission to continue its improvement on defense and after that the rest of its game.
The Tar Heels are working to minimize inconsistencies and build a team that is relentless on defense. Then the Tar Heels want to take the rewards of that defensive execution and apply them to its offense.
N.C. State shot 25 percent from the field in the first half on Thursday night and scored 23 points, with the last three of those coming an 80-foot heave from Lorenzo Brown at the buzzer to end the first half.
"We can be at our best when our defense is creating our offense," Marshall said. "[Harrison Barnes] got into a passing lane and got an earlier steal. [Zeller] got that pass and got a fast-break dunk. When you're doing that to teams, and you're doing it without using any time to get points, you can easily deflate them."
But in the second half, the lure of satisfaction crept into the Tar Heels' minds and bodies. N.C. State shot 52 percent from the field.
"We want [play great defense] every game," Marshall. "We're fortunate enough to get that done [against State]. We just want to build on it. They key thing we want to work on from hereon is doing that for 40 minutes.
"We still had two- and three-minute spells in the second half where we would give up four to six points, lose our man, not fight through screens. We need to [be consistent] on those and we'll be a much better team."
The manner in which Carolina excels on defense begins Zeller and Henson, in particular. Those two seal off the lane and the basket by blocking shots, bothering shots and intimidating opponents.
Teams are left with jump shots from the perimeter. State proved to be a classic example in the first half.
"We were taking them out of their plays," Reggie Bullock, said, "keeping a hand in the passing lane and stopping them from what they want to run.
"If they can't swing the ball to the people they want to run it, you can take any team out of their offense."
Bullock started on Thursday, filling in for the injured Dexter Strickland. Bullock guarded Wolfpack leading scorer Scott Wood; Bullock used his athleticism and length of take Wood out of the equation. Wood went 4-of-12 from the field and scored 11 points.
Carolina used the frequent rebounds to start their running game or just score from close to the bucket at the offensive end. UNC outrebounded N.C. State 48-26. The Wolfpack had six offensive rebounds, while UNC grabbed 15.
"It's an easy way to score," Zeller said. "Sometimes it's a little demoralizing on defense. You play great defense and you get a little tip-in layup. But I think it does present problems."
There is one more element today. Carolina says it is ready to get serious about building a genuine national contender.
"I think these next couple of weeks is when the ACC is going to separate itself from the top to bottom," Henson said. "We want to put ourselves in front of the race for first place.
"Every game we have from hereon out, we have to [prove ourselves]," Henson said. "We're 4-1. We've got 11 games left, and it's coming down to the stretch. We've got to keep it coming."
Georgia Tech last season and Florida State this season continue to haunt the Tar Heels, whether they like it or not.
"It stinks that a loss like that has to happen for you to get better, but sometimes you have to deal with that," Henson said.