North Carolina has spent the past month at home, racking up lopsided wins and trying to fix some problems that lurked early in the season. Now the third-ranked Tar Heels will find out how much they accomplished as they return to the road.
The Tar Heels (15-2, 2-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) won all nine games during that homestand, showing improvement on defense and rebounding after those areas lagged in early losses to UNLV and Kentucky. They travel to Florida State on Saturday for their first game away from the Smith Center since losing to the Wildcats at Rupp Arena by a point on Dec. 3, a span of 42 days.
The Tar Heels have rarely been pushed since, even though coach Roy Williams was irked at times by the team's wandering focus in those easy wins.
"I think we definitely got better," Williams said Friday. "We had better rebound moments than we did early, had more balance, different guys scoring and not just depending on one or two guys. So I think there were many, many ways that we did get better."
Now, as the Tar Heels prepare to play four of six on the road, Williams wants to see a team that has "a better attention span and maybe a higher level of attention to what we need to do."
"Everyone had to find their identity," sophomore Harrison Barnes said. "I think guys are really starting to step up."
Among that group is junior Dexter Strickland, who had 14 points and led the defensive effort that shut down Miami's Malcolm Grant and Durand Scott in Tuesday's win. But Williams said Strickland and freshman reserve Desmond Hubert each suffered sprained ankles during workouts Wednesday and missed Thursday's practice, which could cut into the Tar Heels' depth as they go for a sixth straight win against the Seminoles (10-6, 1-1) in Tallahassee.
The biggest problems early in the season were bouts of inconsistent defense and a lack of aggression on the boards. After flying west for the Las Vegas Invitational, the Tar Heels were outrebounded against both South Carolina and UNLV - a surprise considering their potential NBA talent on the front line. And UNC struggled to contain dribble penetration or defend the perimeter in the 90-80 loss to the Runnin' Rebels.
Against Kentucky, North Carolina led by nine in the first half and by five at the break before Kentucky shot 56 percent in the second half. North Carolina shot just 35 percent in that half and was outrebounded in a game that ended when freshman Anthony Davis blocked John Henson's jumper on the final play.
But during the nine-game home stand, North Carolina's biggest opponent was often its own boredom.
The Tar Heels won eight of the nine by at least 15 points, including a 49-point win against Evansville in the first game and a 50-point win against Nicholls State - during which the Tar Heels showed just enough spark in the second half to talk Williams out of an early morning practice the next day. They followed that with probably their most focused performance of the month, leading by as many as 24 points in an easy win against Texas.
The only "close call" was a six-point win against Long Beach State, though they led by double figures in the second half of that one, too. North Carolina was never threatened in the past two ACC games, beating Boston College by 23 and Miami by 17. The most noticeable improvement has come on the boards, where North Carolina has outrebounded its last seven opponents by at least seven per game.
Still, despite the long and comfortable stay at home, Williams thinks his players have enough experiences in tough environments to draw on from earlier this year.
"I mean, we played on an aircraft carrier, we played at Kentucky, we played at Vegas and a wild crowd," Williams said. "It's not like this is the first time."
North Carolina eked out a win last season at Florida State when Barnes hit a 3-pointer from the top of the key with 3 seconds to play to give the Tar Heels a 72-70 victory, their fifth in a row on the Seminoles' court.
Henson had 19 points and 12 rebounds, while Barnes scored 18.
Florida State opened conference play this season with a 79-59 loss at Clemson last Saturday before posting a 63-59 road win over Virginia Tech on Tuesday.
Senior forward Bernard James led the way against the Hokies with a career high-tying 18 points and career-best 15 rebounds.
"(Bernard)'s working very hard to try to make a difference," coach Leonard Hamilton told the Seminoles' official website. "Hopefully his leadership will stimulate his teammates to move in the same direction."
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