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The Daily Tar Heel

Postseason leaves UNC men's basketball with hope

NIT success brings learning experience to young Heels

Future Tar Heel Harrison Barnes is expected to give UNC a lift.
Future Tar Heel Harrison Barnes is expected to give UNC a lift.

Immediately following his team’s loss in the finals of the National Invitation Tournament, North Carolina coach Roy Williams wasn’t in the mood to talk about silver linings.

His eyes puffy and red after delivering the Tar Heels their last postgame speech of the season, Williams said he did not know how UNC’s run through the postseason tournament would change how he would look back on the season.

“This was the hardest year I’ve ever had coaching, there’s no question about that,” Williams said. “I didn’t do a very good job with this team, and that is hard for a coach to say, but I can say it because I believe it.”

But while Williams was still melancholy about the season as a whole, he acknowledged there were plenty of positives to take from the last three weeks of basketball.

Something especially important to Williams as the season progressed was giving his seniors a proper send-off.

And thanks to UNC’s late-season winning streak, Williams got exactly that. Veterans Deon Thompson and Marcus Ginyard now have something positive to look back on when remembering their senior seasons.

But the benefits of the Tar Heels’ turnaround in March didn’t just extend to those departing from the program. The second-tier postseason tournament helped drill home to North Carolina’s young guns what it takes to win at the college level.

“We’ve got to remember how hard we played right here, just keep going and hopefully be able to play that hard next year,” sophomore forward Tyler Zeller said.

Williams said he was pleased with the intensity and sense of urgency his players displayed in their final five games, starting with UNC’s 80-72 victory against William and Mary in Carmichael Arena.

It wasn’t just a raised level of intensity that separated those wins from a difficult regular season. In those games, the Tar Heels showed they were beginning to learn lessons they had struggled with during ACC play.

Point guard Larry Drew II became a go-to guy at the end of games, UNC pulled off three victories away from Chapel Hill and its defense finally began to make key stops.

“It was just a way for us to look on the bright side, because we had an opportunity to play again after a disappointing regular season,” Drew said. “I think guys really benefited from this run.”

Next year, Thompson, UNC’s leading scorer, and Ginyard will be gone, but the Tar Heels will be bolstered by a trio of highly rated recruits, including No. 1 prospect Harrison Barnes.

But for those that return from this team, the NIT will be a reminder of where Williams’ message to them finally got through.

“I love this run, because it showed the effort and resolve and the positive things that can happen,” Williams said. “So from that viewpoint, I’m going to appreciate what we learned from it.”

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