When North Carolina lost to Boston College 71-67 last season, it was the Tar Heels’ ninth loss in 11 games.
This year, UNC travels to Chestnut Hill, Mass., with eight wins in its last nine games. With a set rotation and a mostly healthy roster, the Tar Heels are better equipped to handle the Eagles than a year ago.
“Some guys were trying to play hurt and we didn’t play well and I didn’t coach well,” UNC coach Roy Williams said Monday in an ACC teleconference. “It’s a different year right now. The kids are a team. And as I said in the preseason, we’d get better and better as we go along and I still believe that.”
UNC (15-5, 5-1 ACC) has rolled through conference play thus far with three straight wins including Saturday’s 20-point romp against N.C. State.
In those games, Williams has seen improvement in his team’s aggressiveness, especially in freshman Harrison Barnes. Against the Wolfpack, the forward scored 14 of his 25 points inside the arc, grabbed three offensive rebounds, and hustled for several loose balls.
“Since the conference season started, I’ve been pleased with our toughness with the exception of one half,” Williams said. “We are getting more active and we are becoming more aggressive.
“Saturday was the most aggressive (Barnes) had been in any game. I think we are getting better — they are nowhere where I want them to be by any means — but we are getting better at that.”
Barnes’ improvement on both ends of the floor is much needed while Justin Watts continues to recover from a foot injury sustained against Clemson. Watts, a junior forward, typically comes off the bench when UNC’s starting 4-man John Henson gets into foul trouble or needs substituting in late-game situations.
Watts, a full six inches shorter than Henson, offers agility and quickness on the perimeter, which Williams said his team will need against Boston College. The Eagles are the ACC’s second-best field goal shooting team, aided by a .375 3-point percentage.
“They stretch your whole defense,” Williams said. “You’ve got to defend the 3-point shot through your top four positions.
“You’ve got to be able to go out that far and it’s a little bit of a challenge for us and that’s the reason I say it would be great to have Justin Watts. We’d be able to go small ourselves with a guy who has experience, as opposed to going with a 4-man in Reggie (Bullock) or Harrison who is not as experienced in making that change over to another position.”
The Tar Heels expect Boston College’s Reggie Jackson to be the thorn in their side Tuesday night. Williams said Jackson may be “playing as well as anybody in the conference” with his 18.5 points per game and .44 percent 3-point percentage.
Jackson is among a quartet of Eagles in double figures this season, including Joe Trapani. The 6-foot-8 forward grabs seven boards a game with his 14.1 points per game.
He has also stepped back for 91 attempts behind the 3-point line and has seen 30 of those shots hit.
North Carolina has allowed an opponent to score more than 71 points only once in the last nine games. But Williams said the Tar Heels must be even better if they want to come away from Chestnut Hill still tied for first in the conference.
“They have a wonderful field goal percentage and assist-to-turnover ratio, so they can shoot the ball — they can shoot the ball from 3 — and they don’t turn it over,” Williams said. “They put a lot of pressure on your defense. It’s gotta be our best defensive game of the year.”
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