When the North Carolina men's basketball team dropped an early road game to Michigan on Nov. 28, Roy Williams was frustrated.
After a Brandon Robinson 3-pointer less than eight minutes into the first half, the Tar Heels led, 21-11, yet the Wolverines came roaring back to take a 39-35 halftime lead in the eventual 84-67 blowout win.
Almost four months later, UNC stands as one of four No. 1 seeds in the field of 68 teams in the NCAA Tournament.
Yet, after that low point in the season, one could have understood why Williams would be less confident in his team getting to this point. The Hall of Fame coach insisted on Sunday night in a statement through GoHeels that he was still confident in his team's ability to move on to the next game after that loss.
"I don’t look that far down the road, but I really thought we could be a lot better than we played that night," Williams said in the team statement. "I was really discouraged, because I didn’t think we competed, which always irritates me more than anything. We didn’t play well, we didn’t compete, we had no fire, no energy, no enthusiasm. That was a low point, there’s no question. But I didn’t think about way down the line. I just wanted to play a heck of a lot better in our next game and start to get better each and every day.”
UNC did play a lot better after that point. In fact, after starting the season 6-2, the Tar Heels finished the year winning 21 of 25 games, including two top-five wins over Duke and one over Gonzaga and another top-10 win over Virginia Tech. The team's strong play to round out the year culminated in a share of the ACC regular season title and the No. 1 seed in the Midwest Region. It is the 13th time a Williams-coached team has received a No. 1 seed, including eight times at his alma mater.
“When I decide to retire, which hopefully is a few years down the road, I’ll look back on 13 No. 1 seeds and feel good about it," Williams said in the team statement. "But for now, I’ve got my team, we’re playing in the NCAA Tournament and people think we’ve had a pretty good year.”
Williams also noted the happiness of his players in receiving the No. 1 seed. Although it's the third time in four years UNC has earned a top seed, the players likely cannot help but forget what happened last March when North Carolina was flattened by No. 7 seed Texas A&M in a second-round matchup.
But 2019 has been a different season. UNC ranks first in the nation in rebounds per game (43.6) and third in scoring (86.1), almost five points per game higher than last year's team.
With a potential Sweet 16 matchup with No. 4 seed Kansas and an Elite Eight rematch against No. 2 seed Kentucky, a team that beat UNC 80-72 earlier this season, Williams' squad will have its hands full.
Williams, though, is not looking that far ahead. He's instead focusing on UNC's first-round matchup against Iona, a team that won the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference with a 12-6 conference mark and a 17-15 record overall. After narrowly edging past Saint Peter's, 73-71, in the MAAC Tournament quarterfinals, Iona posted consecutive double-digit wins in the semifinals and the tournament final en route to an automatic bid.
"We have to be ready to play the first day," Williams said in the team statement. "If you play your tail off the first day, perhaps they’ll let you stay around and play somebody else. We’ve got Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday that we can practice. Let’s understand that we can still get a heck of a lot better. The great teams we’ve had that have won the national championship or made a big, big run to get into the Final Four, those practices in the NCAA Tournament were our best practices of the year. That’s what I’m looking forward to.”
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