When Roy Williams was in desperate need of veteran leadership a year ago at Kentucky, with his team unraveling in unfriendly Rupp Arena, the North Carolina basketball coach essentially had nowhere to turn for help.
All three of his seniors were walk-ons who rarely played. One of them, Greensboro's Damien Price, saw the most significant playing time of his UNC career that January afternoon.The point is, Kentucky enjoyed a noticeable advantage in game experience and maturity over the Tar Heels' sophomore- and junior-heavy lineup.
UNC lacked composure on offense, especially Rashad McCants, and lacked communication on defense. The Wildcats, who started three seniors, imposed a slow-it-down tempo and made the big shots down the stretch in a 61-56 victory.
Nobody called out the screen when Kentucky's Chuck Hayes picked off Jackie Manuel to give Wildcats senior Gerald Fitch room to shoot the game-sealing 3-point shot with 23 seconds left. That was typical of the Heels' frustrating day.
But, as UNC senior Jawad Williams said repeatedly Friday, last year was last year. It's a new day.
When eighth-ranked Kentucky visits No. 9 UNC today at the Smith Center, it will be the Wildcats who must acclimate a young lineup to life on the road against a well-aged opponent. Hayes is back to provide solid leadership, but two freshmen start: point guard Rajon Rondo and center Randolph Morris.
The Heels, who have lost to Kentucky in each of the last four seasons, return intact, a year older and a year wiser.
"We're a lot more mature. That's always a plus," Jawad Williams said. "And I'm confident in our defense now. Before, you were never sure who was going to show up, step up and play defense. Now, you know if you don't, you will be sitting down."
Yes, the Heels have added depth, and the bench is a fantastic motivational tool for a coach. But playing defense is a key aspect of North Carolina's maturation process this season, deep bench or not. Last season, opponents shot 44.4 percent from the floor against the Heels; this season, that number is 40.8. Forced turnovers are up from 18 per game to 23.
The combination of defense and depth made for a satisfying 70-63 victory Wednesday night at Indiana. The high-flying Heels' offense was nearly grounded. They made only 40.7 percent of their shots - eight were blocked - and turned over the ball 23 times. Two key players, Sean May and McCants, were bedeviled by fouls.
Yet, the Heels won a tough road game in which the Hoosiers made them play a style not at all to their liking. It was the kind of game they would've lost last season. Actually, it was the kind of game they did lose last year in Lexington.
"The Kentucky team last year was very much a veteran team and they were able to do some things that the Indiana team could not do," Roy Williams said. "We made some veteran plays. But I think it was more a case of the Kentucky team last year being very experienced and withstanding the runs we may have."
Said May after the Indiana game: "It's a turning point for us. Last year, we weren't able to close games out."
\ Contact Jeff Carlton at 373-7065 or email@example.com