Chapel Hill, NC -- Forget who North Carolina's opponent was Tuesday night at the Dean Smith Center, although Evansville does own a victory over Butler this season.
This game wasn't about the Purple Aces, not who they are and what they might become. Given UNC's circumstances, this was about the Tar Heels and what kind of team they might develop into.
We know they are talented, we know they have depth and are experienced, and we know they have a Hall of Fame coach who has led this program to a pair of national championships in the last seven years. We also know Carolina is fully capable of cutting down the nets on the first Monday in April.
But the path in getting there is what this season has been about so far, and even more so after the last two Saturdays. A loss at UNLV in which the team's focus, intensity and want was rightly questioned, and then a one-point loss at Kentucky revealed to the players that one missed assignment, one lazy pass, one mind-escaping moment can cost them a game, especially against a team it could meet again, perhaps for all the marbles.
That's why North Carolina's 97-48 victory over Evansville was so impressive. The two messages sent from the first two games fueled the Tar Heels' effort, and that led to a positively impressive display of basketball, from literally every aspect of the game.
"(UNC) coach (Roy Williams) wanted us to go out there and focus on the mistakes that we made in the Kentucky game and learn from that," junior guard Dexter Strickland said. "We have to keep that focus, continue to listen to coach. I think the loss to Kentucky motivated everybody, and since we lost by one point we felt could easily correct some of the mistakes we made down the stretch."
The team clearly took Williams' direction to heart.
"One of the things I put up on the board tonight was No plays off, don't take any plays off,'" the coach said.
The Heels defended like their lives depended on it. They scrambled some, denied entry passes, and really they denied all over the floor. They disallowed passing and cutting lanes, helped when necessary, and played with passion, turning the Purple Aces into a jump shooting team. And Carolina kept this up through the entire contest.
Even after leading by 30 points at the half, the Heels refused to let up. They trapped on Evansville's first possession of the half, forcing a turnover. They forced a shot clock violation on the Aces' sixth possession of the half, and by the time UNC led 62-22 with 16:05 remaining, Evansville had netted just seven field goals over its first 42 possessions.
"Our defense is something we pride ourselves on and hopefully we can keep it up," senior center Tyler Zeller said. "We haven't played the greatest in some of the games so far."
Overall, Evansville converted just 25.8 percent of its field goal attempts and UNC outrebounded the Aces 62-30.
The Tar Heels pleased their coach offensively. They shared the ball, were aware of their teammates, got looks all over the floor, and had a lot of fun.
Some people may look at games versus overwhelmed teams as unimportant and even boring. But if Carolina is your poison, it's wise to understand games like this are where the Heels are going to either build the habits of a champion or not.
This nine-game home stand that began versus Evansville presents opportunities to strengthen the team's foundation, regardless of who it plays. No sense in waiting for ACC play to kick in before smoothing out the rough edges and developing the disposition of a champion, because it likely will be too late. You have to be who you are all the time.
Getting better is always the motto, but dismissing this stretch because of the opponents, though Long Beach State and Texas will present significant challenges, is foolish. The 2005 national champion Tar Heels got better playing a stretch of patsies, and it was key in their developing the necessary fiber to win it all. Williams wants to get the same thing out of this group over the next month.
"I would say yes, I have to agree, but that's the whole season what you have to do," Williams said. "When you play as many games in a row at home you start getting too comfortable I do think it's a big challenge for us to focus in every game and get better."
Now they just have to do it again, and again, and again.