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January 5, 2012

ACC play begins for Heels on Saturday

Third-ranked North Carolina will learn on Saturday at 2:30 p.m. what 15 non-conference games and a full week of practice will produce in its first Atlantic Coast Conference game of the season.

"It's been long stretch with these non-conference games at home," Coach Roy Williams said. "Now we're getting ready to start a completely new season. It's a whole different level we're going to now."

UNC (13-2) will play Boston College (5-9) and try to extend its Smith Center record winning streak to 27 games. Far more important, however, is that the Tar Heels continue to make the improvement they have shown in their game since Williams chastised them following a 50-point (99-49) victory against Nicholls on Dec. 19, 2011.

"I think our team did OK, probably a little better than OK in these first 15," Williams said. "Now it gets to be a heck of a lot more serious."

The rise to this point began with the Tar Heels' effort in an 82-63 victory against Rick Barnes and Texas on Dec. 21, 2011.

After their victory on New Year's Day, it is fair to say the Tar Heels are performing more consistently at both ends of the court, while playing together as well as they have all season.

"I think everyone has confidence," said UNC's Harrison Barnes, who is playing his best basketball so far. "We've had a pretty good run so far. Hopefully we can take that into conference play."

As usual, UNC leads the ACC in scoring, this time at 88 points per game. That is also tops in the nation.

Carolina also leads the ACC in scoring margin (21.2 per game), rebounding margin (11.8 pg), overall rebounding (47.1 pg), assists (19.7 pg), assist-to-turnover ratio (1.57 pg), offensive rebounds (16.2 pg), defensive rebounds (30.9 pg).

The Tar Heels' 19.7 assists per game is third in the country. Their assist-to-turnover of 1.57 ratio is fourth in the nation, while they are second in rebound margin (11.8). Their scoring margin of 21.2 is sixth in the country.

Individually, Barnes is fourth in the league in scoring at 17.1 points per game, John Henson is eighth at 13.9 and Tyler Zeller is 10th at 13.9.

Henson leads the league in rebounding at 10 per game, while Zeller continues to climb in this category with 8.9. Henson is first in the league in blocked shots (3.2 pg) and ninth in the nation.

Henson is second in the league in field-goal percentage at 56 percent, while Zeller is fifth at 52.4 percent. Barnes is eighth at 48.9 percent.

Kendall Marshall leads the league in assists by a wide margin at 10 per game. N.C. State's Lorenzo Brown is second with 6.7 per game. Marshall's 10 per game is second only to Iona's Scott Machado in the national statistics.

Marshall is easily first in the ACC with his assist-to-turnover ratio at 4.17. He is third in the nation in this category.

Marshall is a sophomore. He became the starter midway through the ACC season a year ago. He knows what lies ahead.

"It's a big step," Marshall said. "The evaluations of the team you are playing become a lot stricter. Teams know what you want to do. You know what they want to do. It's a lot more physical.

"Becoming the great team we want to become, you have to learn how to play with the lead," Marshall said. "You have to learn how to compete, no matter what the score is."

Since the Texas game, the Tar Heels have had longer streaks of playing consistent defense. UNC held the Longhorns to 9-of-36 (25 percent) from the field in the first half. Elon shot 8-of-39 (20.5) in the first half, and Monmouth, coached by former Carolina point guard King Rice, went 11-of-32 (34.4) in the first half.

That is combined 26 percent shooting by opponents in the first half of the last three games. Williams wants more consistency on defense, but this is certainly a good start toward that goal.

"We know we have to better defensively, and be able to stay in front of the basketball," Williams said.

One thing Williams has been pleased with is the support of the fans. The Tar Heels have played seven consecutive home games, and some of those games have come quickly together and some at awkward times.

"I've been really pleased with our fans," Williams said. "We've had seven straight games at home, and 18,000 is the fewest number we've had. It's been really nice for them to support us like that.

"Now that we are getting into conference, we hope they will come out in even more force, more enthusiastic. So now just like my team, they have to raise their level."


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