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March 6, 2012
"Success is a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people into thinking they can't lose." -- Bill Gates of Microsoft.
The most difficult hurdle for Carolina to overcome after beating Duke 88-70 on Saturday to clinch first place in the final ACC regular-season standings is to avoid the tempting allure of success.
"Last year we won the regular season and I think we were so happy about that we didn't play well when we got to the ACC Tournament," Coach Roy Williams said.
There has been plenty of success and recognition this week, both as a team and individually.
The Tar Heels (27-4, 14-2) are ranked No. 4 in the country and would probably be a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament today. But this week's Atlantic Coast Conference tournament in Atlanta presents the possibility of playing three games before the NCAA Tournament seeding committee announces the field and the brackets.
"I told them we need to play better," Williams said. "There are things still riding on it."
UNC got to this point by learning from its mistakes and its successes. One of the biggest lessons came at Florida State, when the Tar Heels lost 90-57.
Carolina learned that day it must be prepared and ready to play each night it steps on the court.
"In the beginning of the year, we expected it to happen," senior forward Tyler Zeller said. "We weren't making the necessary steps to get completely there. Especially after [the loss at] Florida State, maybe even a little bit before then, we have done a fantastic job of picking up the intensity and concentration. We're getting to the point where we're playing well as a team.
"We've never cared who scores. Now everybody is playing defense, rebounding."
The exception occurred on Monday. The team did not have a particularly good practice, according to Williams and the players.
"The guys should feel good," Williams said. "That was a big-time win in a big-time atmosphere. Duke's crowd has always been really, really good. I've never heard them as loud as I heard them on Saturday.
"For us to go in there and win the game says a lot about our team. You can't just click that off, but we have to work better to get better for this week."
Against Duke, the Tar Heels played with more confidence across the board and better overall than at any time since they steamrolled through the 2009 NCAA Tournament to capture Williams' second national championship.
That, of course, was an entirely different team.
But the Carolina team that overwhelmed Duke on Saturday (Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski's word for it), looked an awfully lot like that team from 2009.
"That was a big-time atmosphere, and that may have been the best we have played all year -- by a considerable margin," Williams said. "The big-time teams give that kind of effort more consistently. But trying to come up with that same kind of emotion is hard because that was a unique situation."
From Saturday forward this has been a magical few days for a team that played a lengthy and difficult schedule. First the Tar Heels defeated the Blue Devils, and then individual awards began emerge.
On Monday, Zeller, junior forward John Henson and sophomore forward Harrison Barnes were named first team all-ACC.
Sophomore point guard Kendall Marshall earned second-team honors.
On Tuesday, Zeller was named the ACC player of the year, a prestigious award that will send his jersey to the rafters with the other honored jerseys from UNC's long and storied tradition.
"He was our best player in ACC play," Marshall said. "He consistently brings it every single night. Throughout his four years, he has gotten better in every statistical category. That says a lot about a player."
Marshall has improved as well, which is saying a lot considering he has performed in excellent fashion all season.
"I've never felt as comfortable with a guy making decisions as I do with Kendall making decisions," Williams said. "I nitpick on him all the time. But that said, he makes better decisions with the ball than any point guard I've ever had. He makes it a heck of a lot more comfortable for me over there on the bench."