“I told them after the Florida Atlantic game that when we were going to Long Beach, their level of competition was being raised,” Roy Williams told reporters on Sunday following the EA Sports Maui Invitational opening press conference at the Sheraton Maui Resort and Spa. “And I told them again [on Saturday], now it’s being raised again. So we’ll know a lot more about our team because it’s much better competition.”
The Tar Heels open the tournament against Mississippi State on Monday (6pm EST, 1pm HT). The other six teams participating are No. 25 Texas, Marquette, Southern Cal, Illinois, Butler and host Chaminade. The winner of UNC/MSU will play the winner of Marquette/Butler on Tuesday afternoon.
In addition to the challenge of an improved level of opponent, North Carolina’s inexperienced roster will also have to deal with playing three games in a short window – only the ACC Tournament in March offers a similar situation of not having at least a one-day break between games.
Williams said his freshman class was “surprised” at the hostile environment UNC encountered at Long Beach State on Friday, despite his effort to prepare them for the road game. The rookies will likely receive another surprise this week in the form of a heavier workload.
“They’re going to play more minutes,” Williams said. “You can’t just play the starting five 35 minutes. [Mississippi State head coach] Rick Ray may have to because they don’t have that many guys, but for us, we’ve been playing 10-11-12 guys in the first half of every game and we’ll continue to do that. But I think each game hits your freshmen, particularly, right between the eyes. They have no idea what’s going to happen.”
Veteran leadership on the court will be counted on in Maui as the coaching staff will be limited in scouting and preparation time.
“We’ll see how they make adjustments on the fly,” Williams said.
How the Tar Heels deal with adversity will be a central theme over the next three days. North Carolina fought through injuries in its last two trips to Maui – Raymond Felton’s wrist in ’04, Tyler Hansbrough’s shin in ’08 – to claim the tournament championship. UNC would go on to win the national championship in both of those seasons.
Those were experienced, talented squads, however. While the current Tar Heel edition has plenty of talent, this type of trip helps fill the experience void.
Williams admitted to questioning his team’s toughness at halftime of the Long Beach State game.
“When you’re playing the first two games at home and you’re more gifted than the other team, things are a little smoother,” Williams said. “And it wasn’t smooth the other night, to say the least.”
That toughness will undoubtedly be tested this week against solid competition. As Williams pointed out, if his team can learn to handle the adversity in Maui, it can exit the island with a wealth of confidence.
North Carolina’s activities off the court will also serve a critical role in building team chemistry. The Tar Heels’ nine-day road trip away from Chapel Hill provides an ample amount of bonding time for the players and coaching staff.
Thursday will be a free day for the Tar Heels to soak in the aura of Maui. In 2008, Wes Miller’s father rented a boat for the players to take out. No such plans have been made quite yet, although the team will gather late in the afternoon for Thanksgiving dinner before taking a red-eye back home.
Every team Williams has brought to Maui has had players jump off Black Rock, a small cliff of black lava rock just out from the Sheraton. Williams talked about the cliff-diving experiences with several players on Saturday night, and while one was excited at the opportunity, another said no way.
When sophomore P.J. Hairston was asked if he would make the dive following the Long Beach State victory, he laughed and said, “I doubt it.”
“I’m not really the big swimming type,” he continued. “I don’t really like water, I’ll probably be the one taking pictures of the ones jumping off.”
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