In Madness of March, North Carolina finds talent needs toughness to survive

Toughness has been a recurring issue for North Carolina to address over the year. The Tar Heels' close victory over Arkansas may have changed that.

They have size and depth in the frontcourt. They have an All-American wing and all-conference point guard, a defensive stopper and a coach in Roy Williams who has been to the Final Four more than every coach in history not named Wooden, Krzyzewski or Smith. OK, there’ve been a lot of Smiths. I'm talkingDean Smith, specifically.

North Carolina has the No. 6 offense in college basketball and the 19th-best defense. So why are the Tar Heels not the overwhelming favorite to win the 2017 NCAA Championship? Why did they lose seven games this season, twice to teams that didn’t even make the NCAA Tournament?

Why should we believe the Kentucky team that put 103 points on the Tar Heels and squeezed out a victory over the Heels in December, that has improved so much on defense the Wildcats cut UCLA’s point production against them by 23 percent from their first meeting to the second in Friday’s Sweet 16 —why should we believe Carolina is built to compete in that game?

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Beyond the No. 1 seed, 30 victories and ACC championship, I mean?

“A lot of things have changed,” Tar Heels senior guard Nate Britt said. “I think we’re a lot better on the defensive end now. In the halfcourt, we’ve done a better job defending the ball. Our team is different that way.

“It’s effort more than anything. We had to change our will to want to defend on every possession. Us being able to score has been a bit of a luxury. We can’t just depend on our scoring, and that’s something we had to change.

“I think we’re a little bit tougher now. We got a very tough win over Arkansas under our belts. Everyone has that experience now.”

Ah, yes: tougher. It often comes down to that with the Tar Heels. It surely did not when Tyler Hansbrough was thundering through the ACC, but it has been a recurring issue for Carolina to address over the years. Perhaps it is the powder-blue uniforms, or the power-blue accents given that these Heels haven’t worn their road jerseys to this point in the tournament. Some of it is Williams’ emphasis on fastbreaking and offense. A program gets a reputation for what it does well, and defense is viewed as the blood-and-guts enterprise of the sport.

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This certainly is not about physical strength. Big men Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Hicks and freshman Tony Bradley are anything but soft along the baseline. The question is whether the Heels can find the fortitude to drive themselves through the difficult moments that are inevitable in the flow of a high-level basketball game.

There’s an interesting connective tissue to North Carolina’s defeats. Only one of them was competitive, the furious 103-100 classic against Kentucky in Las Vegas. Of the other six, the loss at Indiana, by nine points, was the closest to close. It was a five-point game with fourminutes left, but the Hoosiers pulled away with some terrific shooting by James Blackmon.

Lately, Carolina has found a way to get its tail kicked now and then. That’s how Roy would put it: tail, not “behind” or “butt.” The average margin of UNC’s past five defeats: 11 points. That includes the collapse against Duke in the ACC Tournament semifinals, the capitulation at Virginia in the final regular-season road game and the no-show at Miami on the last Saturday of January.

None of these results in and of itself is dreadful. Kentucky got its tail kicked once, in a visit to Florida. Once.

North Carolina was halfway to another in that second-round NCAA victory over Arkansas, trailing by five points with three minutes remaining. The Tar Heels confronted their competitive mortality at that moment. Their choices were to rally or lose.

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“Just being down and having to fight back to win that game was huge for us,” wing Theo Pinson said. “It helps everybody understand we can win in any game, if we’re down or if we’re up.”

Arkansas did not score in the time that remained.

The Heels scored 12 points and won by seven.

“When we don’t play together, that’s what happens. When we don’t screen for each other, we don’t share the ball, we don’t guard our man —we have all these lapses,” center Kennedy Meeks told Sporting News. “A team falls apart together. It’s a domino effect when you see one person not doing something, you get mad at him. And then everybody’s mad at each other and you’re not playing together. I think that’s what happened in the course of those games.”

In the Arkansas game, though, Meeks saw a different quality.

“I think we wanted it. I think we wanted it more,” he said. “I think we dug into a place that we hadn’t dug into this year. We’re more aggressive, more confident and we believe in each other.”

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