Quick turnaround gives UNC early taste of tournament schedule

On Saturday the Tar Heels will play at Pittsburgh. Then after a quick trip home, its back on the road again for an even tougher road challenge at Virginia

Bob Donnan—USA Today Sports
Graduate transferCameron Johnson fouls his future UNC teammate Joel Berry during the Panthers' loss to the Tar Heels last Jan. 23

CHAPEL HILL — Roy Williams has never been one to look ahead during the course of a basketball season, especially when it comes to March. “I’ve always said that if you look down the road too much, that’s where you’re going down the road … back home,” Williams said Friday. “You’ve got to take care of your business.” Williams and his North Carolina basketball team might not consciously be looking ahead to the rapidly approaching postseason. But thanks to the ACC’s schedule makers, they’re about to get at least a small preview of what to expect once the postseason begins. On Saturday the Tar Heels will play at Pittsburgh, a team they beat by only a single basket at home three weeks ago, on its Senior Day. Then after a quick trip home, it’s back on the road again for an even tougher road challenge at Virginia. It’s a difficult stretch of two games in three days that could turn out to be beneficial down later on, considering UNC would have to face a similar schedule for three straight weekends in March in order to get back to the national championship game. “You do get them ready for tournament play and it builds your momentum once you get into the tournament,” Williams said Friday. “You can make a case that it’s preparation. That’s why we play in an exempt event (early in the season) for tournaments there.” The difference with playing a quick turnaround in the preseason NIT, the Battle 4 Atlantis or the Maui Invitational, as the Tar Heels did in November, is that — like the NCAA tournament — all the games are played in the same venue. That won’t be the case this weekend. Not only UNC be playing conference opponents in meaningful games that will go a long way toward deciding the ACC’s regular season title, it will have to do it in two different cities, in front of two different sets of hostile crowds.Despite the potential benefits of helping to prepare for the NCAA tournament, Williams is concerned about the detrimental short-term effect the upcoming grind could have on his team — which has won five of its last six games and leads the conference standings by two games with three to play.”The difficult thing about playing on the road on Saturday and the road on Monday is your body,” the Hall of Fame coach said. “I don’t think it’s any silver lining — just because you have more knowledge doesn’t make you have more energy or anything like that. “Conference play gets you ready for tournament play, but I do think the Saturday-Monday turnaround is difficult.” Difficult, yes. But not unmanageable, especially for a core group of players that got plenty of experience at playing big games in quick succession during last year’s run to the Final Four. “Really, it’s a piece of cake for us because of where we’ve been before,” senior center Kennedy Meeks said. “The hardest thing will be for the young guys. Even freshmen Tony Bradley, Seventh Woods and Brandon Robinson have gotten at least a taste of what they’ll experience this weekend and in March. This will be the fourth time this season and third since the start of ACC play that UNC has played three games in two days. They played Chattanooga and Long Beach State on Nov. 13-15, Florida State and Syracuse on Jan. 14-16 and Virginia Tech and Miami on Jan. 26-28. On the first two occasions, both games were played at home. The Tar Heels won both. They split the two games the last time it happened, winning at home against the Hokies before coming out flat in a loss at Miami. According Meeks, the key to success in a short turnaround scenario — whether it’s during the regular season or NCAA tournament — is to follow Williams’ advice and concentrate on one game at a time. “That’s how you’ve got to think about it,” Meeks said. “I try to tell (freshman) Tony (Bradley) and those guys that if you think too far ahead, you lose games like Georgia Tech and Miami. Those are the type of games that right now in the season, we don’t need to be losing.”As much as Williams dislikes the ACC’s Saturday-Monday turnarounds, he said they’re a fact of life that won’t be going away anytime soon. No matter how much he and his fellow coaches complain about them.”I don’t think we have an avenue to say anything at any time,” he said. “I think as coaches we don’t have a say in anything.”