CHAPEL HILL — Ready or not, the ACC basketball season is about to begin.
To listen to North Carolina’s Roy Williams, his Tar Heels are still a long way from being ready.
“Stuff’s over now,” the Hall of Fame coach said after UNC beat Harvard 77-57 at Smith Center in its final nonconference test. “It’s big-time basketball in front of us now. We’ve got to play better.”
It’s not as if the Tar Heels struggled (10-3) to beat the Crimson. They got double-figure scoring from five players, forced 22 turnovers and held their Ivy League opponent to 38.9 percent shooting before breaking the game open with a 16-1 run early in the second half.
But there were still plenty of rough edges to smooth out heading into Saturday’s ACC opener at Pittsburgh and a subsequent trip to NC State next Tuesday.
Williams was particularly critical of his team’s shot selection, its still-frequent defensive lapses and a less-than-dominant performance on the boards. UNC didn’t shoot much better than Harvard at 41.9 percent, including just 6 of 21 3-point attempts, while only outrebounding the Crimson 38-34.
Some of the Tar Heels’ troubles on the boards stemmed from the early foul trouble that limited starting big man Garrison Brooks to 17 minutes and a knee injury that sidelined his backup Sterling Manley.
Manley could be back as early as Saturday. But according to graduate forward Cameron Johnson, the time has come for UNC to raise its game regardless of who is and isn’t available.
“It’s always good to get a win,” Johnson said. “But we want to play better come conference play now. Our goal is to be better than we were today.”
Johnson finished with 13 points, second only to Luke Maye’s 14. Freshman point guard Coby White had 13 points and classmate Nassir Little added 12.
All could have had more points, Williams said, if they would have made better decisions on when and where to shoot.
“We’re a good shooting team,” the coach said. “But when Luke Maye tries to bounce around and shoot with four guys all over him, Cam takes a three and gets it blocked, that’s not a good shot.”
One Tar Heel that did draw praise for his offensive effort Tuesday was Kenny Williams. Although the senior guard is still not himself from the perimeter — going 1 of 3 from beyond the arc — he was more assertive in attacking the rim.
He contributed three driving baskets to a late first half surge that extended UNC’s lead to 41-31 at the break and finished with 11 points for his sixth double-figure output in his last seven games.
“He missed two open threes early, (then) he took the ball to the basket and made three big-time layups in the first half,” Roy Williams said. “He’s finding a way to do things to help us.”
Kenny Williams said he knows he’ll have to do even more, on both ends of the court, now that conference play is here.
It’s a bit of wisdom he and fellow veterans Johnson and Maye have already begun passing along to newcomers White, Little and Leaky Black.
“They’ve been hinting at it,” Little said. “I think we’re ready. (The older teammates) believe in us and they think we’ll be ready to perform come ACC play.”
The five-star recruit improved defensively against Harvard and went 4 of 7 from the floor, to go along with a strong floor game that saw him tie Maye for the team lead with seven rebounds in his 22 minutes off the bench.
But he said that’s just a fraction of what he can do as he continues to get comfortable and gain confidence.
“I’ve got to change my mindset,” he said. “I’ve got to stop being a robot and play my game. I’ve been playing basketball for awhile and I’m an elite player. So I’ve just got to play.”
That’s something Roy Williams would like to see everyone on the team do now that the level of competition is about to be raised.
Asked how close the Tar Heels are to being where he’d like them to be entering the ACC schedule, the coach replied: “Nowhere near … not in the same frickin’ universe.
“We’ve got to play smarter,” Williams said. “We’ve got to play better defensively, we’ve got to stop turning the ball over.”