WINSTON-SALEM, NC — North Carolina picked a pretty good night to leave its “A” game in Chapel Hill.
Not long ago, Wake Forest’s Joel Coliseum would have been buzzing long before tip-off, and it would have been as difficult a place to play as any the Tar Heels would visit. But with apathy setting in at an alarming rate among Wake fans as the Demon Deacons continue to struggle under second-year coach Jeff Bzdelik, UNC’s 68-53 victory Tuesday night felt like nothing more than an exhibition.
It sure didn’t seem like an Atlantic Coast Conference game, did it?
“A little bit,” UNC junior forward John Henson said. “Wake Forest my freshman year was a tough place to play. But credit us, we took the crowd out of it early and that’s what you want to do when you go on the road.”
Even when Wake Forest has had some of its lesser teams, Demon Deacons fans were always supportive, especially when UNC and Duke visited. The spirited, festive and venom-spewing Wake supporters always made these experiences fun.
That’s no longer the case. This is a wonderful program with a nice history that is a vital part of the ACC’s culture, but to see so many empty seats with the Heels in town is quite sad.
The announced attendance of 12,865 seemed a bit high, but was still well
below a sellout (14,665). UNC coach Roy Williams didn’t believe the atmosphere
affected the Tar Heels (19-3, 6-1 ACC)
“As a basketball player, you have to play,” he
said. “I would hope my team would play hard if there’s nobody in the
crowd. It’s probably not as much fun or something, but you’ve got to set
habits and set standards of playing exceptionally hard regardless of
what the crowd is doing.”
But were the Heels affected in any way?
gosh, if you’re a basketball player, play,” he replied. “If it’s on the
damn playground, play. I guess my answer’s no, I wouldn’t agree with that
because that’s a bunch of horse manure. You’ve got to go play
basketball or don’t play.”
UNC, with its collection of NBA talent, was the main attraction Tuesday night, but it’s hard to get past how indifferent Wake fans have become and how the program has completely fallen apart.
The Deacons were No. 1 in the national rankings as recently as January 2009, and in 2010 beat Texas in the NCAA tournament.
But Dino Gaudio was fired for various reasons, and Bzdelik (19-35 overall and 3-21 in ACC play) was brought in having achieved very little in his coaching career. The fans didn’t buy it then and are buying it even less now.
As for UNC, the Heels played well early, getting plenty of nice looks at the basket, but they couldn’t convert, and after a while, their legs seemingly grew heavy. Wake Forest’s zone certainly affected UNC, as the Heels converted just 31 percent of their field-goal attempts — their lowest percentage in a victory since shooting 30.4 in a win over Akron in December 2003.
Among the positives, UNC got another rugged performance from Tyler Zeller, who scored 18 points and grabbed 18 rebounds. Not only is Zeller shedding his soft image, but he’s becoming the Tar Heels’ leader on and off the court.
It began, ironically, during UNC’s 33-point loss at Florida State.
“Obviously, they had a large margin, but he was running the floor, blocking shots, playing hard and we didn’t really help him out,” point guard Kendall Marshall said about Zeller. “And you could see at that point that he’s really changed his mind-set into being a lot more vocal.”
Marshall scored a season-high 14 points Tuesday night, and UNC didn’t give up any points off of its six turnovers.
So it wasn’t like this seemingly forgettable game didn’t have value. UNC had to generate some of its own intensity, and in the grand scheme of things, there’s nothing wrong with the occasional ugly win. Each of UNC’s previous national title teams had some.
“I think it was an ugly game,” Williams said. “But sometimes you have to win ugly to have a great year.”
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