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March 7, 2011

On to Greensboro

Coming off its emotional 14-point victory over Duke Saturday night to claim the Atlantic Coast Conference regular season title, North Carolina is gearing up for this coming weekend and the league tournament in the Greensboro Coliseum.

Head coach Roy Williams gave his players Sunday off to rest up and relish in the team's impressive 14-2 league mark for a day.

But now they're getting back to work, for although UNC's student body is in the midst of spring break, the Tar Heels will return to the practice court later Monday.

Of course the Tar Heels are still on Cloud Nine after Saturday night's complete all-around effort against the Blue Devils, which earned UNC the No. 1 seed and a draw of the winner of Thursday's noon game between Virginia and Miami.

"I'm going to enjoy the regular season championship," said Williams.

"It's the happiest moment that I've ever experienced as a basketball player period, just knowing we're ACC champs after everything we've been through---the bad losses that we've had---and to come through that as a team, it felt great for our University and our fans," said freshman point guard Kendall Marshall.

"To know that a ring is on the way, it's the best feeling," said freshman Harrison Barnes, the likely ACC Rookie of the Year.

"It means a lot, just because that's what you're supposed to do here (at North Carolina)---win championships---and that's just a little stepping stone. We've got to keep it going," said sophomore John Henson, a strong contender for ACC Defensive Player of the Year honors.

"It's a great feeling, especially after the season we had last year. We never thought we'd have a season like this," said sophomore Dexter Strickland.

"It's been a journey---people leaving and going and coming---it's just a great feeling. It's something we fought through and we keep playing together, and that's what happens," added Henson.

While the ACC Tournament is absolutely huge this year to schools like Clemson, Boston College, Virginia Tech, and Maryland---who all need victories to solidify their respective NCAA resumes---the Tar Heels don't have to worry about the bubble this year.

"Earlier in the season, we always talked about how if we went to the NCAA Tournament it would be everyone's first time, because the team didn't go last year and 'Z' and Justin (Watts) weren't prominent figures on the '09 team because they were freshmen," said Barnes.

Not only are the Tar Heels going to be back in the NCAA Tournament this year, a strong showing in Greensboro could mean a No. 2 seeding or perhaps even some consideration for a No. 1 seeding for the upcoming Big Dance depending on how some other schools fare in their conference tournament.

But by winning the well-respected ACC regular season title, the Tar Heels are very unlikely to fall any farther down than a favorable No. 4 seeding---which could very well mean they get to play the first two rounds in the friendly surroundings of Charlotte.

Of course with the No. 1 seeding in the ACC Tournament also comes a favorable Friday pairing against the winner of the game between teams in Virginia and Miami that UNC has already beaten this season on the road.

A pair of teams that will have played less than 24 hours earlier when one of them takes the court against the Tar Heels.

"It's a great feeling, especially not having to play that first day (Thursday), and just putting ourselves in a situation where we only have to play three games to win now," said junior Tyler Zeller.

"It's a great feeling, and hopefully we can do something with it."

In recent history UNC has been known to come out a little flat in its first round ACC Tournament games coming off highly-emotional wins at home over Duke to claim the regular-season championship.

2005 against Clemson and 2009 against Virginia Tech come directly to mind.

UNC trailed well into the second half against both teams---albeit without star players like Rashad McCants and Ty Lawson--- before going on to narrow victories and then defeats the following day in the semifinals.

It's not to be completely unexpected.

After all, the players are using to playing two to three games a week this time of year, and now they're getting a full five days off between games---one of which having been the biggest of the season so far.

Of course UNC went on to win NCAA titles in both 2005 and 2009 after getting bounced in the second round of the ACC Tournament, but the fact remains that Carolina wants to avoid any letdown in Greensboro this weekend and any halting of its momentum heading into March Madness the following week.

"We've just got to be ready to play (Friday). We can't fall back into any bad habits," said Henson.

"We're going to have a target on our back being the No. 1 seed in the ACC Tournament," said Barnes. "We've just got to come ready to play, and we can't lay an egg after such an emotional game like this one (the Duke game)."

"We've just got to continue to work," said Strickland.

"We can't look at this game (beating Duke) and say, 'Oh, we're the ACC champions. Nobody can beat us.' We can't have that attitude. We've got to continue to work hard and execute what Coach wants and just win more games," Strickland added.

To those who know him, it's not a big secret that Coach Williams places significantly less emphasis on the ACC Tournament than the NCAA Tournament.

At the conclusion of his post-game press conference Saturday night, he again touched on the subject.

Although the Florida-Georgia football game lays claim to the 'World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party,' Coach Williams jokes that the ACC Tournament might have a chance at the indoor record.

"Everybody gets all upset when Ol' Roy says, 'It (the ACC Tournament) is the world's biggest freaking Cocktail Party.' But that's what it is," said Williams.

For Williams, the ACC Tournament isn't as much about winning as it is trying to get better and to get tougher heading into the all-or-nothing single-elimination NCAA's.

But as one of the fiercest competitors you'll ever meet, he's not going to Greensboro planning to get beaten.

"I'll go play, and you know what? We're going to try to win the freaking thing," Williams added.

For the Tar Heel players, Greensboro is a fantastic opportunity to get some extensive preparation.

And while of course they're going there to try and win, improving even more from recent performances and getting better would be a triumph in and of itself.

But everyone knows that type of improvement could very well lead to cutting down the nets on Sunday and claiming the school's third ACC Tournament crown since 2007.

The team appears ready to make a run at it, and now they've got a week where they can focus solely on basketball and preparing for what they have to do.

"He (Coach Williams) is just doing what he's done for 22, 23 years. He's a Hall of Fame coach. He's just coaching us and we're listening to him. We're taking in what he says and trying to do it on the court," said Zeller.

"I feel like at the beginning of the season everybody didn't have full comprehension on their role and what they had to do, and I think everybody (understands) now, knowing their role," said Strickland.

"Plus our team chemistry is even better---not just on the court but off the court---and I think that's where it starts. Everybody is just listening to Coach, executing what he wants very well, and we're just playing together as a team and having that focus," added Strickland.






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