CHAPEL HILL, N.C. - Legendary coach Dean Smith walked down the tunnel of his namesake arena with Roy Williams, awaiting a friendly 15-minute chat with Lute Olson before Arizona’s practice Friday.
CBS analyst Billy Packer arrived with briefcase in hand, doing some homework for today’s nationally televised game between North Carolina and Arizona.
Later, about 20 media members crowded around to hear Williams spin off folksy yarns that included terms such as “Chicken Little,’’ and “since the rocks cooled.’’
All 21,800 tickets for today’s game are sold, too. There will be no-shows, but that may be the only visible sign that today’s game is hardly the Top 10 showdown it might otherwise be.
“We still feel like this is a bigtime game,’’ North Carolina forward David Noel said. “We’ve been looking forward to this all season.’’
Indisputably, this hurts: Four Tar Heels aren’t here, having exchanged NBA lottery money for college eligibility last summer, and the fact that Andre Iguodala will start yet again for the Philadelphia 76ers tonight in New York instead of alongside buddy Hassan Adams for Arizona.
Early NBA departures are one reason why Olson defended his longtime friend, Williams, who was 4-2 against Olson at Kansas and has now agreed to what will be at least a two-year home-and-home series.
“When you lose the people they’ve lost from that national championship team, I mean, it’s amazing what they’ve done with the program given the losses,’’ Olson said. “They had some early wins that started getting people to think well they should win all the time. I don’t know how North Carolina fans are, but I know how Arizona fans are and you’re supposed to win every game and by a considerable amount.’’
Which, Williams indicated, is entirely Olson’s fault.
“Lute’s standards are extremely high,’’ Williams said. “They lost to Connecticut. What was Connecticut’s spot in the polls this week? (No. 1) They lose to Michigan State. What were they? (No. 11) They lost to UCLA, and UCLA’s not bad. They lost at Oregon and Oregon State, but a lot of people are going to go up there and lose.
“He’s set the standard so high that people think the sky is falling and Chicken Little is not even in town. It’s something you have to understand. He’s ready to make a run in the second half to be in the conference championship race. They beat Washington at Washington, and they were the first team to do that since the rocks cooled.’’
Williams went on, referring to Chris Rodgers’ dismissal, Jawann McClellan’s season-ending wrist injury, etc. Lots of problems, lots of reasons.
But most of the Tar Heels’ problems can be traced to a single reason: Youth.
Even though their most productive player is freshman center Tyler Hansbrough, who averages 20.7 points and 7.5 rebounds in ACC games, relying on a lineup with three freshmen most of the season has produced challenges.
The Tar Heels have allowed ACC opponents to shoot 43.4 percent against them. They have committed an average of 19.3 turnovers in conference games while forcing just 11.7. They have lost twice at home.
Williams has already removed one freshman, wing Marcus Ginyard, from the starting lineup, saying his defense has declined against stiffer competition. He said there could be more changes today.
Arizona at North Carolina
When: 11 a.m. today
Where: Dean Smith Center, Chapel Hill, N.C.
TV: Ch. 5
Radio: KKNT (960 AM)
Records: Arizona 13-6, North Carolina 11-5