CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Shortly after his team’s 82-77 victory over Kentucky, Roy Williams sat before a gaggle of reporters and chuckled.
Someone had just asked the North Carolina coach if his team won because it “bullied” the Wildcats. Williams hardly saw it that way.
“We barely look good going through an airport,” he said. “I don’t want a street fight with anyone, my gosh.”
The wisecrack drew a few snickers, but for the most part, it was way off base. Or at the very least misleading.
North Carolina wasn’t the bigger or stronger team Saturday.
But it was clearly the tougher one.
The trio of victories—each school has been ranked in the Top Three at some point this year—are impressive on their own. But the manner in which they came is what makes North Carolina the most surprising story of the 2013-14 season to date.
|(3) Louisville||93-84||Nov. 24|
|(1) Michigan State||79-65||Dec. 4|
|(11) Kentucky||82-77||Dec. 14|
After opening the year with the bark of a poodle, the Tar Heels are playing like a pack of junkyard dogs.
“We had a few letdowns early,” guard J.P. Tokoto said. “Now we’re getting deeper into our schedule against better better competition. Our mentality is ‘We better bring it or we’re going to get embarrassed.’
“We’re not going to scare or intimidate anybody. But we’re going to outplay you.”
On Saturday that meant creating enough havoc to rattle Kentucky into 17 turnovers that resulted in 22 points. It meant face-guarding 260-pound All-American candidate Julius Randle and limiting him to just 11 points on nine shots, most of which were forced.
It meant outscoring the bulkier Wildcats 38-34 in the paint. UNC lost the rebounding battle 44-32, but it made up for it by outhustling Kentucky for loose balls under the basket.
So irritated was Calipari with his team’s unraveling that he waved off a halftime interview with ESPN as he stormed to the locker room.
“They came at us physically,” Calipari said. “We couldn’t get open on the wings. They fought us in the post. We couldn’t even throw post passes. They took us out of stuff just by being physical and denying.
“They’re short-handed, but Roy had them ready to play.”
Indeed, North Carolina continues to operate without its top player, P.J. Hairston, and key reserve Leslie McDonald, both of whom are facing eligibility issues with the NCAA. The Tar Heels looked bewildered in their absence early in the season, dropping games against Belmont and UAB while squeaking by against Holy Cross and Richmond.
During one broadcast, ESPN color commentator Fran Fraschilla expressed doubt that the Tar Heels would even make the NCAA tournament.
“People wrote us off,” guard Marcus Paige said. “But Coach Williams is a resilient guy. He doesn’t care what other people think. He coaches us through adversity.”
Williams has plenty of marquee moments on his Hall of Fame resume. At Kansas he won more games in the 1990s than any coach in America. He captured NCAA titles with two completely different groups of players at North Carolina and has produced enough first-round draft picks to fill multiple NBA rosters.
But if his current crop of Tar Heels continue at this pace it will be one of the defining moments of Williams’ career. In a matter of weeks, he’s completely reshaped what appeared to be a lackluster squad.
To give guys like Brice Johnson, Kennedy Meeks and Joel James more time down low, Williams is playing power forward James Michael McAdoo more on the wing. He responded with 20 points Saturday. Tokoto (15 points) has shifted to shooting guard from small forward.
The biggest difference, though, is the mentality with which the Tar Heels are playing. No one will ever confuse North Carolina with a bruising, punishing team like Michigan State, Kansas or Louisville. Especially not in the paint. That’s never been the calling card of a Williams-coached team.
Still, the Tar Heels carry themselves with a noticeable swagger, an edge that had been absent in the locker room for more than a year.
What has been North Carolina's most impressive win this season?
“This team is more mentally tough,” said Paige, a sophomore. “Part of that comes from myself and James Michael (a junior) playing a bunch of minutes, having a lot of experience and helping these young guys get through it.
“We’re staying together through adversity better than last year’s group. As a team, we don’t fold.”
That was especially the case Saturday with Paige, who scored 21 of his 23 points after intermission. North Carolina shot 57 percent in the second half against a Kentucky squad that entered the season ranked No. 1.
The Wildcats, who boast six McDonald’s All-Americans, are now 8-3.
“My hope was that we would be the best team in the last 12 years,” Calipari said. “Reality says until they get knocked in the teeth a couple of times ...
“We’ve got a long way to go.”
So, too, does North Carolina. As well as the Tar Heels are playing, there is still plenty of room for improvement, especially if Hairston and McDonald return. Even if they don’t, North Carolina has given its fans plenty of reasons to dream big about the rest of the season.
“We’re still working on figuring out exactly who we are,” Paige said. “But we see ourselves as a team that can really make some noise later in the year.”
Not that they haven’t made plenty already.
Jason King covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JasonKingBR.