Heels learn lessons from big games

The well-played conclusions (Michigan State-Kentucky and Kansas-Duke) of the Hoops Tip-off Marathon on Tuesday night established a barometer for what an elite team should look and play like.

North Carolina is scheduled to play three of those teams (the exception being Kansas, but you know how the NCAA tournament likes to pair the two) and should find out before final exams are over in December where they stack up nationally.

Sophomore guard Marcus Paige said it helped that the Tar Heels learned a lot from playing -- and mostly losing -- big games last season.

“Coach always says you can play the big teams, but you have to beat the big teams,” Paige said. “You have to compete with them -- you can’t just be happy they’re on your schedule because that’s really not going to do anything for you.”

The Tar Heels found out the hard way last season. And the big losses in the big games early crushed their confidence moving into ACC play. Paige said the 83-59 loss to Indiana lingered way longer than it should have.

“The way we lost to Indiana had a lot to do with it,” he said. “We hung with them for the first few minutes, then they turned it up on us, which was kind of a devastating way to lose. We took some other pretty bad losses early in the year -- the Texas game comes to mind. That’s kind of what affected our morale the most.”

Carolina will likely face No. 3 Louisville in the Naismith bracket of the Hall of Fame Tip-Off Tournament in Uncasville, Conn., later this month. And with marquee games against No. 1 Kentucky and No. 2 Michigan State looming in December, Paige said the Heels were more prepared to compete in those games thanks to their experiences last year.

“We’re coming in with a different mindset this year,” Paige said. “We’re really going to go up there, go to Michigan State, go to Connecticut with the mindset that we belong here, we’re going to try to win this game.”

Unlike last season when nonconference losses had the Heels wobbling into the ACC, Paige said this year they could help them navigate the league.

“Seeing that type of competition early is going to give us an idea of what our ACC play is going to be like because the ACC is going to be crazy this year,” Paige said. “Having those tests early on is going to let us know what we really need to do to be an elite team and hopefully help us later in the year.”

Paige added that what will really help the Heels in their marquee games this year was the season-ending loss to the Jayhawks in the 2013 NCAA tournament. That defeat essentially helped them understand the need to stay focused and keep their intensity the entire game.

“That game was a big learning point for us because going into halftime we were pretty happy with the way we played, we were pretty comfortable,” Paige said of Carolina’s lead at the break against the Jayhawks. “Against a proven elite team like Kansas, you can’t get complacent, you can’t let up defensively and you can’t stop attacking. Those are just little things we learned. We thought we had that game won. It was a completely different story in the second half.”