Roy Williams has North Carolina playing its best basketball at the right time. The Tar Heels have won seven straight games and are 18-7 overall heading into Thursday night's showdown against arch rival Duke in Chapel Hill. CBS Sports Network and CBSSports.com's Jon Rothstein sat down with Williams to discuss North Carolina's recent run, Marcus Paige's emergence, and what the Tar Heels need to do to continue to play at a high level moving forward.
Jon Rothstein, CBSSports.com: Your team has won seven straight games in the ACC and eight of nine. But what was the message to your team when you were 0-3 in league play after you lost to Syracuse on 1/11?
Roy Williams: We just talked all year and it sounds corny, but the entire season we've talked about just trying to get better. We had a lot of adversity and a lot of junk going on early and all of a sudden we're playing games and we've still got all of that hanging over us every day. We were trying to get better. We said we needed to get better. And I told our guys that the one thing we can bring each and every day is a great sense of urgency. We were too cautious, too sensitive, too tentative. On both the offensive and defensive end, we've had much better attention to detail and that's been one of the biggest reasons why we've able to play well lately.
CBSSports.com: The non-conference portion of your schedule was extremely unique. You lost to Belmont and UAB but also beat Kentucky, Louisville, and won a game at Michigan State. Had you ever gone through anything like that before as a coach?
Williams: We've had some pretty difficult schedules here in the 10 years I've been here. We've been ranked in the Top 20 in schedules since I've been here. I looked at the schedule early in the year and said, "Wow." I said to myself, "We're going to play all these teams before the ACC and we're going to play Duke twice." The guys were really excited to play teams like Louisville, Michigan State, and Kentucky. They were fired up for that, but the other games took us to the other side of things. There was a lot of highs and lows.
CBSSports.com: What was it like trying to build a team on a daily basis with the uncertainty surrounding P.J. Hairston's status constantly hanging over your program?
Williams: The uncertainty was a problem. Our kids did a great job of staying away from it as did our staff. When it hit, it wasn't a good time. He was our best player in practice every day and he was a great teammate. We kept thinking we'd eventually get him back. We said to ourselves, "OK, we'll be without P.J. for a few games but we'll eventually get him back". All of a sudden we didn't have him at all. It was a tough time because he's a great kid and he's obviously a heck of a player. He had  points in a D-League game the other day.
CBSSports.com: Do you still talk to P.J. now?
Williams: Yes. He was coming back this past weekend during the All-Star break but he was chosen to participate in the three-point shootout for the D-League. We still talk.
CBSSports.com: When it was announced that P.J. wouldn't be returning to your team, Marcus Paige really emerged and stood out as the player that immediately became your go-to scorer. What's allowed him to embrace that role and be one of the more improved players in college basketball?
Williams: I think a lot of guys if they're good players get better from their freshman to sophomore year. Marcus fits that bill. I said last year that he was going to be really good. In the second half of last year, he made a lot of big shots in big games. He gained significant weight in the offseason and that's very important when you're as little as he is. He's a tough competitor. He's focused on being a good player. He doesn't do anything casually. He's always locked in. He's also got some talent. At first he was trying to do a lot until P.J. got here and then he realized P.J. wasn't coming back and he knew had to do even more. He's been great for us.
CBSSports.com: Sometimes when we watch a first-year guy play as a reserve on a really good team, he probably becomes overrated as a veteran. Is that the case with James Michael-McAdoo?
Williams: It's been unfair. The expectations were so far out there. It was very unrealistic to expect somebody to do what people expected him to do. He played at a very small Christian school and he was a volume shooter. Now all of a sudden he's playing against very talented players every day and it's different. When he was a freshman and John Henson got hurt, James did a great job but he also had Harrison Barnes, Tyler Zeller, and Kendall Marshall next to him. That makes a big difference. James did a great job when John (Henson) was hurt and he was also a valuable reserve when John came back but the landscape was different. The defense was focused on other players and he could play off that a little bit. But make no mistake about it, he's been the catalyst for this run here. He's played so much harder. He's been driven. He's been the leader of this team.
CBSSports.com: Did you think this team would be able to be at the point it's at now considering everything it has gone through?
Williams: I never try to predict or look down at our schedule and say we can lose this game or win this game. I didn't have expectations except for one, and that was if we played together and stayed focused all at the same time, we'd have a chance to be a pretty good basketball team. I thought a year ago we would have Reggie Bullock, P.J. Hairston, and Marcus Paige on the perimeter and I thought that trio would have been good enough to match up with anyone in the country. But it didn't work out that way and I like the group we have now. We've responded.
CBSSports.com: How does the challenge of rallying a team like you had to do this year compare to the challenge of being one of the favorites to win the national title like you've been in past seasons?
Williams: I like that other one better (laughs). There's no question. We've had some teams in the past where I knew we were going to win by 30 or win by two. But this has been a fun team. We've had a nice run. Every day we're coming to practice looking to work hard and get better. It's been a fun team to be around.
CBSSports.com: You're playing arguably your best basketball of the season heading into Thursday night's game against Duke. What's it going to take to continue that against the Blue Devils and moving forward after that?
Williams: Duke is one of the top four or five teams in the country. They shoot the ball so well from three and we don't. They might make 10 three-point shots a game and we don't make near that. We have to hope that something happens where everything aligns with the stars and the moon and they can miss some of those shots. Then we need to guard them at high level as well so they can miss some of those shots. They're a big-time team and have all the pieces a team needs to be successful. We're going to have to be at our very best to have a chance to win.