Friday November 20th, 2009

NEW YORK -- About an hour before Thursday's game against No. 15 Ohio State at Madison Square Garden, North Carolina shooting guard Marcus Ginyard posted a three-word message on his Twitter account:

"talk is cheap"

His sixth-ranked Tar Heels went on to win, 77-73, holding off a late Buckeyes rally, but Ginyard, when asked about his Tweet, grew cagey and looked down at the locker room floor. "You know what?" he said. "I'm going to take this opportunity not to elaborate on that."

Luckily, fellow senior Deon Thompson was within earshot, and was less interested in discretion.

"I know exactly who was talking," he said, still giddy from a game in which he had 15 points and 12 rebounds. "If you'll run it up, I'll tell you everything."

And so he did: Over the summer, while playing on USA Basketball's World University Games team that won a bronze medal in Serbia, Thompson became friends with Evan Turner, Ohio State's 6-foot-7 junior point guard. They kept in touch over text messages, and in September, during the Ohio State-USC football game (Thompson is a SoCal kid who was watching the Trojans), began exchanging good-natured jabs about their impending meeting at Madison Square Garden, in the 2K Sports College Hoops Classic semifinals.

"[Turner] was telling Marcus" -- Ginyard, the Heels' designated defensive stopper, who redshirted their 2008-09 national title season to recover from a stress fracture in his left foot -- "that he should strap up, and be ready to guard," Thompson said. "So Marcus showed up, and I think he played great on Evan."

Thompson's assessment was accurate. Turner had been the nation's best player through two games, posting a triple-double in the Buckeyes' opener against Alcorn State (with 14 points, 17 rebounds and 10 assists), and then a double-double against James Madison (24 points, 17 rebounds, 4 assists). Ginyard showed up on Thursday, and made it his personal mission to drive Turner nuts, hounding him into committing a career-high 10 turnovers. "You try," Ginyard said, "to make him uncomfortable as possible."

Turner got his triple-double (23 points, 12 rebounds, and those 10 giveaways against just four assists) but had to claw for every bucket, and seemed too flustered, at times, to establish any kind of offensive flow in his role as floor general. The Buckeyes fell behind 38-24 at halftime, and trailed 55-36 with 10:02 left in the game, before mounting their unsuccessful late charge.

In the locker room following the Tar Heels' previous game, an 88-77 win over Valparaiso on Sunday that was far too close for coach Roy Williams' liking, he gave Ginyard a reaming in front of the entire team -- "probably," the coach said, "the hardest I've ever gotten on him." Ginyard had five turnovers and zero rebounds in that game, and Williams told him, "You've got to play better if you're going to be the leader of this team."

North Carolina entered this season in an extremely uncertain state, having lost starting point guard Ty Lawson, shooting guard Wayne Ellington, small forward Danny Green and center Tyler Hansbrough from their title squad -- a crew that accounted for 69.9 percent of their offense. The Tar Heels had enough talent and size to warrant a top-10 preseason ranking, so it's difficult to call 2009-10 a "rebuilding" year. It's more of a season in which Williams has been forced to alter his team's identity, from that of a high-speed offensive juggernaut into a long, athletic defensive squad that might win more games in the 70s than it will in the 90s.

UNC won ugly on Thursday, scoring just four fast break points -- an insanely low number for a Williams team -- and turning the ball over 19 times (against 17 assists). But the Heels also held the Buckeyes to 42.6 percent shooting, and just 28.6 percent from beyond the arc. "In the past, the teams that I've been on, our offense always carried our defense," Thompson said. "But this team's identity can be its defense carrying its offense."

Their length -- with the 6-8 Thompson, 6-10 Ed Davis, 6-10 John Henson, 6-10 David and Travis Wear, and 7-footer Tyler Zeller -- will be a big part of their success stifling opposing offenses.

But Ginyard, their 6-5 leader on the perimeter, is the one who set their defensive tone. He finished with 13 points, two assists and just one turnover, and it was fitting that the play he was most pleased with on Thursday wasn't the clutch three he hit with 1:34 left in the game, to put the Heels up 11. It was the charge he'd taken on Turner at the 11:31 mark of the first half, sending an early message to Ohio State's All-America candidate that he wouldn't have free reign to drive to the rim.

After the ref's whistle, Ginyard hopped up and began skipping toward Carolina's bench for a timeout huddle, with a huge grin on his face. But he didn't say a word.

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