Practice?

We’re talking about practice, man.

And there just isn’t much time available to do it at this point in the college basketball season.

Sure, teams still do their work between games. But with a schedule that has them playing twice a week with a mandatory day off for rest and recuperation, they end up doing more preparing than practicing.

That’s what made the past few days so important for coach Hubert Davis and North Carolina.

While everyone else in the ACC was beating up on one another, the 10th-ranked Tar Heels were benefiting from an open date in their league schedule. The absence of a midweek game gave them a chance to regroup and work on getting their mojo back before turning the corner into the home stretch of the regular season and ACC Tournament.

“One of the things I’m excited about this week, not having a midweek game, is that for the first time in a long time, we can actually practice as opposed to practicing for preparation for a particular opponent,” Davis said during the ACC’s weekly coaches conference call Monday.

The break couldn’t have come at a better time.

After running off 10 straight wins, administering an emphatic beatdown of rival Duke and rising as high as No. 3 in the national polls, UNC has suddenly hit a plateau.

The Tar Heels have seen their 2-game lead in the ACC evaporate into a 1st-place tie with the Blue Devils by going just 3-3 in their past 6 games.

Some of that lull can probably be chalked up to the kind of lapses that often happen to teams that can’t wait for the regular season to end and March to finally arrive. But motivational issues are only part of the reason for their regression from Final Four favorite to just another face in the crowd.

A much more tangible and troubling aspect is their significant drop-off on defense.

They didn’t allow more than 70 points in any of those 10 straight victories between Dec. 20 against Oklahoma in Charlotte and Jan. 27 at Florida State. Since then, they’ve given up at least 70 in each, with 4 of the 6 opponents topping the 80-point mark.

UNC’s opponents shot just 36.5% from the floor and 24.9% from beyond the 3-point arc during the winning streak. Those numbers have ballooned to 45.6% and 33.8% in the past 6 games. That includes a blistering 62.5% performance in a loss at Syracuse in which the Orange went 8-of-17 from distance.

Although they showed some signs of improvement in last Saturday’s 96-81 win against Virginia Tech, a game in which they held the Hokies to just 1-of-12 shooting from 3-point range in the 2nd half, there’s no secret as to what was at the top of Davis’ agenda during the past week of practice.

“In that 10-game stretch I thought we were really locked in, particularly halfcourt defending without fouling, finishing possessions with a rebound, protecting the paint and also protecting the 3,” Davis said. “Those are things we’ve talked about as a team that we’ve got to get back to. It’s just being more consistent and sound from a fundamental standpoint.”

Davis also suggested that his players need to have more of what former coach Roy Williams used to call “want to.” That means getting back in transition, anticipating and rotating to help cut off drives to the rim – regardless of where they originate – and most important, winning their individual 1-on-1 matchups.

“I feel like at times that has broken down a little,” he said.

The Tar Heels can ill afford those kinds of breakdowns in their first game back from their mid-schedule break on Saturday. The progress they made during the past week of practice will be tested immediately when they travel to Charlottesville to take on Virginia.

John Paul Jones Arena hasn’t been a friendly place for UNC. The Heels have lost 8 straight there since their last victory in 2012. And they have scored more than 50 points only once in their 3 most recent visits.

With the Cavaliers and their pack line defense once again leading the ACC in scoring and field goal percentage, defense will be the key to finally escaping with a victory, hanging onto at least a share of the league lead and building momentum toward the rapidly approaching postseason.

“I think we kind of got our groove back in terms of our defensive mindset,” ACC Player of the Year frontrunner RJ Davis said of the Virginia Tech game. “It was in the gaps, it was talking, getting through screens and the help side was there. I think this is definitely something we can improve on going into the bye week, where we can catch our breath a little bit.”

And practice, man.

Practice.