North Carolina’s 2009 team left behind an NCAA title trophy, a retired jersey and an impressive legacy. The 2009-10 squad now gets to follow that act.
For seventh-year head coach Roy Williams, the 2009-10 North Carolina basketball season will not begin with the first game (against Florida International on Nov. 9).
Or with the first exhibition, or even with Late Night with Roy.
This season began long before any of that, with a conversation and a conclusion.
Actually it was an extended series of conversations with no players, no opponents and no wives. Williams and his staff took a three-day retreat for some uninterrupted discussion about defending his team’s latest national championship.
“We talked for 18 hours, just basketball, and the biggest conclusion was: We don’t know,” Williams said. “We don’t know what we have.”
It might be uncertain exactly what the Tar Heels have this year, but it is glaringly obvious what they do not have. All you’ll have to do is look up into the rafters for a reminder.
“For the last four years, one thing that we did come to expect was that Tyler (Hansbrough) was going to get after it harder than anybody else out there,” senior Marcus Ginyard said.
Replacing a guy that the folks at The Sporting News named college basketball’s athlete of the decade will be a tall task for UNC’s post. In fact, the Tar Heels haven’t even gotten accustomed to his absence.
“I actually keep looking for him,” Williams said. “You know, where’s Waldo? Where’s Tyler?”
Hansbrough isn’t the only Tar Heel gone M.I.A. UNC is also missing Final Four Most Outstanding Player Wayne Ellington, an excellent defender and 3-point shooter in Danny Green and the catalyst to the 2009 title, Ty Lawson.
All in all, nearly 75 percent of UNC’s scoring from a year ago has been erased. That leaves some pretty large shoes to fill.
It is a scenario that begs comparison to the 2006 team, which was charged with the similar task of defending a national championship without its four best players from the year before.
But upon a closer look, there is a major difference between 2010 and 2006. In ’06, it wasn’t just that Williams and the Tar Heels didn’t quite know what they had; they hardly even knew who they had.
Their most dependable returning player was a forward — David Noel — who averaged 3.9 points per game, and nobody else had logged any crunch-time minutes. The result was three freshmen named Marcus, Tyler and Bobby starting in their very first collegiate game.
Ginyard, the only player to be in Chapel Hill for both title defenses, said the team is better equipped this time around.
“It’s definitely a completely different situation,” Ginyard said. “There’s no doubt that there’s a lot of pieces missing from last year’s team, just as there was from the 2005 team. But there’s no question we are returning more contributors to this team from the national championship last year.”
For this year’s Tar Heels, the uncertainty is less fundamental and therefore more complex.
Sure, they return two senior leaders in Ginyard and Deon Thompson. But one hasn’t participated in a real game since early January, and the other one has never been top dog.
And sure, North Carolina’s got a seven-footer who can run the floor. But Tyler Zeller missed 13 weeks with a broken wrist and, justifiably, appeared lost upon his return midway through the ACC slate.
The best returning shooter was suspended from the team in early February for violating team rules and had to watch from the bench as his teammates stormed through the NCAA Tournament.
And the guy slated to direct all of these parts from the crucial point guard spot might be the biggest question mark of them all, as he looked overwhelmed as a backup in his first year.
“Previous teams before, you kind of could look and see what you were going to get,” Thompson said. “You could see how the team was going to score, how they could get defense, where the points are going to come from.
“But with this team you just don’t know. It’s just ’cause it’s so wide open, and so many different types of talents and different types of players.”
But wait, how can there be this many question marks on a team that all the experts are still expecting to be among the top five or 10 teams in the nation?
Well, that same question has Williams baffled this preseason.
“I picked up three magazines and we’re (Nos.) 4, 4 and 5. That was where I would expect us to be picked in our league, and that’s where we were picked in the nation.
“So I told our kids, it’s probably because we made everybody look so bad in 2006, that they don’t want to get caught that way again.”
The real basis for the preseason hype is probably a little more concrete than that. It’s likely because for every question mark North Carolina has, it’s also got its fair share of exclamation points.
Forward Ed Davis was projected to be a top-five pick in the NBA Draft, but he elected to return for his sophomore season, and he spent the summer working on improving his inside scoring.
Ginyard was able to overcome his injury and some taunts about his old age to be what Williams called “the star of the show” in the offseason fitness tests. He worked on his outside shooting stroke during the offseason, which, if improved, would make him a much more complete player.
And Larry Drew II said he’s approaching the season with more confidence in a role that he knows is his to lose.
Plus, there are three very talented freshman bigs who are champing at the bit to get on the court. And they know that their older teammates have been to the promised land.
“You just lead by example, people will follow,” Thompson said.
“I’m definitely going to bring the effort every day on the court, in the weight room. But definitely just being more vocal … on a team like this one with so many younger guys that are willing to listen to someone that’s older.”
This rare mix of returning talent and nagging uncertainty makes this preseason unique.
So where will the points come from this year for the Tar Heels? Will Drew take care of the ball? Can freshman John Henson be effective on the perimeter? Can Will Graves be both effective and reliable? Does UNC even have a true shooting guard?
The truth is, Williams was right. The biggest conclusion that can be made about these Tar Heels is that it’s too early to know.
But that only leaves room to learn as the season begins.
“I think it’s very exciting,” Ginyard said. “One because yeah, we don’t know. But two, we know we’re good enough to get it done.”
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