Not that those expectations seem to faze the Tar Heels. John Henson and Harrison Barnes represented North Carolina at the ACC’s 50th Operation Basketball media event on Wednesday and words such as “relaxed” and “confident” are probably most suitable in describing their interview sessions.
Whether it was Henson talking about motion sickness pills for the Carrier Classic game, Barnes cracking on himself for missing a bunch of shots in his first months on the job or both standouts playing off each other with a discussion on Barnes’s recently acquired driver’s license, it’s clear that the weight of the media’s expectations aren't taking their toll on the ’11-’12 edition of the Tar Heels.
“I think it’s something that comes with the territory,” Barnes said. “I think that started last year. When players come in, they’re aware of that, whether it’s, ‘Oh, this is going to be the worst Carolina team in years,’ or, ‘This is going to be the best Carolina team in years.’
“You’ve got to take that stuff in stride and just go out there and play.”
The media voting results were released during head coach Roy Williams’s 90-minute afternoon interview session. As expected, North Carolina was the overwhelming choice to win the ACC. Barnes, Henson and Tyler Zeller were the top three picks for the Preseason All-Conference Team and Barnes was also selected as the ACC Preseason Player of the Year.
UNC’s three All-Conference picks marks the first time since Duke in ’02 that a school put that many players on the preseason team.
“We should be good this year; I have no problem saying that,” Williams said. “We had a nice run at the end of the year last year - 17-3 against ACC teams or NCAA Tournament teams. Five starters back. Reggie [Bullock] back. Adding James Michael [McAdoo] and P.J. [Hairston]. It’s more experience. We’ve got some things so we should be good. But I’d rather be picked No. 1 than No. 346.”
Last season’s finish – a tough loss to Kentucky in Newark – likely has a role in UNC’s approach in tackling the expectations. Following that defeat, Henson joined teammates Dexter Strickland and Tyler Zeller in having surprisingly positive outlooks on the end of the season
“We proved a lot of people wrong, which is something we always like to do,” Henson said. “Coach always says that’s the best feeling in the world when you can do something that people think you can’t do. That’s what we did last year. It was a tough, tough loss for us. But I think it put a chip on our shoulders for this year to come back and try to win it all.”
The irony this time around is that a majority of the population believes that there is very little this North Carolina squad can’t do, which has helped to create an unfair “championship or bust” mentality in certain circles.
“We’re on the opposite side now,” Henson said. “It’s something that you want. This year we’re expected to do a lot and hopefully we can prove those people right.”
There’s no doubt that things have to fall in place for North Carolina to arrive in New Orleans next April as the favorite to win a sixth national championship and third in eight years.
Kansas was destined to win the ’10 title before flaming out in the second round of the NCAA Tournament and the media tried to hand Duke last year’s title before an injury to Kyrie Irving and his eventual awkward late-season return doomed the Blue Devils’ chances.
The Tar Heels have already lost their top reserve perimeter scorer in Leslie McDonald and tendinitis has plagued top post reserve James Michael McAdoo this offseason. UNC is already approaching its injury limit and the season is still four weeks away.
But if this squad stays healthy and rediscovers a strong dose of the team chemistry that energized this program last winter, then these expectations may not be that lofty after all.
“We’ve got the talent, we’ve got the coaching and we’ve got the platform,” Henson said. “We just have to go out there and do it. That’s the hardest thing to do.”