Gardner-Webb, Cleveland State and UC Santa Barbara were indeed important games – a chance for the team to gain comfort and confidence in the Roy Williams system.
“The first three games were nice,” said freshman Bobby Frasor, the starting point guard. “It’s great to be 3-0 and the team has gotten progressively better.”
But Frasor knows that some of the season’s big question marks will now come to the forefront – and a game against Illinois and then Saturday at No. 10 Kentucky is sure to provide some answers.
Can they outrun, and wear down, an opposing team with elite athletes?
As Williams put it, Illinois all-American point guard Dee Brown is in a league of his own. “They’ve never seen anything like what they’re about to see,” Williams said.
Can the defense realize its potential and become formidable?
“We’re such a young team, we’re trying to find where we are going to be good and try to emphasize that more than anything else,” Williams said. And right now, they are ahead of schedule on the defensive end.
Can Tyler Hansbrough go toe-to-toe (no pun intended regarding his injury) with an all-conference post player like the Illini’s James Augustine? This will be the freshman’s first real test on the high-major level.
“It’s going to be a challenge, but I’m not going to back down from anybody,” Hansbrough said.
Will the Tar Heels find constancy and leadership from the point guard position?
“I feel they're trying as hard as they possible can and trying to do the best that they possibly can and that they are going to eventually be very good for us,” Williams said. In other words, not yet.
At least in interviews, the players are sounding both eager and poised.
“This is what we came to Carolina for – to play big-time games like this,” Frasor said.
Hansbrough added, “It’s time for us to play some really hard competition and see what we’re about. I’m looking forward to it.”
Though, make no mistake, there will be some nervous moments for the new faces who have now been thrust into the Tar Heel spotlight. The key will be how long it takes for the nerves to wear off.
“There’s nothing you can say [to prevent the nerves],” Noel said. “The first time in a big time atmosphere like this, you can say ‘Calm down,’ but you know they are going to be nervous.
“You just have to let them play and that’s something we’re going to do. We’re going to prepare them so they know the entire game plan. Just let their nerves calm down after the ball is tipped.”
And then there’s also the matter of addressing the doubters.
“We never really talk about it, but it probably is in the back of everybody’s minds,” Frasor said. “Just to come out and show we belong with the best teams in the country.”
In this week’s poll, UNC is in 36th place for the AP Top 25 voting and is 31st in the Coaches Poll. That’s probably appropriate considering the Tar Heels’ situation, but there are some who think Carolina doesn’t even have a chance to beat the Illini. “Illinois is sure to serve a cold dish of revenge on the depleted Heels,” says this week’s ESPN The Magazine.
“We’re looking at it as a way to prove ourselves – everyone has kind of written this off as a rebuilding year – but we can hopefully prove ourselves with this game,” Frasor added.
Noel, the veteran team leader, is showing his maturity in trying to keep the team focused.
“We have to concentrate on playing Carolina Basketball the way we know how to play and let everything take care of itself - and once that happens we’ll see where we’re at,” he said.
Wes Miller, on the other hand, is a bit more confident.
“It’s a big time stage,” Miller said. “I think we’re ready for it.”