“We’re tired of practicing and we’re ready to play,” head coach Sylvia Hatchell said during Monday’s Media Day press conference.
The Tar Heels return three starters from last season’s ACC Championship squad that finished 34-4 (11-3 in the ACC). Senior Erlana Larkins provides a dominant presence in the post (12.9 points and 9.4 rebounds per game in 2006-07), complimented near perfectly by senior defensive specialist LaToya Pringle (9.7 ppg, 7.5 rpg, 3.2 bpg) and versatile junior wing Rashanda McCants (9.4 ppg, 4.3 rpg).
Hatchell is counting on her nine upperclassmen to harness the experience of back-to-back Final Four appearances, as well as three straight ACC Championships, to guide this team through yet another difficult schedule.
“It’s almost as if you go through the season, and I don’t want to say that every game is not important, but sometimes you say, ‘Okay, let’s play game, let’s get through the regular season, [because] we’re looking forward to tournament time,’” Hatchell said. “It’s hard for teams that go deep every year into the NCAA Tournament not to think that way… You just can’t put a price tag on that experience.”
McCants echoed her coach’s sentiments.
“We have so many veterans on this team,” McCants said. “I think just us being able to go there two years in a row is amazing for us. Especially in terms of going in and expecting things – not as nervous, not as tense. And we’re able to teach the freshmen how to prepare for it as experienced players.”
Therein lies the key to the season, as another Final Four appearance will not materialize unless freshmen points guards Italee Lucas and Cetera DeGraffenreid live up to their billing as McDonald’s All-Americans.
“The freshmen are getting better every day,” Hatchell said. “Early, they’re not going to be as smooth and they won’t be, but I keep telling them, ‘Hey, you’ll make mistakes, but just don’t slow down. Just keep playing hard, give us all of you effort and don’t slow down.’”
Last season, the Tar Heels set single-season school records for field goals (1,174), three-point attempts (719), rebounds (1,721), assists (676), blocks (253), steals (544), points (3,179), scoring margin (28.7) and wins (34). North Carolina also led the nation with 83.7 points per game, and despite losing a four-year starter at point guard in an offensive scheme that demands near-perfect execution from that position, Hatchell wants to push the ball even more.
That goal places a substantial amount of pressure on Lucas and DeGraffenreid, but Hatchell has the luxury of point guard Alex Miller to held guide their development.
The senior hid in the large shadow cast by the diminutive Latta for the past three seasons, and now finds herself in a crucial role, not only in capitalizing during her final year in Chapel Hill, but also in laying the groundwork for the next three classes to come through the program.
“Coach Hatchell always tells me that I’ve got to teach them the game, how to read the game, so I do feel like a mother hen,” Miller said.
For a player that many critics didn’t believe was good enough to run Hatchell’s up-tempo system, this season is full of promise and opportunity.
“It really makes me feel good to see Alex out there doing what we want her to do,” Hatchell said. “I don’t even have to say it lots of times. She just knows what to do. And the fact that we’ve trained her like that – she’s doing things out there and it’s just comes automatic to her. She’s really come a long way.”
In order for her 22nd team at North Carolina to meet her high expectations in pushing the ball up and down the court, Hatchell plans to put two of her three point guards on the floor at all times, which means extra responsibility for one of the rookies.
“One of them has to learn two positions,” Hatchell said. “I don’t know about you, but if you’re a freshman, it’s enough just to learn one position. But for one of them to learn two positions, but that’s even more difficult and they really can get confused.”
Lucas played the No. 2 spot on her AAU squad, earning her a reputation for being a solid three-pointer shooter, so she’s currently been charged with the added responsibility. Miller also played significant minutes at the off-guard position alongside Latta, so the transition to a two point guard system shouldn’t be too difficult for the Heels.
North Carolina opens their ‘07-‘08 campaign against North Carolina Central on Nov. 9 at Carmichael Auditorium.