North Carolina was picked to repeat as Atlantic Coast Conference Champions at the ACC’s Operation Basketball event in Atlanta on Sunday, earning a unanimous first-place selection thanks in part to Preseason Player of the Year Tyler Hansbrough.
But the Tar Heel hype extends beyond the ACC, as many national media outlets have UNC as the heavy favorite to cut down the nets in Detroit, Mich., next April at the Final Four. Some observers have even suggested that North Carolina could run the table – a feat that hasn’t been accomplished since Indiana did it in 1976.
Sixth-year head coach Roy Williams contends that an undefeated jaunt is outside the realm of plausibility.
“We’ve got to do our job every single day, and at the end of the year, we’ll add it up and see what it is,” Williams said. “But I’m going to put myself in a boat that says we have to do this. Some of you have heard me say this before, but if we don’t win a national championship and all of a sudden I’m lying on the concrete right outside the Smith Center, don’t think I jumped, because somebody pushed me.”
Being favored to win the league title is one thing, but facing 5:2 odds in Vegas to win the national championship is quite another. For a roster that combines a rare triumvirate of traits in experience, depth and talent, the pressure that comes along with such talk is just another normal day in Chapel Hill.
“We kind of shut it out a little bit, but we also use it as motivation,” forward Danny Green told reporters on Sunday. “But we get that every year. The high expectations come with the territory. You come to North Carolina because of the high expectations and the games that we play in… That’s why you come here – you want to win.”
North Carolina posted a 36-3 record last season, winning the ACC Championship and making a Final Four appearance along the way. The top-six scorers return, including the entire starting five, Williams has added three McDonald’s All-Americans to the fold with guard Larry Drew, forward Ed Davis and center Tyler Zeller.
Williams will endure the difficult, yet highly enviable, task of feeding so many able mouths, but junior guard Wayne Ellington believes that a faster tempo will allow more than enough playing time for everyone on the roster.
“We have the potential to be a very fast team,” Ellington said. “In order to do that, we’ve got to play even harder defensively. If we play harder defensively, we get more turnovers and that creates more possessions for us. And that allows us to want to come out of game and take a blow, which creates more playing time for other guys.”
But just because the media pundits are doing their best to award the Tar Heels the national championship before the season even begins, that doesn’t mean UNC’s conference opponents plan to throw in their towels before January arrives.
“Every team has a weakness,” said Wake Forest forward L.D. Williams, when asked about North Carolina’s deficiencies. “I can’t sit here and point them out. Coach Williams knows what his team needs to improve on, but you just have to play hard and play smart and the rest will take care of itself.”
The junior Demon Deacon acknowledged that UNC’s strength was in its revved-up transition game, but he suggested that getting back on defense while attacking offensively – similar to Louisville’s and Kansas’ approach in the NCAA Tournament last spring – provides is a possible blueprint to knock North Carolina from the ranks of the unbeatens.
Duke forward Gerald Henderson pointed to a preseason publication that featured Hansbrough on the cover when asked about the Tar Heels’ strengths, but the junior admitted that he’s not sure that North Carolina has any weaknesses. But that doesn’t mean that UNC is guaranteed the ACC title, much less the national crown.
“There’s too many good teams to overlook anybody,” Henderson said. “They won the title last year, but it’s a new season. The same faces are around here, but there a lot of new guys coming into this league, guys have gotten a lot better over the summer and teams have gotten better… If we had won it last year, we wouldn’t look at it as defending our title. It’s a new year, it’s a different situation, and you have to go get it again.”
Just as the Tar Heels topped the ACC preseason rankings on Sunday, they will undoubtedly open the season ranked No. 1 in both national polls. Such lofty praise will magnify every little mistake, as well as leading opponents to circle the UNC game on their schedule in hopes of knocking off the highly-touted squad out of Chapel Hill.
Which is just the way Roy Williams and his boys want it.