The losses North Carolina suffered after winning the national championship last season would be enough to stagger any program.
Tyler Hansbrough was the most honored player in the Tar Heels’ storied history. Ty Lawson won the Bob Cousy Award as the nation’s best point guard. Wayne Ellington was the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four. Danny Green played in more victories than any North Carolina player. Bobby Frasor was the Tar Heels’ best defender.
However, North Carolina isn’t a normal program. Coach Roy Williams continually brings in recruiting classes full of high school All-Americans.
Thus, the Tar Heels, ranked No. 6 in The Associated Press’ pre-season poll as they get set to host Florida International and new coach Isiah Thomas in their opener on Monday, are a threat to repeat as national champions. Williams, though, realizes his team will need some things to fall into place if it is to earn a No. 1 seed in a fourth consecutive NCAA Tournament.
“This year, we will probably change the way we play a little bit,” Williams said. “We'll make sure the personnel will still fit what we do. You will see more team play. There will be fewer situations where we move the ball two or three times and then our guy goes ahead and beats his man. That's what we've done the last couple of years. Our guys, if we gave them a little advantage, they could take advantage of that. What we will have to do this year is give our guys a big advantage.
“When I say change the way we play, I don't mean pace of play. There are a lot of different things we can do in a basketball game but slowing the pace is not going to be one of them.”
North Carolina’s 74.0 adjusted tempo was eighth in the nation last season and its 126.0 offensive rating was first. The Tar Heels have only one starter back, but senior forward Deon Thompson did score in double digits a year ago despite ranking fifth on the team in the category, as he averaged 10.7 points, 5.7 rebounds, 0.7 assists and 24.8 minutes.
“Deon is much more prepared to handle a leadership role,” Williams said. “It will be good for him. Sometimes in the past he has gotten too tough on himself but now he can't allow himself just to focus on what he's doing. He can't allow the tough moments to dominate him because he has to be more of a leader. That will help him a great deal.”
Sophomore forward Ed Davis is expected to become a dominating inside force after posting a 6.7/6.6/0.6/18.8 line in his first college season.
“Ed wants to be a complete player,” Williams said. “He doesn't want to be thought of as just a banger and a bruiser, a rebounder and a shot blocker. He knows he has some offensive skills he really wants to improve on and that is what he focused on in the offseason.”
North Carolina will also have senior wing Marcus Ginyard back to serve as its leader after he redshirted last season when he was limited to four games because of a stress fracture in his left foot. Ginyard was a starter on the Tar Heels’ 36-3 team in 2007-08 and will likely play every position but center this season.
“He has enough savvy to handle that,” Williams said. “I think it's a great asset to have someone with Marcus's kind of versatility.”
The Tar Heels’ best player, though, could be freshman forward John Henson, who has been extremely impressive in practice with his inside-outside game.
“John will begin the season on the perimeter as a three and I think he will stay there all season,” Williams said. “He has tremendously long arms and will probably block more shots than any perimeter player in college basketball. With Ed (Davis) and Deon (Thompson), we may block more shots than any team I've ever coached. John has the ability with his length to hurt you inside and also step out and put the ball on the floor or shoot it.”
If Henson emerges into the threat many think then it seems almost certain North Carolina will again be a legitimate contender for the national championship.
“The quality of the kids we have and the eagerness they have is something we are all going to enjoy working with,” Williams said. “I know I am going to enjoy coaching this team because of the character of the kids. They're going to play their tails off when they walk on the court, that’s for certain."
Pitt, Florida Freshmen Start Well
Pittsburgh is in rebuilding mode after losing four starters from a team that made it to the Elite Eight last season. Florida is trying to get back to its former heights as it has followed two national championships with two NIT appearances.
Thus, the Panthers and Gators both had to be encouraged what they saw by top recruits in exhibition games against Division II teams.
Pittsburgh forward Dante Taylor had 27 points and nine rebounds in 23 minutes against Slippery Rock. He made 9 of 11 field-goal attempts coming off the bench.
“He played really well and he’s only going to get better,” Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said.
“He brings a lot of energy,” Panthers forward Nasir Robinson said. “He came in and grabbed rebounds, ran the floor, blocked shots and scored inside for us.”
Florida guard Kenny Boynton had 22 points against St. Leo, including making 5 of 9 shots from three-point range, along with six rebounds, three steals and two assists.
“I was little nervous because it’s a whole different level,” Boynton said. “I feel like a college player now.”
Unlike Taylor, Boynton will be in Florida’s starting lineup.
“Kenny has been playing that way since we started practice,” Gators coach Billy Donovan said after Boynton’s performance against St. Leo.
Taylor and Boynton were both McDonald’s All-Americans last season.
Turner Philosophical About Preseason Honor
Ohio State swingman Evan Turner was upset when he lost out on the Big Ten Player of the Year award to Michigan State guard Kalin Lucas last season. However, Turner wasn’t disappointed this time when Lucas was picked as the conference’s Preseason Player of the Year by the Big Ten coaches.
“It doesn’t go to the best player,” Turner said last season. “It goes to the best player on the best team.”
Turner had a line of 17.3/7.1/4.0/36.4 last season while Lucas’ was 14.7/2.1/4.6/31.9. Lucas did rank 92nd in the nation with a 30.0 assist rate while Turner did not crack the top 300 in any of the Pomeroy statistical categories.
“You can’t stop what happens,” Turner said of being in Lucas’ again at the outset of this season. “You can only control what you can control.”
Here is a look at some pre-season favorites and players of the years in various conference coach and media polls:
- America East--Boston University
- Atlantic 10--Dayton
- Big Sky--Weber State
- Big South--Radford; Artsiom Parakhouski (Radford)
- Big West--Long Beach State
- Colonial--Old Dominion; Charles Jenkins (Hofstra) and Gerald Lee (Old Dominion)
- Conference USA--Jerome Jordan (Tulsa)
- Horizon League--Butler; Matt Howard (Butler)
- Ivy League--Cornell
- MEAC--Morgan State; Michael DeLoach (Morgan State)
- Metro Atlantic--Siena; Ryan Thompson (Rider)
- Mid-American--Akron (East Division), Central Michigan (West Division)
- Missouri Valley--Northern Iowa; Osiris Eldridge (Illinois State)
- Northeast--Mount St. Mary’s
- Ohio Valley--Morehead State and Murray State; Kenneth Faried (Morehead State)
- Patriot League--Holy Cross; Marquis Hill (Lehigh)
- Southland--Stephen F. Austin (East Division), Sam Houston State (West Division)
- Summit League--Oakland; Jonathan Jones (Oakland)
- Sun Belt--Western Kentucky (East Division), North Texas (West Division); AJ Slaughter (Western Kentucky)
- West Coast--Gonzaga
- Western Athletic--Utah State, Luke Babbitt (Nevada)
John Perrotto is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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