January 10, 2006
CHAPEL HILL -- In a North Carolina basketball season that already has included a huge win at Kentucky and a disappointing loss at Southern California, nothing should come as a surprise to anyone. Not anymore.
Could this UNC team beat Duke, the No. 1 team in the nation? Any objective person who saw the Tar Heels play during their surprising 9-2 start can answer that question with a single word: absolutely. Could this UNC team also lose to Miami or Clemson or Virginia, three teams expected by many to finish in the bottom third of the ACC? Again, absolutely.
Heading into the 2005-06 season, only the second of those two answers seemed obvious. Beat Duke, with Raymond Felton, Sean May, Rashad McCants and Marvin Williams all in the NBA, and with four true freshmen projected among the Heels' top six players? C'mon, get serious.
Well, it's serious now. Carolina's recent 82-69 home victory over N.C. State, a clear-cut NCAA Tournament team, only reinforced what fans had seen earlier in the team's 68-64 loss to Illinois, the 83-79 win at Kentucky, even the 82-58 dismantling of Davidson.
Senior forward David Noel, an unselfish role player for the past three seasons, is an absolute rock at both ends of the floor. Junior forward Reyshawn Terry, while still erratic and a defensive liability, is a talented offensive player. Most importantly, the kids can play.
The four rookies in the rotation -- point guard Bobby Frasor, wing guard Marcus Ginyard, center Tyler Hansbrough and wing forward Danny Green -- won't go down in history as the most talented recruiting class in coach Roy Williams' illustrious career. It's far too early to make a call on such things, but at this point nobody would be completely shocked if Hansbrough was the only one who ended up with a significant career in the NBA.
But the four freshmen undeniably represent one of the things that has made Williams one of the best coaches in college basketball over the last 20 years. They play at a much higher level as a team than their basic talent level suggests that they should.
Frasor, Hansbrough, Ginyard and Green are different in numerous ways, but many of their basketball traits suggest that they're from the same family tree. They're smart, unselfish and coachable, they work extremely hard, and they seem to love playing ball. They're mentally and physically tough. They don't get flustered easily. They don't back down from anything. When they get knocked down, they get up quickly. When they're taught something, they remember it and implement it in ways far more typical of upperclassmen.
Frasor, knocked back by turnovers to start the season, rarely has been flustered and still confidently seeks out the ball in clutch situations. Ginyard plays as if he believes he's an outstanding defender, and he's more right than wrong. Green, as advertised, does nothing exceptionally but almost everything pretty well. Hansbrough simply makes most of his opponents look like freshmen.
It's as if Williams spent a significant part of his time on the recruiting trail last year analyzing prospects in ways that go far beyond pure basketball skills. Everyone was there to see who could pass, shoot, defend, run, jump and dunk. But after most of the other coaches went home, Williams took extra notes, in his own little version of Match.com.
Obviously, he found four good matches.
PHYSICAL CHALLENGES STILL AHEAD
Despite the Tar Heels' early success, nobody can be sure what to expect of them moving forward, especially on the road in the ACC. But one gets the feeling that the team's greatest challenge will be the rookies' ability to fight through the infamous "freshman wall," especially physically, rather than any major complications arising from inadequate effort, toughness, intelligence or poise.
The N.C. State victory illustrated the point. In front of a fired-up home crowd, against a veteran Wolfpack team, Carolina fell behind 11-0 in the opening minutes. Williams refused to call a timeout, and the players didn't even bother looking over at the bench, because they knew it wasn't coming. They didn't panic. They kept working. They persevered.
Frasor, matched against savvy veterans Tony Bethel and Engin Atsur, overcame a slow start personally to finish with a career-high 17 points, 15 in the second half. Frasor is not exceptionally athletic, his shot isn't pretty, and his overall game doesn't fit the mold of the typical (super-quick, great handle) UNC point guard. But he's strong, mentally and physically, and -- like the other rookies -- he's a much better defender than most first-year players.
Hansbrough, UNC's only consistent scoring threat in the post, faced a State lineup led by 6-9 center Cedric Simmons, 6-10 forward Andrew Brackman and 6-7 forward Ilian Evtimov. Against all odds, Hansbrough (team-high 20 points, four rebounds, two assists, two steals) had yet another outstanding game, and he stayed out of foul trouble while sending Simmons (four fouls) to the bench for several long stretches.
Prior to his arrival in Chapel Hill, Hansbrough had the reputation of someone who would run through a brick wall to make a basket or grab a rebound, and he's completely lived up to his advance billing. Overall, his ability to avoid the typical signs (nervousness, lack of aggression, loss of focus, dumb plays) of freshman players ranks with some of the top performers in Carolina basketball history.
Hansbrough already has proven to be an incredibly mature, smart college player. In the preseason, Williams told his young center that he needed to temper some of his natural aggression defensively, because UNC couldn't afford to have its only reliable big man in foul trouble. Check. In recent practices, Hansbrough spent a lot of time working on his passes out of the inevitable double-teams in the post. Check. Before the NCSU game, he felt uneasy about his free throws, so he practiced his stroke repeatedly on his own time. He then hit all 14 of his attempts from the line against the Wolfpack. Check.
Perhaps in an attempt to protect the freshmen for the long haul ahead, especially Hansbrough (28 minutes per game) and Frasor (27), Williams continues to play a deep bench. Against the Wolfpack, in a game that was tied with about three minutes remaining, nine players finished with double-digit minutes.
Only Noel (34.1), an absolutely incredible athlete, is above 28 minutes per game on the season. He was the only one (with 39) who played more than 27 minutes against the Pack.
Off the bench, junior wing guard Wes Miller (17.9), sophomore point guard Quentin Thomas (14.4) and senior center Byron Sanders (14.0) continue to have just as many bad moments as good ones. But they've eaten up enough time and done enough positive things to keep too much of the burden from falling on Frasor and Hansbrough, and that in itself is a very important contribution to the team.