December 5, 2006
CHAPEL HILL -- When North Carolina basketball coach Roy Williams landed a six-man recruiting class last year that some experts called one of the best of all-time, the questions came quickly.
Could the Tar Heels really, in just one year, go from being a shorthanded underdog to the ACC favorite and a serious contender for the Final Four? Are the freshmen really that good? If so, which returning players will be left out of the rotation? Will that hurt team chemistry?
"Everybody's worried about (the playing time issue) but me, because the character of these kids is so good," Williams said. "I'm not going to go into a game with a list of who is going to play and how much. I'm going to go by the seat of my pants. That's what coaching is."
About a month into the 2006-07 season, UNC had provided more answers to the questions above. In almost every case, the news was good -- very good.
After back-to-back home victories over Ohio State (98-89) and Kentucky (75-63), the Tar Heels were 6-1 and working their way back toward a top-five national ranking after an early loss to Gonzaga (82-74). The top freshmen looked great, most of the returnees looked good, and there were no signs of dissension.
With a remaining pre-ACC schedule of High Point, UNC Asheville, Florida Atlantic, at St. Louis, Rutgers, Dayton and Penn, Carolina has a great chance of being 13-1 heading into its Jan. 7 conference opener against Florida State at the Smith Center.
"If this team loses, it's going to be because somebody beat us," Williams said. "It's not going to be because we didn't work. It's not going to be because they were not serious enough about it. It's not going to be because somebody just screwed it up. It's going to be because the other team beat us."
The UNC freshmen (see pages 14-19), led by point guard Ty Lawson, wing guard Wayne Ellington and power forward Brandan Wright, had a lot to do with the team's early success. Score another one for the recruiting gurus; the three rookies were ranked No. 1 at their respective positions coming out of high school, and their performances thus far in Chapel Hill definitely justify those rankings.
Even with the team's other three freshmen either redshirting (wing forward William Graves) or serving in limited roles (big men Deon Thompson and Alex Stepheson), of course, Williams has a tremendous number of options this season. Through seven games, nine players averaged 11 or more minutes per game.
One clear sign that the top freshmen have earned Williams' respect is that, through seven games, they ranked among the top five Tar Heels in minutes per game. Wright (26.7 minutes per game) and Ellington (24.7) started every contest. Lawson (21.4) started twice and, like his classmates, was on the floor for lots of crucial moments late in close games.
So, who from last season has lost minutes because of this influx of talent? The short answer is everyone. Perhaps by design, the UNC coaches have sliced minutes from every veteran, but almost everyone who was in the regular rotation last season is averaging double-digit minutes again this year.
Among the team's 13 scholarship players -- remember, that's the maximum number the NCAA allows in men's basketball -- only Graves, sophomore power forward Mike Copeland and junior point guard Quentin Thomas have been left out in the cold.
Graves, a top-75 signee with pro basketball aspirations, accepted Williams' preseason pitch, that he will be much better in his fifth year at UNC than he possibly could have been in his first. Copeland, a very late and completely unheralded in-state addition prior to last season, signed with the Tar Heels with the full knowledge that he would face an uphill battle for playing time.
Thomas, then, is the only real playing-time casualty. (He averaged 12 minutes in 2005-06 but is the third point guard this season.) Many were surprised that he returned to Chapel Hill, considering the roster situation. Indeed, he explored the possibility of transferring this summer but ultimately decided against it. Thomas played only 20 minutes through seven games this season, and sources said he has made additional transfer inquiries this fall.
MILLER, GREEN IN REDUCED ROLES
Otherwise, Williams has managed to cut players' minutes in mostly small increments -- two minutes per game here, four minutes there. Maybe that's why just about everyone still seems pretty happy, including Williams, who's fast approaching his 500th career victory.
"I still love working with the kids," Williams said. "I still love working with the guys on the court, trying to get everybody on the same page -- mentally and physically, seeing their improvement, pushing them harder than they are comfortable pushing themselves."
Sophomore center Tyler Hansbrough has dropped from 30.4 to 29.6 minutes per game this season, which is probably a good thing. Sophomore point guard Bobby Frasor has dropped from 27.5 to 17.4, but that's mostly because of an injured foot that limited his minutes in November.
The other full-time starter, senior wing forward Reyshawn Terry, has dropped from 24.2 to 21.6 minutes per game. His status will be very interesting to watch this season, because UNC historically reveres its seniors, but Terry -- while still a good three-point shooter and a solid rebounder -- continues to make far more mental mistakes than one would expect from an upperclassman.
Williams repeatedly emphasized in the preseason that he didn't think this year's team would be susceptible to chemistry problems because he likes the character and unselfishness of his players. "Sacrifice" was another word he used regularly in the preseason. It's one used often by his players, too.
"We have a lot of guys that can get it done," Terry said. "I just have to find my fit, just being that senior leader, just making some sacrifices for the team. I don't have a problem doing that."
Senior wing guard Wes Miller, a former walk-on who had to give up his scholarship this season because of the crowded roster situation, has taken the biggest hit among the players who remain in UNC's rotation. After starting 16 games and averaging 22.9 minutes last season, he is coming off the bench and averaging 13.3 minutes.
Miller remains the ultimate specialist. His greatest strength is three-point shooting, and he knows it. This season, 20 of his first 21 field goal attempts were from beyond the arc. He hit 44.1 percent of his threes last season, but only 35 percent so far this year. Defenses know his strengths at this point, too.
This UNC team has a bunch of capable three-point shooters, with Frasor, Lawson and Terry above 40 percent so far and Ellington at 35 percent. Miller likely will continue to play regularly, though, because Williams also loves his attitude, work ethic, solid ball-handling and energetic defense.
Sophomore wing forward Danny Green also has felt the squeeze in 2006-07, as his minutes have fallen from 15.3 to 11.3 per game. He continues to be a solid all-around player who does just about everything pretty well, but the wing positions are by far the most crowded on the team, and Green's shaky man-to-man defense probably will prevent him from passing Terry for a starting spot.
Sophomore wing guard Marcus Ginyard also has seen his minutes cut, but only from 19.1 to 17.4 per game. He may end up being an extremely good fit for this UNC team, because he doesn't hunt his shot, plays excellent defense, loves to crash the boards at both ends, and doesn't appear concerned with statistics.
"Right now our players are trying to survive," Williams said. "Every one of them is doing what he can to help the team. I won't be experimenting with lineups this season. I've never been one to think that a player plays better with certain other players. My best players are going to be out on the floor."
Whoever they may be.