By Jeff Carlton
Greensboro (N.C.) News & Record
November 22, 2006
CHAPEL HILL -- While George Mason was being celebrated for its improbable Final Four run last spring, Tyler Hansbrough and his North Carolina teammates were left to lament what might have been.
Not that many had foreseen the Tar Heels winning 23 games last season with a rotation featuring four freshmen, two former walk-ons and, as coach Roy Williams said of Reyshawn Terry, "a kid who was second-team all-state." But after winning games at Kentucky and Duke and going 12-4 in the ACC, the Heels almost felt blindsided by their second-round NCAA Tournament loss to the mid-major Patriots.
They expected better.
"I think everyone on the team pretty much still has that in the back of their minds," Hansbrough said. "If you don't play your best for one game, you're pretty much done for the season. That motivated us over the summer to work pretty hard."
The returning Heels often worked out with the stars of UNC's 2005 national title team, as Raymond Felton, Sean May and Marvin Williams spent much of the offseason in Chapel Hill. The summer pickup games also included the next great wave of talent to inhabit the Smith Center.
The arrival of that top-rated, six-player recruiting class has made last season's overachievers one of this year's Final Four favorites. Three recruits -- power forward Brandan Wright, point guard Ty Lawson and shooting guard Wayne Ellington -- were considered the best at their positions.
Perhaps the biggest question entering the season was this: How will the freshmen fit in? Six of the Heels' top seven scorers from 2005-06 are back, and they're not just going to hand over their playing time.
"That's the last thing I worry about," Williams said of team chemistry. "I go back to the quality of the kids, their character. They're going to be worried about how North Carolina does. Everybody is selfish. We're all selfish. It's a human characteristic. But great players push that aside to see how the team does."
Nobody doubts that UNC has loaded up on great players. The fact remains, though, that 11 are underclassmen. This team doesn't have the veteran presence the 2005 Heels had when they won in St. Louis.
On the other hand, with Hansbrough and perhaps others possibilities for next year's NBA draft, this might be the only chance to win an NCAA title with the current crop of talent.
"The '05 team had a bunch of juniors and seniors at the nucleus," senior guard Wes Miller said, "guys that had been through it, that had played in huge ACC games, NCAA Tournament games. And this team doesn't have that. We have the guys from last year that got a little taste of that, then a bunch of guys that never played in those kinds of situations.
"This team is so talented and so deep that, hopefully, we'll be able to get there like the '05 team."
The 6-9 Hansbrough is sure to be squarely in the middle of the effort to get to Atlanta. That's because the 21-year-old Missouri native passed on the NBA after a record-setting rookie season, even though he was a first-round lock.
Hansbrough was the first freshman to lead UNC in both scoring (18.9) and rebounding (7.8), and he was the first ACC rookie to score 40 points in a game. He scored with regularity, whether with his patented jump hook, on the fastbreak or from the free throw line. He scored in double-figures in 30 of 31 games.
He did it all despite constant double-teaming. With that in mind, he spent his summer building strength and explosiveness and working on counter-moves in the post. He also worked on extending his range to 10 feet and beyond.
Hansbrough scoffs at the notion that he had little to gain by staying in Chapel Hill for another year.
"People can look at it that way," he said, "but I've never really known a player to spend another year with Coach Williams and get worse. The way I look at it, I can only get better."
With the 6-9 Wright joining him in the lineup -- and inheriting David Noel's No. 34 jersey -- Hansbrough likely will see his minutes and point totals drop. That's OK. He welcomes the inside help from the long-armed Wright, as well as from rookie big men Deon Thompson and Alex Stepheson. They'll bring rebounding and shotblocking ability off the bench.
"The problem we had last year for Tyler was, we could never simulate in practice what he was going to face in the game," Williams said. "We could double-team him in practice, but with two 6-5, 6-6 walk-ons. He was double-teamed in the game by two 6-9, 6-10 All-Americans. We can simulate that this year."
Traditionally, the leadership role falls on the most veteran players, which makes Terry, an athletic 6-7 wing forward, the natural candidate as the Heels' lone scholarship senior. Terry is not vocal, as Noel was, so it remains to be seen how he leads, or who else grows into the role.
Either way, Terry is a key player. When he played well last season, the Heels won. When he didn't, they often lost. His scoring jumped from 2.2 points per game as a sophomore to 14.3 as a junior, and his confidence climbed as well. Danny Green pushed him for minutes last year and will continue to do so.
Bobby Frasor confidently and competently guided the Heels as a freshman point guard. He's not ready to simply hand the job over to Lawson, the flash of lightning out of Oak Hill Academy whose ability to pressure the ball and push the pace is ideally suited for a Williams-coached team. Ultimately, Frasor and Lawson may spend a lot of time in the backcourt together.
"He's as quick as advertised," Frasor said. "If he's in the open court, he's going to get to the basket, no doubt. And his ability to finish at the rim against big guys -- and he's 5-11, if that -- is very impressive."
Ellington, a 6-4 guard from the Philadelphia suburbs, has impressed with his ability to score from the perimeter, and from just about everywhere else.
The scrappy Miller remains the Heels' top long-range marksman, though he likely won't see anywhere near the playing time he did a year ago, when the bench was much shorter. Also reduced to role-player status is guard Marcus Ginyard, a lock-down defender.
The remarkable depth will allow UNC to apply more full-court pressure and create more possessions per game. That means higher scoring -- the Heels hung 140 on Pfeiffer in an exhibition -- and more points for everyone. If the Heels are battling for titles to boot, who's to complain about playing time?
"I feel like everybody knows this team can be good. We've got some talent, one of the best recruiting classes, blah, blah, blah," Ginyard said. "But is everybody in the locker room going to look at each other and expect the absolute best out of each other? Because this team could easily be the national champion."
Year ACC Overall Postseason
1997 11-5 (2x) 28-7 NCAA Final Four
1998 13-3 (2x) 34-4 NCAA Final Four
1999 10-6 (3) 24-10 NCAA 1st Round
2000 9-7 (3) 22-14 NCAA Final Four
2001 13-3 (1) 26-7 NCAA 2nd Round
2002 4-12 (7) 8-20 None
2003 6-10 (6) 19-16 NIT Elite Eight
2004 8-8 (5) 19-11 NCAA 2nd Round
2005 14-2 (1) 33-4 NCAA Champion
2006 12-4 (2) 23-8 NCAA 2nd Round
x won ACC title
Name Ht./Wt. Pos. Class
Wes Miller* 5-11/190 WG Sr.
Reyshawn Terry* 6-8/232 WF Sr.
Quentin Thomas 6-3/185 PG Jr.
Mike Copeland 6-7/225 BF So.
Bobby Frasor* 6-3/208 PG So.
Marcus Ginyard 6-5/218 WG So.
Danny Green 6-5/210 WF So.
Tyler Hansbrough* 6-9/245 BF So.
Wayne Ellington 6-4/195 WG Fr.
William Graves 6-6/260 WF Fr.
Ty Lawson 5-11/193 PG Fr.
Alex Stepheson 6-9/225 C Fr.
Deon Thompson 6-8/245 C Fr.
Brandan Wright 6-9/205 BF Fr.
- returning starter
No team in the nation has a better foundation than Tyler Hansbrough. The first freshman in ACC history to earn unanimous first-team all-conference honors, Hansbrough (18.9 ppg, 7.8 rpg) has a famous work ethic that continues to lead to improvements in his game. A dominant post scorer and relentless competitor, he's a leading candidate for national player of the year honors. Wing forward Reyshawn Terry, the only scholarship senior in a program that traditionally has treated such players with reverence, offers reliable three-point shooting, solid rebounding and an aim-to-please attitude, but his decision-making and court awareness continue to complicate his on-going efforts to click with coach Roy Williams. Combo guard Bobby Frasor sometimes seems out-of-place with the NBA-caliber talents that often surround him, but his high basketball IQ, mental/physical toughness, poise, unselfishness and experience (31 starts) make him a favorite among his coaches and teammates.
Other Key Returnees
It's hard to imagine a more versatile sixth man than swingman Danny Green. He hits threes, converts free throws, rebounds well at both ends, defends players of all sizes (although his "D" can be shaky), and even led the Tar Heels in blocked shots last season. Some assumed that wing guard Wes Miller would be a forgotten man because of UNC's talented six-man recruiting class, but the coaches love Miller's leadership, hustle, intelligence and three-point shooting, so he'll remain in the nine- or 10-man rotation. Wing guard Marcus Ginyard, a limited scorer but a strong rebounder and lock-down defender, complements the other talent on the roster perfectly, so he'll play, too. Point guard Quentin Thomas and big man Mike Copeland appear to be the odd men out after the recent influx of talent to Chapel Hill.
One of the most important variables in UNC's season is the development of point guard Ty Lawson. His style (fast, strong, unselfish) is a perfect fit for Williams' preferred approach, and he'll play major minutes, but nobody knows if Lawson's decision-making, defense and overall performance will merit a starting role as the season progresses. Power forward Brandan Wright and wing guard Wayne Ellington, the Tar Heels' other prep All-Americans, joined the starting lineup from day one. Wright is an efficient scorer, especially near the basket and in transition. Ellington offers an advanced offensive game, which provides a nice complement to Lawson/Frasor in the backcourt. Alex Stepheson (good shotblocker) and Deon Thompson mainly will be asked to defend and rebound this season, likely as little-used backups in the post. Wing forward William Graves agreed in the preseason to take a redshirt, rather than burning a year of eligibility via mop-up appearances.
ALSO Worth Noting
The 2006-07 season marks the 50th anniversary of UNC's 1957 national championship under Frank McGuire and the 25th anniversary of its 1982 NCAA title under Dean Smith. ... Williams has the highest winning percentage (.799) in the nation among active coaches with 10 or more years of experience, and he ranks fourth all-time in the same category.
Chart By: The UNC Insider