By Dan Wiederer
Fayetteville (N.C.) Observer
November 20, 2007
CHAPEL HILL Georgetown. The word alone is a trigger. Pavlov's dogs had the bell. The Three Stooges had Niagara Falls.
North Carolina's players have that one lingering, sickening word:
"It makes you angry," junior guard Bobby Frasor said. "It makes you depressed. It makes you work harder, because you want to make amends for everything that went wrong."
Added junior swingman Marcus Ginyard: "You don't ever erase something like that."
The disbelief and accompanying motivation that swirls through each of the Tar Heels' minds traces back eight months, to last season's East Regional final in East Rutherford, N.J.
After what had been nothing short of a storybook Sunday afternoon inside Continental Airlines Arena UNC scored 50 points in the first half, Tyler Hansbrough bulled his way to a 26-point, 11-rebound performance, and a net-cutting ceremony seemed only moments away the Tar Heels choked away a 10-point lead in the final seven minutes of regulation, surrendered the first 14 points of overtime, and suddenly saw their certain trip to the Final Four re-routed to an offseason filled with emptiness.
Roy Williams, who has been through dozens of season-ending losses during his 29 years as a college assistant and head coach, ranked last year's faceplant among the three most devastating he's ever tasted. The others: a 1984 UNC loss in the Sweet 16, when a Michael Jordan-led squad fell 72-68 to Indiana; and a 1997 Sweet 16 loss at Kansas, when Williams' top-ranked Jayhawks and their 34-1 record lost to Arizona.
"I still hurt so badly over the Georgetown loss," Williams said in April. "I know that I'm going to stay hungry. If anything, I'm going to be even more hungry. Because I know there was something left in the tank for this team. And that bothers me as a coach."
That was only a week or so after the heartbreak had occurred. Certainly, Williams' disappointment would dissipate. Not so. In the middle of July and then in October, Williams again expressed the indelible sting the Georgetown loss had left behind.
"That was the first game that I felt like our freshmen and sophomores the last eight minutes of the game acted like freshmen and sophomores," he said. "So for that part of things, it's discouraging."
Now it's a new season, and while the scar of that Elite Eight collapse remains, the Tar Heels are excited to move forward, eager to improve upon a 2006-07 season that included 31 wins and ACC regular-season and tournament championships.
The arsenal is there. Nine players who played key minutes a year ago return. The Tar Heels have blinding speed in the backcourt, thanks to sophomore point guard Ty Lawson. They have seemingly unlimited depth to continue Williams' dizzying run-run-run offensive carnival. And they have arguably the premier inside force in all of college basketball in Hansbrough, a consensus All-American who's now even quicker and stronger and has a more lethal mid-range jump shot.
Those are the reasons UNC began the season ranked No. 1 in both the Associated Press and USA Today/ESPN polls. Those are the reasons the Final Four talk in Chapel Hill began percolating well before Thanksgiving.
"This team has all the pieces," sophomore forward Deon Thompson said. "We've been together a whole year already. We should be able to pick up from right where we left off last year. The first game, it should just go."
Still, because it's November, question marks are a requirement for every team in the country. So fans and analysts and scattered naysayers have been digging for flaws, searching for possible reasons why the Tar Heels won't live up to their No. 1 hype.
Will they be able to find a consistent three-point shooter to loosen things up down low? Probably. Do they have enough weaponry to offset the loss of forward Brandan Wright, who provided 14.7 points and 6.2 rebounds per game last season? Absolutely.
Can they improve their composure and execution down the stretch of close games, after going 3-6 in contests decided by eight points or fewer a year ago? That's a wait and see.
But the biggest question the Tar Heels will face all season long no matter how many games they win, no matter how crisply they play promises to stay simple and direct: Can they reach the Final Four?
The definitive answer to that question can't come until the end of March, when the Heels figure to have a return date in the Elite Eight.
That in itself is a rare dynamic. UNC essentially will tread water for the next four months, with only one goal that will provide true fulfillment. Wins over Ohio State and Kentucky and, yes, rival Duke would be invigorating. Success at the ACC Tournament would be nice. But the mission of the season ultimately will lead back to one performance on one brightly lit stage on one day: March 29 in the East Regional final.
"With our team this year," Hansbrough said, "the only goal is to go to the Final Four and win the national championship."
Added sophomore guard Wayne Ellington: "It's tough knowing we have to wait until March to get there. But I think that road to get to March is going to be a lot smoother for us this year. And I think we'll understand what it takes. And when we do get there, we'll be a lot more prepared to turn it up even more. We'll be more eager, anxious and prepared for that stage."
The Tar Heels fell through the trap door of that Elite Eight stage a year ago. But that was in New Jersey. This season, they likely will play for the East Regional championship at Bobcats Arena in Charlotte on home-state soil, in front of thousands of supporters decked out in Carolina blue.
Furthermore, their first two games in the NCAA Tournament almost certainly will be played in Raleigh, at the RBC Center. Remember, UNC's NCAA Tournament record inside the state of North Carolina is a perfect 16-0. Their national championship runs in 1982, 1993 and 2005 included stops in Charlotte, Raleigh and Winston-Salem.
So it's safe to assume that the Tar Heels will have a favorable road to advance through the NCAA Tournament maze. What isn't safe to assume is that they will be back in the Final Four. That's never a given. The Heels learned that the hard way last season, against Georgetown.
"You don't get a mulligan," Williams said. "It's just over."
Most of UNC's roster received a similar uppercut of reality in 2006, with a second-round NCAA Tournament loss to George Mason. But that was a young team still finding its way. This is a group, at least according to the rankings, that should be better than everyone it plays.
The Georgetown loss will drive them. And Williams quickly points to the fuel the George Mason loss from two seasons ago provided.
"It helped us play two more games last year," Williams said. "So if the Georgetown game allows us to play two more games this time around, I'm all for that."
|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|
|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|
|2007||11-5 (1x)||31-7||NCAA Elite Eight|
x - won ACC title
All-American forward Tyler Hansbrough is the leader on this team when it comes to setting an example. No player in America performs with more passion and effort. Swingman Marcus Ginyard wants to be the vocal leader, and he is not afraid to speak his mind. He also plays with great intensity and does a lot of the dirty work required to win games defense, offensive rebounding and general all-around hustle. But the person who has to be the leader of this team when it's on the court is point guard Ty Lawson. The nature of his job dictates it. November games and exhibitions suggested that Lawson, while extraordinarily talented, must continue to grow into the leadership role.
Other Key Returnees
Some believe wing Wayne Ellington will become a much-needed catalyst for this team, while others believe he ultimately will lead to its downfall. Shot selection and improvement on defense will have a lot to do with where he falls. Swingman Danny Green appears poised to have an excellent season. He came off the bench in the first two exhibition games, but he just as easily could start. In the second game, he hit five of nine field goals, all six free throws, had 10 rebounds, 16 points, three blocks and two steals. Deon Thompson and Alex Stepheson have improved and will add to the strength along the front line. Bobby Frasor is healthy again (foot) and is going to add a big boost to this team. He can play the point or the two guard, and once he reclaims his game, he'll provide a solid outside shooter and someone to run the show adequately when Lawson is resting. Quentin Thomas is back for his senior year, but he still may be recovering from a knee injury. His ability to move on defense appeared hindered in November.
In an unusual twist, UNC added no new scholarship players for this season. Will Graves, a redshirt freshman, trimmed his super-sized body during his first year on campus but likely remains at least a year away from major contributions.
Also Worth Noting
This team improved on defense from the first exhibition game to the second, but the Tar Heels, despite their No. 1 ranking, have a long way to go to become the team they are proclaimed to be. While the public views this as the same team as a year ago, only older, the fact is that Brandan Wright, the rookie of the year and MVP of the ACC Tournament, is gone. Ginyard is in the starting lineup. Reyshawn Terry also is gone, and Green is going to play a much larger role in Terry's absence. The two young big men, Thompson and Stepheson, have tremendous potential, but they also have to learn how to work with Hansbrough without getting in his way. Green will play the power forward spot at times, and he looks good doing it. He can work the baseline, and he's always been a solid rebounder and possesses excellent timing on blocking shots with his length. But the biggest issue for this club is simply learning to play together with a new rotation, and probably some different personal expectations on the players' parts.
Chart By: The UNC Insider