UNC: Team on the rebound

By Courtney Linehan

Almost eight months after stealing the National Championship from the season-long favorite Illini, North Carolina’s Tar Heels are back setting records. The trouble is, these are not the kind of records that hint at back-to-back championships.

For the first time in 17 years, the defending national champions started the season unranked. After losing their whole starting lineup to graduation or the NBA, the Tar Heels have a heavy load to bear as they struggle to prove – for this season, anyway – that they can maintain position among college basketball’s elite.

“We went from an experience-dominated squad to a squad where there’s no experience whatsoever,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said in a teleconference last week.

UNC’s seven best scorers are gone, and in their place sit five freshmen and four walk-ons. Three freshmen started in the Tar Heels’ season opener against Gardner-Webb on Nov. 19 – a first in Williams’ 18 years as a head coach.

Gardner-Webb is a 3,200-student school competing in the Atlantic Sun Conference. It is unranked.

Gardner-Webb only fell to last season’s National Champion when David Noel, one of two remaining UNC seniors, hit a buzzer-beating three.

“We had some of the most unbelievable mistakes in that game,” Williams said.

None of the names Illini fans remember from April 4 will be on the floor Tuesday. Sean May and Raymond Felton are in the NBA, playing for the Charlotte Bobcats. Should-be senior Rashard McCants and sophomore Marvin Williams have also gone pro. Not to mention 2004-05 seniors Jawad Williams, Jackie Manuel and Melvin Scott, who would be gone either way.

In their places are rookies Tyler Hansborough, Danny Green and Bobby Frasor. May was a 266-pounder who dominated the paint. Hansborough is 12 percent lighter and two seasons less experienced. The freshman has shown the ability to score inside and rebound, but he’s struggling to fill May’s enormous shoes.

At the point, Frasor beat out sophomore Quentin Thomas for the starting spot. Frasor has struggled with the adjustment to big-time basketball and could falter Tuesday under the pressure of playing on such a visible stage.

Williams worries that all of his freshmen could use guidance on the floor. He says James Augustine and Dee Brown give the Illini senior leadership that his team is suffering without.

“I haven’t (lost so many players), but no one else has either,” Williams said. “We lost our top seven. If we had one or two guys who had played last year and been really successful, our freshmen could have used that as a security blanket. But we don’t have that.”

Williams said he has not only changed the mechanics of the game UNC puts on the court but has also switched the way he approaches coaching. He said the team’s youth and inexperience demands much more nurturing.

“With this group I’ve got to be much more positive myself,” Williams said. “I’ve got to be much more patient when I’m explaining things.”

Because only two of ten starters from the NCAA championship are back, both Williams and Illinois head coach Bruce Weber agree that this will not be a true rematch. And while the ACC leads the Big Ten in the annual challenge, Williams says that does not mean much this year.

“I don’t think anybody’s going to give us any points to start the game just because we’ve done better in this tournament,” Williams said. “We’re going to have to earn our points against Illinois.”