CHAPEL HILL - Carolina returns all five starters and its top six scorers among 13 lettermen, including consensus National Player of the Year Tyler Hansbrough, from last year's team that won a school-record 36 games and reached the program's 17th Final Four.
The Tar Heels are hoping to sweep the Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season and Tournament titles for a third consecutive season, a feat that has been accomplished just twice before in the league's first 54 years (UNC 1967-69, Duke 1999-2001).
Last year, Carolina went 36-3 and won the ACC regular-season title outright with a 14-2 mark that included an 8-0 record on the road. The Tar Heels beat Clemson in the ACC championship game to win an unprecedented 17th ACC Tournament and was the top overall seed in the NCAA Tournament. UNC advanced to the Final Four in San Antonio with an 83-73 victory over No. 3 seed Louisville in the East Regional final in Charlotte.
Hansbrough won every major National Player of the Year award after averaging an ACC-best 22.6 points and 10.2 rebounds per game. He was also ACC Player of the Year, ACC Tournament Most Valuable Player and NCAA East Regional MVP. He was named ACC Player of the Week a record eight times.
The 6-9 senior from Poplar Bluff, Mo., is second in scoring at UNC with 2,168 points and needs just 123 points to pass Phil Ford. He is already the ACC's leader in made free throws with 733 and needs to make 173 more (he's averaged 244 per season) to become the NCAA's alltime leader.
Hansbrough could also become the first player since the 1940s to earn first-team All-America honors in four seasons and the only player to earn first-team All-ACC honors four times.
"What more can you say about Tyler," says head coach Roy Williams. "He's one of the most competitive people I've ever been around, he sets an incredible example with his work ethic and he plays hard on virtually every possession – even in practice. He has made so many big plays in the past three years it's hard to keep track of them. The bottom line is he has worked hard for and earned every award he's been given and he's going to go down as one of the greatest players ever to play college basketball.
"And with all that he has accomplished, he's never satisfied with his game. Tyler can shoot the ball from the perimeter, but he didn't have complete confidence to do it in game situations until late in the season," says Williams. "He has to develop the confidence to step out and shoot that shot, which will make his inside game even more difficult for people to guard. He has made great strides defensively, but will continue to improve, especially in defending on the floor away from the basket. He is overlooked for his defensive play in a way that reminds me of (the Celtics') Paul Pierce. Paul was a great defensive player at Kansas and is a great defender in the NBA, but never got any credit for it until one game in the NBA Finals when he stops Kobe (Bryant). Tyler got some notice for his defensive play late last year, but I think people will really notice it even more this year."
Hansbrough is the first player to win Associated Press Player of the Year honors and return to college the following season since LSU's Shaquille O'Neal in 1991-92.
Junior guards Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellington, senior swingman Marcus Ginyard and junior forward Deon Thompson started alongside Hansbrough a year ago and senior Danny Green was the fourth-leading scorer and second-leading three-point scorer and shot blocker. Seniors Bobby Frasor and Mike Copeland, sophomore Will Graves and walkons Marc Campbell, Patrick Moody, J.B. Tanner and Jack Wooten all return as well, giving the Tar Heels plenty of experience.
Expectations for the 99th season of Carolina Basketball will be sky high as UNC is expected to be among the top preseason picks to contend for a national championship.
"When you describe our team you would describe a very experienced team and a very talented team, and that's what I've always said you want – experienced talent," says Williams. "We don't want our kids to think about a record. Our fans, the media and everybody else will put enough pressure on them, but we have to improve on things that will make our team better. I am going to convince our players that it isn't only what you accomplish at the end of the season. If that is all you are worried about then you are not going to do the job every single day to improve and then you won't even be around in March or April."
Williams says obviously the disappointment of the season-ending loss to Kansas will serve as motivation, but there was plenty of success a year ago to learn from as well.
"This group learned they can win on the road, as we were extremely focused and became a great road team, but we have to continue to do that again this year. And we have to focus on how did we lose that last game in the Final Four. We lost because we weren't as aggressive and didn't have the same intensity as Kansas did. They came out and hit us right between the eyes and it took us a while to recover. The players laugh at me all the time when I say 'Let's not go out there and tiptoe through the tulips,' but that's what we did. We went out and said, 'Wow, we're in the Final Four,' and Kansas came out thinking they were in a fight right from the start. We didn't realize we were until all of a sudden they are kicking our tails. Now when I say, 'Let's not go out there and tiptoe through the tulips,' they are going to know what I am saying."
One area Williams always emphasizes is defense and improved play there is a priority.
"There's no question we became an above average defensive team, but we've got to be even better this year," says Williams. "This may be one of those years we take the rims off the baskets for the first week of practice, not just the first day."
Williams says outstanding defensive teams play hard every possession and making individual stops each possession leads to better team defense.
"We've got to be better individual defenders, and some of that is giving a more consistent effort. Our kids give good effort overall, but to win championships it has to be more consistent and it has to be more intelligent. If they do those kinds of things then they can become better individual defenders. The next step is to become better defenders away from the ball, because then your team becomes better defensively."
Williams wants to take advantage of the squad's depth and push the pace of play with an aggressive, pressure defense. He also expects his veterans to make fewer mistakes.
"We want to create more opportunities and possessions with our defense by playing a faster tempo. More people get to play more with a faster tempo. But with this kind of team I am going to push them more. There's no need to put up with anything mediocre now. If you are not going to do it right, there is somebody else who will do it right. They may not like it when it happens, but they are going to like the overall objective. It's going to be a lot more attention to detail and suffer the consequences if you don't do the small things."
Lawson, Ellington and Green declared for the NBA Draft following the 2008 Final Four, attended the NBA's predraft camp and worked out for individual teams but ultimately decided to withdraw from the draft and return to Carolina.
"It will be a challenge for all of our kids –not just Ty, Danny and Wayne– to see how hungry they are going to be," adds Williams. "They must focus on the team as opposed to how they are doing individually and understand how our team is doing will dictate how successful they are as individuals. I am confident they'll do that because our kids have such good character that they will take care of it. But they have to be aware of that every day."
Ellington and Lawson headline a dynamic backcourt that is at least three-deep at each position. Ellington, a sweet-shooting 6-4 wing from Wynnewood, Pa., teamed with Hansbrough last year to score more points than any two-player tandem in Carolina history. He averaged 16.6 points, shot 40 percent from three-point range and is ninth in UNC history in free throw accuracy at 83.0 percent. He scored 20 or more points nine times, including 36 in a memorable overtime win at Clemson and 24 against the Tigers in the ACC Tournament championship game. He earned second-team All-ACC honors, All-ACC Tournament honors for the second time in as many years and All-NCAA East Regional honors.
"Wayne has the ability to shoot the ball and score as well as any two-guard in the country," says Williams. "Knocking down good shots from the outside is an important part of our offense and Wayne is one of our best at doing that. He has to get bigger and stronger. We talked about that right after the season and the NBA people told him the same thing. He improved his defensive play drastically from his freshman to sophomore season and he has to do that again."
Lawson, a 5-11 speedster from Clinton, Md., pushes the ball up the floor as quickly as anybody in the nation. He helped UNC finish second in the country in scoring, top the 90-point mark in 20 of 39 games and lead the ACC in scoring, field goal percentage, assists and assist-turnover margin. Lawson averaged 12.7 points and 5.2 assists per game and had an ACC-best assist-error ratio of 2.4 to 1. He scored 20 or more points four times with a career-high 26 at Rutgers, and shot 51.5 percent from the floor and 83.5 percent from the free throw line.
The All-NCAA East Regional selection missed seven games and most of two others due to a pair of sprained ankles. He was playing his best basketball in the middle of the ACC schedule when he was injured on Feb. 3 at Florida State and missed the next six games. He tweaked the ankle against Louisville in the Final 8 and was less than 100 percent against the Jayhawks in the national semifinals.
"Ty is a unique offensive threat because of his ability to break down defenses and attack the basket," says Williams. "He takes care of the ball, which is so important, and isn't afraid to take a big shot. We need him to apply more defensive pressure on the ball. Everybody knows he flirted with the NBA. The NBA people told him he had to be more consistent and tougher. He can't let little things bother him. I am confident he will have a great, great year and help us play at the pace I really like."
Frasor is coming off an injury shortened season, his second in a row. One of the team's best leaders, the Blue Island, Ill., native tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee against Nevada on December 27 and missed the final 27 games. He started all 31 games as a freshman in 2005-06 and has 207 assists in 71 career contests. He had 25 assists and only 10 turnovers and was Carolina's defensive player of the game five times in the first dozen games last year. He made three three-pointers in the win at Kentucky.
Frasor was cleared medically to play basketball again on July 1.
"Bobby has done a great job rehabbing his knee and is way ahead of where people thought he would be," says Williams, who indicates Frasor will play primarily at the point. "It will be a real challenge for him to get his quickness back to where it was when he got hurt, because he had improved his foot speed and lateral quickness maybe as much as anybody I ever coached. He has to get back to that stage where he does a good job keeping the ball in front of him. He's a great leader and the best talker we have on defense."
The three-spot (swingman) is one of the most experienced, talented and versatile positions on the squad with seniors Ginyard and Green and third-year sophomore Graves, capable of producing on both ends of the floor. Last year that trio combined for 20.6 points and 10.8 rebounds per game. Ginyard played four different positions, Green saw plenty of action at the four, and Graves came off the bench a number of times to provide long-distance shooting.
Ginyard, a 6-5 native of Alexandria, Va., earned All-ACC Tournament honors after scoring double figures in each of the three wins en route to the title. He filled in as backup point guard when Lawson was injured and even played the four against Clemson in the ACC championship game. Ginyard was Carolina's defensive player of the game 11 times, including the NCAA Regional final vs. Louisville, and was voted a co-captain by his teammates. He was named to both the media and coaches' All-ACC defensive teams, getting more votes from the coaches than any player in the league. Yet Williams expects more from his vocal leader in his final season.
"I expect Marcus to have a great year but I want him to be a lock down defender," says Williams. "I don't want him just to grade out well, but grade out well and make it impossible for other people to score. I think he has that ability. It was phenomenal last year that he could play the two and the three and then step in at the point when Lawson went down. He's working on his shot each day, and hopefully he will be able to knock down some more of those as well."
Ginyard has won Carolina's defensive player of the year award in each of the last two seasons. Seven-foot center Brendan Haywood (1999-2001) and point guard Derrick Phelps (1992-94) are the only Tar Heels to win that award three times.
Green can also play multiple positions and makes key contributions in a number of areas. He's scored 871 points, grabbed 3.9 rebounds a game, converted 107 three-pointers, blocked 104 shots and has the third-highest free throw percentage (.843) in Carolina history. He has scored in double figures 37 times, including 24 times a year ago, and was Carolina's defensive player of the game six times as a junior. The North Babylon, N.Y., native had 18 points, eight rebounds and seven blocked shots in the win at Duke, a career-high 20 points against Kentucky and Valparaiso and 12 first-half points in the Sweet 16 win over Washington State. He hit a pair of three-pointers and had two steals and two assists in the final three minutes to help UNC overcome an 11-point deficit in the home win over Clemson.
Green is the only Tar Heel in history to make at least 100 three-point field goals and block 50 or more shots. He is 10th in UNC history in blocked shots.
"Danny gave us a spark so many times last year and has the ability to help us win games in different ways," says Williams. "He has to cut down on his turnovers and be more consistent defensively. I know he will be very focused this year to do the little things that help us. He has a great opportunity to give us some outside shooting and we really need that to be successful."
Graves red-shirted in 2006-07, then played in all but three games last year. The Greensboro, N.C., native made 19 of his 27 field goals from behind the arc and shot 44.2 percent from three-point range. He scored a season-high 14 points against Valparaiso and had 10 in the home win over Virginia Tech.
"Will has to continue to work on his conditioning, physically be able to handle situations better and become more consistent with his outside shot," says Williams. "He came into several games last year when we needed a lift from the outside and he was able to give it to us."
Up front, the Tar Heels will have just two returning big men – Hansbrough and Thompson, a 6-8 forward from Torrance, Calif. – healthy at the start of the season. Copeland, a 6-7 forward from Winston-Salem, N.C., tore his right ACL in the spring and will be unable to play until later in the season.
Thompson started all but one game last year and averaged 8.4 points and 4.8 rebounds. He led UNC in blocked shots with 51 and scored in double figures 14 times with highs of 17 vs. Boston College and 16 vs. NC State and Arkansas in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. He had nine rebounds and a career-high five blocks in the win at Duke.
"Deon has worked exceptionally hard in the offseason, continuing to work on his body and he has gotten a great deal of confidence from those workouts," says Williams. "Now he has to take that confidence and translate it into better and more confident play. He can't get down on himself when things don't go as well. I think he will be better defensively and block more shots and get more rebounds this year. He and Tyler (Hansbrough) both need to stop turning the ball over so much."
The Tar Heels welcome four scholarship freshmen – 6-10 forward Ed Davis from Richmond, Va., 6-1 point guard Larry Drew II from Encino, Calif., 6-4 swingman Justin Watts from Durham, N.C., and 7-0 forward Tyler Zeller from Washington, Ind.
"The big guys should make more of an immediate impact because losing Alex Stepheson (who transferred after his sophomore year) only gives us two experienced post players in Deon and Tyler," says Williams. "You always need four of those guys. Zeller gives us the ability to score from the outside and run the floor. Davis gives the ability to score inside and block some shots and be a really good passer. Drew gives us another true point guard. He will have some adjustment to the speed of the game, but once he makes that adjustment, he is a thinking man's point guard and a true quarterback and I think we will see those things from him. Watts hasn't been put in as many competitive situations as those other guys, who played in the national high school all-star games, but he has skills and is going to do some good things for us."
Williams, who entered the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 2007, begins his 21st season as a head coach with a record of 560-134. He is first among active coaches and third alltime in winning percentage (.807), third in NCAA Tournament wins with 49 and is tied for fourth with six trips to the Final Four. He has led the Tar Heels to a 142-33 record, including ACC regular-season titles in 2005, 2007 and 2008, two ACC Tournament titles and two Final Fours. Over the last seven years, Williams has led his teams at Kansas and Carolina to 205 wins, more than any other coach in college basketball.