College Basketball: Pressure’s on Tar Heels to win title
By Aaron Beard
CHAPEL HILLó As three of his teammates considered whether to remain in dhe NBA draft, Tyler Hansbrough spent his time working out and trying not to worry about their decisions. And while many figured at least one of the trio would leave, Hansbrough remained confident that they all would return to North Carolina.
Proven right, the reigning national player of the year can savor ó for now, at least ó what looks like a perfect setup for his final college season.
“You can’t ask to be in a better situation,” Hansbrough said Monday. “All these guys have been to the Final Four. We know what it takes to win a regular-season ACC (title) and the ACC tournament. The only thing we need to do is cap it off with a national championship.”
After an uncertain offseason that ended with an unlikely outcome by today’s standards, the Tar Heels are left with an inescapable fact: They are the clear preseason favorite to win the national title that has eluded Hansbrough in his first three years.
Underclassmen Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington and Danny Green withdrew from the draft, while veteran reserve Bobby Frasor is returning from a knee injury. The top six scorers are back and the Tar Heels have added one of the nation’s top recruiting classes.
They have also inherited a heavy heaping of pressure.
It’s only July, yet the six players at Monday’s offseason interview session were already hearing questions about whether they can live up to the expectations and even whether they could go unbeaten. The players are quick to say they can handle all that even as they acknowledge the importance of keeping their focus amid the hype.
“It’s going to be hard because everyone’s going to be talking to us about it and asking about it and pushing for someone to say they’re going to guarantee a national championship,” Frasor said.
Much of that started with Hansbrough’s decision in April to return for his senior season. The 6-foot-9 forward, who averaged 22.6 points and 10.2 rebounds last season, has already done enough to ensure his No. 50 jersey will be retired after he leaves Chapel Hill. He is the first returning Associated Press national player of the year since LSU’s Shaquille O’Neal in 1991, and the only returnee from last season’s All-America team, which didn’t have a senior on it.
Yet Lawson, Ellington and Green entered their names in the draft to learn more about their professional chances, leaving the Tar Heels waiting for nearly two months to find out who would be back.
Marcus Ginyard ó who will be a senior along with Hansbrough, Green and Frasor ó said he wouldn’t think about the uncertainty or even talk to the trio about their decisions because “that’s just too much stress on the mind.” Junior-to-be Deon Thompson, meanwhile, kept in contact with them and trusted that everything would work out.
“In my mind, even if they were not going to come back, we were still going to be good,” Thompson said. “And if they did come back, we were going to be great. I think they already knew in their mind it was a win-win situation ó they could go to the NBA or come back and have a chance to win a national championship.”
The underclassmen had said they planned to stay in the draft if they were guaranteed to be first-round picks. They ended up opting to return shortly before last month’s deadline to withdraw from the draft.
“We kind of made a joint decision and I think it was the best decision for all of us,” Ellington said. “No disappointment at all, not for me. I love Carolina, I love my teammates and I love my coaches.”
The Tar Heels figure they won’t be short of motivation either, not after their loss to eventual champion Kansas in last year’s national semifinals. They trailed 40-12 in the first half of that game and never recovered in a humbling finish to a season in which they were ranked No. 1 for all but five polls, went unbeaten on the road and won the Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season and tournament titles for the second straight year.
“We were very good last year and I’m pretty sure we’ll be very good this year,” Green said. “But it’s not about thinking about how we can be. It’s about taking action and doing what we’re supposed to do.”