ACC basketball: Heels picked to win
By Aaron Beard
ATLANTA ó Frank Haith can rattle off just about every piece of North Carolina’s loaded roster, from the returning national player of the year and four double-figure scorers to the touted rookie class with the luxury of playing supporting roles behind upperclassmen.
The Miami coach sounds as impressed with the Tar Heels as just about everyone else these days ó and his Hurricanes have to face the ACC preseason favorite twice this season.
“I see no weaknesses,” he said Sunday during the annual ACC Operation Basketball preseason media day. “You’re talking about a team that has all the ingredients for success. I think there’s no question they’ve kind of separated themselves from everybody else.”
The Tar Heels already had earned seemingly everyone’s preseason vote for No. 1. Now the two-time defending ACC champions are the unanimous choice for the second straight year to win the league, a pick no one in a room filled with ACC players and coaches could dispute.
North Carolina returns its top six scorers from a team that won a school-record 36 games, reached the Final Four and held the nation’s top ranking for all but six weeks. Included in that group is Tyler Hansbrough, who swept the major national player of the year awards last year and was the unanimous choice to win his second straight ACC player of the year award in voting by 40 reporters Sunday.
The Tar Heels had a second preseason all-ACC pick in junior point guard Ty Lawson, one of three underclassmen to enter the NBA draft before returning to school in the offseason.
“You at least think one of two of them are going to go (to the NBA),” said Duke swingman Gerald Henderson, who also made the preseason all-ACC team. “I think that’s what everybody was kind of expecting, but it didn’t happen. … Obviously they should be ranked that high from the season they had last year and the guys they have coming back.”
At the least, the league has several teams that hope they’re good enough to push the Tar Heels.
Henderson and the Blue Devils were picked to finish second after battling North Carolina down to the final week of the regular season last yet to determine the ACC regular-season crown. Wake Forest ó flush with its own heralded freshmen ó was picked third. Haith’s Hurricanes, an NCAA team from last year, was picked fourth, followed by Clemson, Virginia Tech, Maryland, Georgia Tech, North Carolina State, Florida State, Boston College and Virginia.
North Carolina coach Roy Williams noted that his team hardly had an easy time in the league last year, from three tough wins against Clemson to a last-second win against the Hokies in the ACC tournament semifinals. He figures that offers enough motivation to keep his team from fast-forwarding mentally to their national-title pursuit.
“For you to have a chance in March, you have to be playing your best,” Williams said. “And there’s no way you can be playing your best unless you give 100 percent each and every day to get there. We have to do the job every single day, and at the end of the year, we’ll add it up and see what it is. But I’m not going to put myself in the boat that says, ‘We have to do this.”‘
Wayne Ellington and Danny Green, who joined Lawson in withdrawing from the draft and returning to school, didn’t seem fazed by the lofty expectations. They were quick to say that’s nothing new at the tradition-rich program, even for a team that Williams figures has a chance to become one of the best in school history.
“It doesn’t really mean anything honestly,” Green said. “Because people pick you before the season doesn’t mean that at the end of the season you’re going to be the last team standing. Nobody’s going to give it to us. We’ve got to work for it and we’ve got to prove ourselves.
“If we didn’t want any pressure or high expectations, we wouldn’t have come to Carolina.”
That pressure will include finding a way to win while opponents treats the game as a measuring-stick chance to prove themselves. That attitude was already on display in Atlanta, where several players praised the Tar Heels while simultaneously promising not to lay down against them.
“They’re going to be No. 1, which they should be,” BC all-ACC pick said Tyrese Rice, who grew up in Salisbury. “But everybody in this league is going to compete and nobody’s going to let anybody walk over them. So being No. 1 and staying No. 1 is a lot different.
“I’m happy to see them back, but I’d have rather seen them leave.”