Tar Heels preparing for pressure

Published 12:00 am Saturday, November 1, 2008

By Aaron Beard
Associated Press
CHAPEL HILL ó Wayne Ellington knows what awaits just about every time he goes to a grocery store, a gas station, even while he’s playing pool with his North Carolina teammates.
“Somebody shakes your hand and says, ‘It’s your guys’ year, you guys have to do it this year,”‘ he said. “Everybody’s always putting that little whisper in your ear.”
That whisper’s quickly becoming a roar. That’s what happens as the unanimous No. 1 preseason pick.
Hall of Fame coach Roy Williams kept his top six scorers, including national player of the year Tyler Hansbrough, from a Final Four team that won a school-record 36 games and has added a touted recruiting class ó a rare mix in this era of underclassmen leaving for the NBA.
The Tar Heels enter this season as such a heavy favorite to win a fifth NCAA championship that many will regard anything less as a failure.
“I like having a bull’s-eye on our back,” point guard Ty Lawson said. “We’re the team to beat, and I love it.”
The Tar Heels faced their first bumps of the season early when it was discovered Thursday that Hansbrough would miss practice indefinitely because of a stress reaction in his right shin. There was no timetable set for his return. In addition, Marcus Ginyard already is out for likely the first few weeks of the season due to foot surgery, robbing the Tar Heels of their top defender.
Few teams enter a season with these expectations. In 1991, UNLV returned Larry Johnson and Stacey Augmon from a national championship team and went unbeaten through the regular season before losing to Duke in the Final Four. Former UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian, like Williams today, said the Runnin’ Rebels never talked about the pressure for perfection that grew with each game.
“We had a veteran team,” Tarkanian said. “We didn’t have the depth Carolina has, but I’ve never cared for that much depth. I think it’s too many players, and if you start playing too many that hurts your first group.
“Roy’s biggest job will be to keep their heads in every game. There’s no question they’ve got the best talent, and Roy’s a great coach. The big thing is they’ve got to bring it every night. It’s very easy to lose your concentration and let up and anything can happen.”
Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski has had his share of loaded teams, too. After their upset of UNLV and title-game win over Kansas, the Blue Devils returned the next season with Christian Laettner, Bobby Hurley and Grant Hill to win consecutive championships. He’s also seen two of his best teams ó the two-loss 1999 squad that reached the title game and the 2002 team that was upset by Indiana in its bid for a repeat championship ó come up short.
“It’s always better to be picked to win and better to have a lot of talent than not have a lot of talent,” Krzyzewski said. “It’s nice to have money in the bank and figure out how to spend it instead of figuring out how to make it. But again, that’s what makes it interesting.”
Hansbrough, back for his senior year, is the first returning AP national player of the year since LSU’s Shaquille O’Neal in 1991. He is on pace to set the school’s career scoring and rebounding records along with the ACC’s all-time scoring mark.
Ellington, Lawson and top reserve Danny Green all returned to school after entering their names in the NBA draft, while starters Ginyard and Deon Thompson are back.
In addition, the Tar Heels welcome back valuable reserve Bobby Frasor, who can play either guard position, from a knee injury and add a recruiting class featuring McDonald’s All-Americans Ed Davis, Tyler Zeller and Larry Drew II.
So what’s their weakness? A defense that improved yet often left Williams wanting more, perhaps ó though their transition attack that averaged 89 points a game can cover up a lot of mistakes.
“We were 36-3 last year,” Williams said. “There’s not a heck of a lot of glaring weaknesses out there, I don’t think.”
North Carolina, however, has faltered in the tournament at the worst times recently. Two seasons ago, they let an 11-point lead slip away in an 96-84 overtime loss to Georgetown that sent the Hoyas to the Final Four. Last year, they corrected that mistake with a strong late-game performance against Louisville in the regional final, only to come out flat and fall behind 40-12 in a semifinal loss to eventual champion Kansas.
This year, Williams cites a schedule that includes a home game against Kentucky and a trip to Detroit ó site of this season’s Final Four ó to face Michigan State. There’s also the Maui Invitational field that includes NCAA tournament teams Texas, Notre Dame and Oregon.
“I have no thoughts in my mind of winning every game,” he said. “I have no thoughts in my mind of being invincible.”
He’s also quick to dismiss any ideas that Ellington, Lawson and Green will cause chemistry problems by putting individual goals first to improve their NBA draft stock.
“I rely on these two things: one, the character of our kids is such a high level that they’re concerned about how our team is doing, and I believe that from the bottom of my soul,” Williams said. “The second part of that is when they all decided to come back, I said, ‘Hey, if you think we’re going to focus the offense on you and get you 35 shots a game, don’t come back. If you want to come back and be a part of a great team, then come on back and do that.”‘
At the least, their returns offer further motivation to their opponents.
“It may sound crazy, but I kind of wanted them to come back because I wanted to play against the best of the best,” North Carolina State senior Ben McCauley said. “It’s kind of crazy, the fact that you’re going to play against guys that could be in the NBA already. If you can go up against them and beat them, that makes you that much better of a team.”
The Tar Heels know that attitude will greet them at every game, particularly on the road in the ACC. They acknowledge anything can happen even as they sound ready to make good on their potential.
For the record, they say another season like last year ó even if it falls short of a national title ó isn’t a failure.
“If we didn’t want any pressure or high expectations, we wouldn’t have come to Carolina,” Green said. “You expect to go into everybody’s gym and have a target on your chest every game because you’re North Carolina. It’s the reason why we’re here now.”