It’s all the same players, all the same talent, and the same coach. Essentially the 2008-2009 North Carolina men’s basketball team has not changed.
But the expectations have changed. Not that the Tar Heels were not expected to contend for a national title last year, but never has a team in recent history faced the challenge of being unanimously picked to win it all.
The roster includes all five returning starters, depth at every position, and four highly heralded freshmen who figure to contribute down the stretch of the season. The starting five is highlighted by returning national player of the year winner Tyler Hansbrough, the last winner of that award to return to school since Shaquille O’Neal returned to LSU in the early '90s.
But Coach Roy Williams know that going the distance will not be easy for his deep and experienced squad, especially with their challenging schedule.
The Tar Heels open their season at home on Nov. 15 against the University of Pennsylvania. From there the schedule immediately begins to tighten up when the Kentucky Wildcats come to Chapel Hill, followed by a lengthy plane ride to Maui for the EA Sports Holiday invitational.
While the average fan will tell you that success in March is all that matters, what a team does in November and December can set the tone for the rest of the season. Early potential matchups against Texas and Notre Dame in Maui and a Dec. 3 matchup against Michigan State could provide a benchmark for North Carolina against teams they could see later on.
Despite the rigorous early schedule, one of the most intriguing matchups will occur when the Demon Deacons of Wake Forest play host to Hansbrough & Co., in which the veteran talent of UNC will be tested by the young but talented squad Dino Gaudio has compiled in Winston-Salem. The matchup between the in-state powerhouses could be a statement for Gaudio’s team.
From that point it is business as usual, as the treacherous ACC conference schedule begins and teams in the conference will begin their quest to dethrone the two-time defending champion.
Several key games include a Jan. 21 matchup against Clemson, who seek to avenge their two heartbreaking loses at the hands of the Heels and win their first game in Chapel Hill after 53 tries. The game will feature an athletic Clemson team that continually gives the UNC big men trouble and pressures the whole game with a stifling full-court defense.
Yet for all the matchup problems Clemson creates, the most important regular season game will be the finale against Duke on March 8, when one of the most accomplished senior classes in North Carolina basketball history gets its last shot to defeat the Devils at home.
If Roy Williams hopes to accomplish the lofty goals set for this year’s team, he will need consistent play from Danny Green and Wayne Ellington at the guard position. Both players were relatively streaky a season ago and need to improve their three-point accuracy.
Even more important is the improvement of freshmen Tyler Zeller and Ed Davis, who will be called on early and often with the temporary absence of Hansbrough to provide interior scoring and defense. If either one can prove to be a reliable backup option when Hansbrough or junior Deon Thompson need a break, the Tar Heels should live up the preseason billing.
To sum up the expectations for this season, anything short of a national championship will be considered an unsuccessful season for both fans and players alike. But with the mixture of talent and leadership this team is laden with, there is no reason to think that UNC will not be cutting down the nets come April 6.