Tar Heels open season of high expectations
Tyler Zeller and Harrison Barnes look ready to pick up where they left off last season. If their North Carolina teammates do the same, the Tar Heels might just meet those lofty expectations.
The Tar Heels opened a season in which they'll be among the favorites to win the national championship, drawing more than 21,000 fans to the Smith Center on Friday night to watch the mix of veteran talent and touted newcomers in an abbreviated first practice.
''It's a little pressure, but at the same time, I think that's why we're a great team,'' junior guard Dexter Strickland said. ''We have high expectations and we just have to play hard and match it.''
The annual ''Late Night with Roy'' event included a 20-minute scrimmage in addition to players performing dances and showing taped skits in a night of fun before things get serious. Zeller scored 11 points to help White beat Blue 39-31 in the scrimmage, while Barnes - whose second-half tear helped fuel UNC's surge to the Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season title - scored 11 to lead the Blue, according to unofficial stats.
A year ago, North Carolina was coming off a 17-loss season and hoping Barnes would live up to preseason expectations as the first freshman named preseason All-America by The Associated Press. He got off to a slow start and the team looked lost in January, but Barnes got rolling with a series of clutch late-game shooting performances as the Tar Heels won 17 of 19 to end the regular season and chase down Duke for the ACC crown.
The Tar Heels ended the season with a loss to Kentucky to fall a game short of the Final Four.
Among the five returning starters from that 29-win team are Barnes, Zeller and John Henson, three players who returned to school instead of entering the NBA draft. The Tar Heels added two of McDonald's All-Americas in James Michael McAdoo and P.J. Hairston, making UNC a popular choice for No. 1 in numerous preseason publications.
McAdoo tipped in his only basket for the opening score of the scrimmage, while Hairston managed four points and struggled with the outside shot that is expected to open things up for Zeller and Henson inside. But Zeller, a senior 7-footer, pointed out that the youngsters likely won't have to take on such prominent roles as in the past two seasons.
''I think probably the biggest thing is we do have enough veterans that we can just put them up against the veterans and they can kind of pick up the speed as they go,'' Zeller said. ''They're going to struggle for a couple of weeks, but that's kind of part of being a freshman. You've got to learn quickly and hopefully you catch up to speed.''
In addition to the intrasquad scrimmage, the Tar Heels played taped spoofs of ESPN's ''This is SportsCenter'' ads. The clips gave a nod to the Tar Heels' title hopes, with NBA player Marvin Williams from the 2005 NCAA championship team teaching McAdoo how to clip down the nets in one. In another, a pickup game between current and former players got a late start when the former players - including Tyler Hansbrough, Raymond Felton and Wayne Ellington - from the 2005 and 2009 title-winning teams simply pointed to the banners to make the current group fetch the ball to begin the game.
The Tar Heels required their freshmen to prepare for the opener against Michigan State in the Carrier Classic game on the flight deck of the USS Carl Vinson by dancing a routine while wearing life preservers.
The event was hosted by ESPN anchor and alumnus Stuart Scott. It also honored former UNC All-America and NBA all-star Vince Carter, who donated $2.5 million to the Carolina Basketball Family Fund which paid for renovations for the Smith Center basketball offices in 2010. With the gift, the brick walkway beside the Smith Center bearing the names of every varsity player, coach, trainer and manager in program history was named for Carter.