Tar Heels ready to start the Post-Hansbrough era
For the past four years, Roy Williams had the security of knowing Tyler Hansbrough would be there to take a big shot or grab the rebound that would start North Carolina's transition attack. And now? "I keep looking for him," Williams said. "Where's Waldo? Where's Tyler?" Yes, No. 50 is gone, taking with him the determined style that made him the most decorated player in the program's history. So too are Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellington, who helped the Tar Heels win their second national championship in five seasons and reach consecutive Final Fours. Although North Carolina has lost a lot of flashy, big-name talent, there's still enough left behind - namely along a deep front line - to keep the Tar Heels among the elite. It's a far less tenuous situation than the last time the Tar Heels (34-4) came off a title run. They lost their top seven scorers from that 2005 team, including four underclassmen who went on to become NBA first-round picks, and had to rely largely on an incoming freshman class that included Hansbrough, Danny Green, Bobby Frasor and Marcus Ginyard. The outside expectations were minimal, but that group surprised by winning 23 games, finishing second in the Atlantic Coast Conference and reaching the second round of the NCAA tournament. This time, Williams has a lot more proven players to work with, starting with senior forward Deon Thompson (10.6 points) and Ginyard, the Tar Heels' versatile do-everything leader in their 2008 Final Four run who is back for a fifth season after sitting out most of last year with a foot injury. Despite losing four starters, the Tar Heels are co-favorites with rival Duke in the ACC and are picked by many to be a Final Four contender again. "It's unbelievable to me, it really is," Williams said. "I told our kids it's probably because we made everybody look so bad in '06 that they won't get caught that way again. That part is a huge difference. We could beat the drum that, 'We're going to show them."' It all starts up front. Playing alongside the 6-foot-8 Thompson is 6-10 sophomore Ed Davis, who had 11 points and eight rebounds in the championship-game rout of Michigan State and was the team's top shot blocker. The team also returns 7-foot sophomore Tyler Zeller, who returned late last season from a broken wrist that was initially expected to sideline him for the rest of the season. Williams then brought in three McDonald's All-Americans, each standing 6-10, in freshmen John Henson, and David and Travis Wear - who are believed to be the first twins ever to play for the Tar Heels. Henson has been working in preseason as a 3-man, where his long arms and lanky 195-pound frame could create headaches for opponents all year. "It's definitely something we'll have to use to our advantage, the fact we have these big guys that are still very skilled and very capable of handling the ball," Ginyard said. "It's going to be great to make those matchup problems for other teams. We'll have to look into that and trust that our big men are working hard to be able to do that for this team." Things in the backcourt, however, aren't nearly so comfortable. Sophomore Larry Drew II inherits the unenviable task of following Lawson, who won the Bob Cousy Award as the nation's top point guard last year and ran Williams' fast-paced offense to perfection. Freshman Dexter Strickland should also see time at point, with Ginyard pitching in as well when needed. Perhaps just as glaring is the fact that North Carolina must replace the outside shooting lost with the departures of Lawson, Ellington and Green, who combined to make 213 of the team's 264 3-point baskets last year. That could mean opportunity for junior Will Graves, the team's top returning outside shooter who is back from a midseason suspension for a breaking team rules. Then there's the issue of whether anyone will be able to hit a shot in the clutch, something very few of these Tar Heels have been called on to do. And that could be where the Tar Heels most miss Hansbrough, Lawson and Ellington - an experienced trio who each hit a buzzer-beating game winner in the past two seasons. Regardless of who's back and who isn't, these Tar Heels are eager for a shot at defending their crown. "Every team wants to be the best. That's what we're aiming for," Davis said. "We want the No. 1 ranking."