No one likes to look backward when making predictions for a new year, but in the case of North Carolina's men's basketball team, a quick trip back to 2007-08 is in order.
Last season's accomplishments included a 36-3 record against one of the nation's most difficult schedules, a 14-2 mark within the ACC, an ACC tournament title and a trip to the Final Four.
What last season did not include was a national championship—and that's the obvious and blatantly unfair bar set by fans and the media that must be met for the 2008-09 campaign to be judged a success.
That's because Roy Williams will field potentially the best team of his entire career. Virtually every credible publication designated UNC as the nation's No. 1 team in the preseason—you really can't even find a Zogby-like outlier—and for obvious reasons.
UNC retained its top six scorers from that dominant team, including the one and only Tyler Hansbrough. The 6-foot-9 big man averaged 23 points and 10 rebounds a game as a junior and was named national player of the year on a near-unanimous basis last season.
More surprising, the club's top three perimeter scorers all returned to the team. Junior guards Ty Lawson (13 points per game, 5 assists per game) and Wayne Ellington (17 ppg, 5 rebounds per game) and senior forward Danny Green (12 ppg, 5 rpg) applied for the NBA draft following last season, but they opted to withdraw upon the recognition that they weren't going to be selected early in the first round, if at all.
Along with junior power forward Deon Thompson (8 ppg, 5 rpg) and senior swingman Marcus Ginyard (7 ppg, 5 rpg), that's a nucleus that is wondrously talented and battle-tested.
Then there are the new guys. UNC's four-player signing class was regarded as the nation's best by many experts, and through the early part of the schedule both Ed Davis (6-foot-10 power forward) and Larry Drew II (6-foot-1 point guard) were significant contributors. Another touted freshman, 7-foot center Tyler Zeller, broke his wrist against Kentucky and likely will miss the entire season.
In short, this year's Tar Heels entered the season saddled with high expectations yet also brimming with potential. That said, this core group of players also has set out to achieve something else: redemption.
It's highly atypical for a Final Four team to experience shame, but that's precisely the feeling that permeated the UNC community after the disastrous loss to Kansas in the national semifinal last April. The Tar Heels played flat, confused basketball and at one point trailed 40-12 in the first half—compelling now-retired CBS analyst Billy Packer to declare "This game is over!"—en route to a humbling 84-66 defeat.
The shock and hurt of that performance carried into the off-season and heightened anxieties during the NBA auditioning process undertaken by Lawson, Ellington and Green. When the three players (along with Hansbrough) all decided to delay their professional aspirations, the 2008-09 season became an opportunity to both gain another title and erase last season's bitter end.
But can the Heels maintain a steady gaze on the smaller series of steps leading to the postseason, or will they become distracted by a goal that can't be met until April?
UNC does have some bounce-back Triangle history in its favor. Prior to winning the NCAA championship in 1974, the David Thompson-led N.C. State Wolfpack had faced the ignominy of finishing undefeated in 1973 without having the opportunity—due to NCAA probation—to compete in the postseason.
In 1990, Duke suffered a historic beating at the hands of the University of Nevada-Las Vegas in the NCAA final, infuriating and inspiring the Christian Laettner- and Bobby Hurley-led squad to topple that same UNLV team in 1991 on the way toward capturing Coach K's first national title.
Clearly, then, this year's Tar Heels figure to be extremely hungry and focused. But will they stay healthy?
Lawson suffered a severe ankle sprain last February that forced him to miss six ACC games, and he never truly regained form down the stretch. Guard Bobby Frasor tore his anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) last December and was lost for the remainder of the year.
Already this season, Zeller likely is finished for the year, and iron man Hansbrough missed several games due to a stress reaction in his shin. Meanwhile, Ginyard is expected to miss most of December while he continues to recover from a stress fracture in his foot that he suffered in the fall. Senior reserve big man Mike Copeland tore his ACL in the spring and isn't expected to return until the new year.
Despite the various injuries, Williams has remained committed to his high-octane philosophy. Lawson may be the nation's fastest point guard from end to end of the court, and his ability to create easy offense in transition gives the Heels a built-in advantage. While Lawson gives the team its turbo dimension, Hansbrough remains the workhorse in the middle and the club's primary offensive option. The goal for him this season is to step away from the basket more frequently to stretch opposing defenses with his jump shot.
At the wing positions, Ellington remains the team's most prolific three-point shooter, and Green—who is starting for Ginyard during his convalescence—is contributing in so many areas that Williams may continue to start him even after his teammate returns to full health.
But the big story during the early season was Thompson. Maligned by some a year ago for being soft, he has demonstrated improved strength, quickness and confidence. He performed very well during Hansbrough's absence and maintained that high level—averaging 15 points and eight rebounds per game to start the season—even after the franchise player returned to the lineup.
If the offensive improvements cause an uptick to the club's already-formidable scoring capabilities, it's defense where Williams focused most of his energies in the preseason. The dividing line between UNC and Kansas in that horrifying defeat last spring was the Jayhawks' ability to defend. The Tar Heels had improved over the course of the season but never reached the championship level defensively, and the early returns so far this year have been very positive.
Lawson and Ellington, in particular, have increased the pressure applied to opposing ball-handlers, and the presence of newcomer Davis adds another shot-blocker to the equation. Mostly, though, it's mentality rather than ability that will determine how effectively UNC shuts down its opponents as the season progresses. A more dogged mentality will do more than intensify the team's defensive pressure; it will enable the Tar Heels to withstand immense pressure of a different sort from inside and outside sources—including their rivals, all ready to pounce on any failure with sharpened knives—in a season that, right or wrong, is a de facto all-or-nothing proposition. Win it all or win nothing.