CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Marcus Ginyard relishes the prospect of his first high-profile game at North Carolina, an NCAA title game rematch tonight against visiting No. 12 Illinois in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge.
And just how long has he been looking forward to it?
"I've been thinking about it since I saw the schedule," the freshman guard replied with a grin late last week. "That's just one of those games that you never have to worry about getting fired up for."
Excitement is not a problem for the Tar Heels (3-0), who nearly tripped in their opener against Gardner-Webb but since have pummeled Cleveland State and UC Santa Barbara before less-than-capacity crowds at Smith Center. Neither is shooting; the Tar Heels have topped 50 percent from the floor in all three games.
Instead, the biggest question is the same as it was more than a month ago, when the team opened practice: Can a program withstand the departure of its top seven scorers and still make a postseason run?
Reminders of the Tar Heels' 75-70 victory in last year's NCAA final are everywhere at the Dean Dome, from replays of big plays on the video board to fans wearing T-shirts celebrating the program's first national title in a dozen years.
And then there's the enormous championship flag hung at one end of the arena, almost literally a white elephant amid scores of modest Carolina blue banners that matter of factly tout the program's tournament berths, Final Four trips and decorated players.
On the floor, though, there is no Raymond Felton to run the offense, no Rashad McCants to drive in from the wing or hit a clutch 3-pointer. There is no Sean May to average a double-double and handily control the post, no Marvin Williams to come off the bench yet still become the second overall pick in the NBA Draft, no Jawad Williams, Jackie Manuel or Melvin Scott to add a timely basket or make a critical stop.
But there is hope because of a freshman class that has been asked to contribute immediately. Ginyard, forward Tyler Hansbrough and point guard Bobby Frasor have started every game, and swingman Danny Green is one of the first options off the bench. All have provided glimpses of their talent in the season's opening moments.
Hansbrough, a 6-foot-9, 235-pound bruiser who doesn't back down from bigger, more experienced foes, already is emerging as Carolina's best player. The McDonald's All-American has led the Tar Heels in scoring every game and has displayed a knack for taking quality shots even when defenders clog the post.
"We have to do a better job of teaching him about how crowded it can get inside there," coach Roy Williams said. "It helps us to make more shots outside and keep people off of him. For a freshman, he's about as aggressive going after the ball as anybody I've ever seen, and he has a great touch around the basket."
Yet there also are sobering reminders of the risks of using so many young players, such as surrendering an average of 18 turnovers and eight 3-pointers. A surprising pass or move to the basket can be followed by a careless possession or a defensive breakdown just as easily as by another fine play.
"We have to have the energy and the passion, and I think this team has to bring that every night," Williams said. "It's not like Raymond and Sean and Marvin and those guys that were so gifted, and when they really brought it we were really something."
During Friday's 83-66 defeat of UC Santa Barbara, a handful of students just behind the final row of press seating spent part of the evening watching the score of the Duke-Memphis game update on a reporter's laptop. The group groaned when the Blue Devils eked out a three-point victory.
There won't be any out-of-zip-code scoreboard watching tonight while the revamped Tar Heels face the Illini (5-0), their first ranked opponent of the season. It is the first real barometer Carolina -- and its legion of fans -- has to gauge what this year's team might be capable of accomplishing.
"I'm so excited," Hansbrough said. "I can't wait. They're going to be so fired up, and we're going to be so pumped up. I just can't wait to come out and play in an atmosphere like the Dean Dome against real good competition."
More is on the way. The Tar Heels visit No. 10 Kentucky on Saturday and still have a full ACC schedule and a meeting with No. 15 Arizona remaining.
It figures to be a tough task just to return to the NCAA tournament with only one senior starter (David Noel). Maintaining a nine-man rotation would help, as would an accelerated maturation process once conference play begins. It isn't a matter of if the feisty Tar Heels will be NCAA-worthy but rather if they will get there quickly enough.
"This is an intelligent team," Williams said. "We lack depth, particularly up front, and we lack experience. But I'm loving coaching them. I think they're going to make sure it stays that way."