GREENSBORO, N.C. — This time a year ago, North Carolina was an afterthought in men’s ACC basketball. External expectations, usually so extravagant for the boys in baby blue, ceded to uncertainty.
It was a logical approach. The Tar Heels had lost their top seven scorers from a national title team that had met its own lofty preseason standards, and there was no reason to believe they would contend for a conference title.
Instead, North Carolina matured rapidly, finishing second in the conference and earning a No.3 seed in the NCAA tournament. And with so much of that team returning — in addition to a posse of talented freshmen — it is no surprise the Tar Heels are considered a strong contender for their second national championship in three years.
The anticipation of another Carolina juggernaut has clearly surfaced, and reporters who convened for the ACC’s media day yesterday overwhelmingly ordained the Tar Heels as the league’s favorite.
Locally, Virginia Tech (sixth), Maryland (seventh) and Virginia (eighth) were clustered in the middle of the pack. None of the three reached the NCAA tournament last season.
The Tar Heels, though, are clearly expected to be the class of the conference. With rugged sophomore forward Tyler Hansbrough among four starters returning, Carolina figures to be formidable regardless of who it has added.
Throw in highly touted freshmen guards Wayne Ellington and Ty Lawson and Final Four talk naturally follows. Yet Carolina still will be young — only three juniors and seniors are likely to be part of the regular rotation — so it will be curious to see how the Tar Heels handle the additional scrutiny.
“We just try to explain it to them [that] it doesn’t make any difference; we still have to play on the court,” coach Roy Williams said. “Last year at this meeting we left, and the next morning we were picked sixth. We didn’t tell them, ‘OK, let’s show them they’re right.’ We wanted to do the best we could, and that’s how we’re looking at it this year.”
There are some holdovers from the last highly touted Carolina team, which was heralded two years ago as a title threat. That squad promptly lost its season opener to Santa Clara but quickly recovered and won the NCAA tournament.
That scenario still weighs heavily with the Tar Heels, who will open Nov.14 against Sacred Heart in the NIT Tip-Off.
“People picking us to be one of the premier teams in college basketball and us kind of having a bull’s-eye on our backs, those are similarities,” guard Wes Miller said. “But it’s a different group of guys.”
The same is true at Maryland, where the Terrapins will look to shake off missing the NCAA tournament for the last two seasons with a roster that includes six seniors who don’t want to be known for letting a program five seasons removed from a national title slide into oblivion.
“It’s our last year, and we’re going to do what we have to do and just play hard,” senior forward Ekene Ibekwe said. “We want to make it back to the tournament and leave on a good note and put this program back where it needs to be.”