- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Danny Green was an hour into an interview session in an Atlanta hotel last month when the matter of North Carolina’s unquestioned role as college basketball’s preseason favorite came up - again.

“Expectations,” the Tar Heels swingman said. “A new one.”

Amid the ensuing laughs, a point was made. There isn’t anything inherently different for North Carolina this season. For everyone else, the conventional wisdom concerning the march to March is that the contenders fall into two categories.

There’s North Carolina. And then there’s everybody else.

“And deservedly so,” Georgia Tech coach Paul Hewitt said.

That sort of unanimity stems from the return of five starters who plowed their way to the Final Four before enduring a first-half burial against eventual national champion Kansas. The same group of players saw their title dreams dashed a year earlier with an Elite Eight collapse against Georgetown.

More specifically, it is rooted in the presence of center Tyler Hansbrough, arguably the best player in more than a generation to dominate the college game and then return the next year. LSU’s Shaquille O’Neal (1991) is the last AP player of the year to come back for another go-round.

Guards Wayne Ellington and Ty Lawson remain in Chapel Hill, as does Green. All three took a peek at the NBA. All three demurred, deferring pro careers for a year to improve. And for another chance at a title that vanished with that 84-66 loss in San Antonio.

“When they all decided to come back, I said, ‘If you think we’re going to focus the offense on you and get you 35 shots a game, don’t come back,’” coach Roy Williams said. “It’s a pretty easy deal. If you want to come back and be part of a great team and try to help the team, come on back and do that.”

But it can’t be quite that easy - as the Tar Heels already are discovering. Senior forward Marcus Ginyard, arguably Carolina’s best defensive player, is out until next month after surgery to correct a stress fracture in his left foot. Much more ominous news arrived in late October, when Hansbrough was diagnosed with a stress reaction in his right shin.

With Ginyard and Hansbrough, the projections of a surefire national champion would make more sense. As both watch from the bench for the time being, perhaps the short-term projections are reduced.

Probably not by much.

“It just comes with the territory, being at North Carolina,” Green said. “We’re a big school, a big name and we have a target on our chest every year, and we’re expected to do big things every year. High expectations come with that.”

Rarely, though, do they come with such agreement. Even when Florida returned its entire championship starting lineup two years ago, Kansas and North Carolina were seen as possible spoilers for the Gators. Instead, Florida won another title.

Then Kansas secured its championship last season. The Jayhawks, as well as fellow Final Four participants Memphis and UCLA, were gutted in the offseason. Seniors completed their careers, and all three schools lost at least two underclassmen to the NBA Draft.

The Tar Heels’ biggest losses were reserve forward Alex Stepheson and backup point guard Quentin Thomas. Williams attracted a typically strong recruiting class.

The byproduct of the Tar Heels’ talent and uncertainty everywhere else is perhaps the surest thing to hit the game since five of the top six scorers on Duke’s 1991 national title team stuck around. The next year, the Blue Devils were a wire-to-wire No. 1 team and won another championship.

History - be it the comparisons to great teams of the past or just North Carolina’s postseason runs of the past few years - don’t mean much to the Tar Heels. It’s probably a wise approach, lest the cacophony of outside voices overwhelm preparation for Saturday’s opener against Pennsylvania and everything beyond it.

“I think we’re very good at worrying about ourselves and what we have to do as a team,” Ellington said.

This season, it means navigating a landscape in which a title surge is assumed, not just anticipated. And it means opponents will savor a rare victory against the redoubtable Tar Heels even more.

Green insisted a year without a title would not constitute failure. Yet it’s an idea with enough traction that Williams is already attempting to quash it.

“I’m not going to put myself in the boat that we have to do this,” he said. “If we don’t win a national championship and all of the sudden I’m laying on the concrete outside the Smith Center, don’t think I jumped.

“Somebody pushed me, but I did not jump.”

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