Commentary

Williams prepares for the great expectations of 2008-09 season

Originally Published: July 18, 2008
By Andy Katz | ESPN.com

AKRON, Ohio -- North Carolina coach Roy Williams made it clear to his Tar Heels that if they don't put the team first in their quest for a national title, they won't play for him next season.

"If I feel that someone is out for themselves, I don't give a darn who it is, they won't play," Williams said last week in Akron, Ohio, while evaluating high school talent at the LeBron James Nike Skills Academy.

I didn't think any way in Hades that we'd have all three back.

--UNC coach Roy Williams on the return of Wayne Ellington, Danny Green and Ty Lawson

North Carolina is the overwhelming favorite to win the 2009 national title. The Tar Heels return 2008 consensus national player of the year in senior forward Tyler Hansbrough. UNC received an unexpected boost when rising junior guards Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellington withdrew from the NBA draft. Senior-to-be guard Danny Green, who flirted with the NBA draft, also returned. Add in returning forwards Deon Thompson and Marcus Ginyard, guard Bobby Frasor (coming back from a knee injury) and the infusion of even more talent with ready-to-contribute freshman guards Larry Drew and Justin Watts and forwards Tyler Zeller and Ed Davis, and the Tar Heels are as loaded as any team in recent memory to be challenging for the title.

"I didn't think [there was] any way in Hades that we'd have all three back," Williams said of getting Lawson, Ellington and Green to return on the deadline to withdraw from the NBA draft.

With those three back, UNC will return its top six scorers, who combined to score 78.7 points, which is more than 319 Division I teams averaged last season.

The only losses from last season's Final Four team are backup point guard Quentin Thomas, who was a senior, and reserve forward Alex Stepheson, who transferred to be closer to his family.

And UNC's returning depth makes this team very different from two of Williams' previous best teams. His consensus No. 1 team in the 1996-97 season at Kansas had Paul Pierce, Raef LaFrentz and Jacque Vaughn and earned a No. 1 seed, but the Jayhawks were upset in the Sweet 16 by eventual champion Arizona. The 2005 national champion Tar Heels were led by NBA first-round draft picks Sean May, Raymond Felton, Rashad McCants and Marvin Williams, but even that team couldn't boast the bench that this year's team will have.

"The '05 team had six or seven guys, but this team has a chance to go much deeper," Williams said. "On the '05 team, we won just 19 games the year before so there was no reason to be fat and happy. None of those guys thought about the NBA and the NBA had no interest in them. They were hungry to show people they were a big-time basketball team. If this team adopts that attitude and shows everybody, then we'll be fine."

Great Expectations

With Tyler Hansbrough, Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington and Danny Green, UNC is the overwhelming No. 1 for the 08-09 season. How might the rest of the Top 25 look? Andy Katz has an early preview. Top 25
Lunardi: 2009 Bracketology

Williams said the "high character" of this Tar Heels team is a reason he's not concerned that he has "too many guys."

But one concern is the Tar Heels' defense. UNC gave up an average of 85 points and allowed 48.5 percent shooting in its three losses -- to Maryland, Duke and Kansas -- last season.

"We got to a point last season where we were OK defensively," Williams said. "We have to get to a point where we're really good. The '97 team was the best defensive team I ever coached. The 2005 team held Illinois and Michigan State to below 30 percent in shooting in one half in the Final Four."

The only thing Williams still doesn't have a handle on from last season is the perplexing first half against Kansas in the national semifinal. The Jayhawks raced out to a 40-12 lead in the first 13 minutes, a shocking 44-27 halftime lead and an eventual 84-66 win. Kansas went on to beat Memphis in overtime for the national title in San Antonio, with Williams watching his former team in the stands, wearing a Kansas sticker on a black shirt to show his support.

"It's the most dumbfounded I've ever been as a coach," Williams said of the Kansas loss. "In the locker room, we prepared like we did every game in the ACC and in the NCAA. They'd all been the same and the kids appeared to have a good focus. I'm just dumbfounded, still dumbfounded. Kansas just came in and hit us in the mouth."

UNC won't back down in scheduling once again. Williams has the Tar Heels in the Maui Invitational with potential top-25 teams Notre Dame, Texas and Alabama. They will play Kentucky in Chapel Hill and Michigan State at 2009 Final Four site Ford Field in Detroit.

Williams is taking the Tar Heels on the road, too, against lower-level teams that could cause problems, like UC Santa Barbara on the way to Maui and Valparaiso in Chicago in a game to get Illinois native Frasor back home.

The ACC has another five teams that will start the season as probable NCAA tournament teams in Duke, Miami, Wake Forest, Virginia Tech and Clemson, with a few others that could possibly earn a ticket to the Dance.

"The league is so much better and experienced," Williams said. "And in playing Kentucky, Michigan State and the Maui games, I think those kinds of games will get us ready."

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.

Andy Katz | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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