Commentary

Trio of Tar Heels key to title defense

As UNC celebrated at the White House, team began dreaming big again

Originally Published: May 13, 2009
By Andy Katz | ESPN.com

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- If North Carolina is going to get back to the White House in 2010, not just to the Final Four, it will likely come down to the play of three players.

Larry Drew II.

Ed Davis.

Marcus Ginyard.

None of them hid from the question of whether they could be visiting with President Obama again in a year. They weren't cocky. But they are confident once again that the Tar Heels aren't rebuilding, but just reconfiguring for a second consecutive national title.

North Carolina coach Roy Williams doesn't appear to be landing the top point guard of 2009, the still-uncommitted John Wall of nearby Raleigh. It appears Wall has narrowed his choices to Kentucky, Miami and Duke, with Florida a distant fourth contender. Not putting a full-court press on Wall, whether he could land him or not, is proof that Williams isn't envisioning anyone replacing Ty Lawson other than Drew.

That is quite a statement considering Drew didn't get much run this past season behind Lawson, playing a handful of minutes in the final five games of the NCAA tournament and never getting a chance to show his potential. But that wasn't the plan anyway. Drew was a freshman backup to Lawson, insurance if the ankle or the toe or anything else slowed Lawson down.

[+] EnlargeLarry Drew
Bob Donnan/US PresswireAs a freshman, Drew averaged 1.4 points and 9.6 minutes per game.

But Williams could have easily made a push to recruit over Drew. He didn't.

"It means they have confidence in me and faith in me, and I feel I owe them a big-time performance next year," said Drew as he exited the White House after he and his national championship teammates visited with the President and some of North Carolina's congressional delegation. "I know what I can do and I know why I came here. I'm totally confident in myself, and all I've got to do is show everybody else."

The expectations for Drew were consistent from the staff to the returning teammates to the most important departed player, Lawson, who is staying in the NBA draft after finishing his junior season with a stellar NCAA tournament.

"I just think he's good, and I think he's a quarterback first," said Williams of Drew. "I think he tries to get people the ball, and he's going to be fine defensively. He can do a lot better job on how important he takes care of the ball because he's following a guy who's probably the best I've had doing that. Larry has got to be able to push it at a fast pace and still not turn it over."

Williams was referencing Lawson, the ACC Player of the Year and the most important player at the Final Four in Detroit. This past season, he had 230 assists to just 66 turnovers. In Drew's limited minutes (9.6 a game), he had 74 assists to 45 turnovers.

"He's going to handle it good," Lawson said. "He didn't play too well last year with limited minutes and things like that, but everyone's going to see how good he can be. I think he's going to be one of the top point guards in the country once he gets his confidence up."

Lawson, who went against Drew in practice last season, said Drew could get into the lane whenever he wanted and "is long and a real good defender. You're going to see a totally different player next year."

Davis, also a freshman last season, said Lawson is a more productive scorer, but Drew might be a more precise passer.

"Larry can be a big-time point guard," Ginyard said. "I'm just excited to see him break out. I know it's in him, and we're just waiting for him to show it."

Williams' endorsement spoke volumes to Ginyard. If Williams believed in Drew, then that was all the players needed to hear.

"Coach is going to get on you at times, but he believes in all his players, and he believes in Larry, and that's why he went with him," said Ginyard, referencing the lack of recruiting over Drew. "There's no better feeling than to have someone of that stature with confidence in you."

Ginyard can play the point in a pinch, and so too can incoming freshman Dexter Strickland if need be, but Drew will be the starter. The onus will be on him to jump-start this squad and get it into the high-octane offense.

No one is saying Drew will be as fast as Lawson, but he'll have quite a fleet running the floor with him, led by Davis.

Davis blossomed in front of millions in the national title game against Michigan State. He was as active as any player on the court, scoring 11 points in 14 minutes and grabbing eight boards. Davis averaged 6.7 points and 6.6 rebounds in 18.8 minutes a game. He played behind Deon Thompson and Tyler Hansbrough, so he wasn't going to get a lot of run throughout the season. But let's not be naive. Davis' 6-foot-10 length, activity and production in Detroit would have made him a top-five to -seven pick in June's NBA draft. But he wasn't tempted enough to declare and snoop around the league to see if he could take the money and run before he was ready to contribute as a professional.

"I came back because I like it here and I can be much more prepared to be able to compete and not just be a practice player when I get in the league," Davis said. "I want to play my first year when I get there. There's no rush."

Refreshing, isn't it? And it's appreciated by his teammates and the staff.

"He's going to be a huge part of this team next year," Ginyard said. "No. 1, because of his talent level, and No. 2, the experience he has had at the end of the year with the minutes he played and contributions he made in the Final Four and the championship game."

The front line will be one of the best in the country with Davis, the experience and double-figure scoring of rising senior Thompson, a now-healthy rising sophomore Tyler Zeller (out for 23 games with a broken left wrist) and highly touted incoming freshmen John Henson and the Wear twins, David and Travis.

Thompson said Davis made a "smart decision," because he can refine his game before the NBA. But managing the minutes will be Williams' toughest task.

"It's going to be interesting to see," Thompson said. "It's going to be a tough task for Coach to handle, but if anyone was going to do it I'd rather it be Coach Williams -- although it's going to be interesting to see how he does that."

[+] EnlargeMarcus Ginyard
Bob Donnan/US PresswireIf he stays healthy, the defense and veteran leadership of Ginyard will be invaluable to UNC.

What Williams will need is leadership from Ginyard, who was a part of the senior class presenting President Obama with a framed photo of the team playing basketball with him a year ago before the North Carolina Democratic primary. That was when Ginyard was healthy. He played in only three games last season due to a stress fracture in his left foot.

He was arguably the Tar Heels' top perimeter defender, and would have aided Wayne Ellington on defense had he been healthy during the season. But he was still a leader on the bench and in the locker room, a bit more vocal than Hansbrough. His teammates constantly tried to recognize him as part of this senior class. During the regular-season finale against Duke, classmate Bobby Frasor called Ginyard out to the court to ensure he was recognized, even though it was known he would come back for his fifth year.

Ginyard, who said his foot is pain-free, is one of the reasons Williams is comfortable with the Tar Heels in 2010.

"Let's put it this way, if I didn't have Marcus on the perimeter, I'd be scared to death -- and you can put that in capital letters … SCARED TO DEATH," Williams said. "He can play the 2, that's his natural position, and he can play the 3 and he can play the 1 in a pinch for us, and he's been there and he's been in involved in big games and tough practices. He can get those guys to understand what's going on."

Strickland and fellow incoming freshman guard Leslie McDonald will be expected to play. So, too, will one-time suspended guard Will Graves and Justin Watts at times in the rotation behind Ginyard and Drew on the perimeter. The front line is deep, talented and will be the focus of a team that should have a chance to challenge for the title with Kansas, Michigan State and a handful of others still to be determined based on what happens with Wall and NBA early-entry decisions.

"There's absolutely no doubt in anybody's mind that we'll have the firepower and the talent to get there, to get back to the Final Four and to have that chance to get another tour at the White House," said Ginyard before departing onto Pennsylvania Avenue. "It's exciting and a lot of hard work is ahead of us. It's a big challenge, but we're excited about it."

Andy Katz is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Andy Katz | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com