- Andy Katz, ESPN Senior Writer
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- North Carolina is hardly hurting.
The Tar Heels missed the NCAA tournament last season for the first time in Hall of Fame coach Roy Williams' seven-year tenure, which began after a two-year dysfunctional blip in the Carolina program in 2002 and '03. Williams hadn't missed the NCAA tournament since his first year at Kansas in 1988-89, when the Jayhawks went through a post-championship postseason ban after Larry Brown bolted.
But there is no reason to fear that the end is near for Carolina's dominance as an elite program (despite the fact that Duke is going through its own renaissance as a championship force in what could be a two-year title run).
"I don't think there was anything wrong with the program," Williams said of last season's 20-17 overall record, an NIT runner-up status and stunning 5-11 ACC finish. "There was something wrong with that team and something wrong with my coaching of that team."
Injuries didn't help the progress last season (Ed Davis missed 13 games, Tyler Zeller 10), and neither did the lack of consistent guard play or, for that matter, overall leadership. Losing four players to the NBA (Tyler Hansbrough, Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington and Danny Green) and another key contributor (Bobby Frasor) off the 2009 championship roster had to be a difficult adjustment. No one should have expected the Tar Heels to be a title contender last season, but an NCAA bid should have been a given.
"You take away a few injuries, and we'd be back in the tournament and people wouldn't be in as much of a panic," Williams said. "But I'm going to be panicked more than anybody else because I care more about it than anybody else."
Williams has made sure the players understand his emotion on the subject. It didn't help that the offseason wasn't as smooth as planned. Twin forwards David and Travis Wear stunned Williams in May by letting him know that they would be transferring, ultimately back home to UCLA. Then, last month, the Tar Heels and Williams released senior wing Will Graves, the top returning 3-point shooter, for a violation of team rules.
Williams called last season the most frustrating one he has been through in 22 years as a head coach. He said he had never lost more than 12 games. Losing 17 after winning a national championship the season before took the Tar Heels from "the penthouse to the outhouse."
He reminds his players of this every day in practice, according to oft-injured junior center Zeller.
"He's more intense than normal," Zeller said at ACC media day in Charlotte two weeks ago. "Coach's favorite comment is 'I'm not going to have a year like last year.'"
The departures of the Wears and Graves aren't ignored, either.
"There are distractions, but everybody is doing a good job staying focused on what we need to do and adapting to what we don't have," Zeller said. "They're gone. They're not coming back. Last year, there were a lot of problems. I don't know what they were. Injuries and things not fitting together, and some of the injuries threw off the chemistry of who plays together. We were out of rhythm all year, and it spiraled out of control quickly. Hopefully, we'll have a better year."
There's no reason to believe they won't, and that's a strong indicator as to why the program is hardly at a danger spot. Now, if for some reason the Tar Heels foundered again, then there could be an issue worth pursuing that something deeper is going on in the program. But that would be bizarre based on the talent and the wide-open race for No. 2 in the ACC behind Duke.
The Tar Heels added arguably the top freshman in the class of 2010 in Harrison Barnes. The 6-foot-7 freshman from Ames, Iowa, is a mature young man who can handle the pressure of being the focal point. Oh, and he's an immense talent on the wing. Adding Kendall Marshall, a guard Zeller said will challenge returning point guard Larry Drew II, to the class makes the position even better. "Hopefully, Larry won't panic like he did last year," Zeller said. "For the most part, he's done a good job, and now Kendall Marshall, who is solid, will challenge him. He's got to push him every day, and, at the same time, Kendall will give him a run for his money."
The competition on the perimeter -- with Drew and Marshall as well as on the wing with Dexter Strickland, Leslie McDonald and freshman Reggie Bullock -- will help this team respond. Having Barnes as an elite player at small forward elevates them a notch. A clear weakness is in the depth up front where Zeller, a talented but still thin John Henson and Alabama transfer Justin Knox make up the entire frontcourt rotation.
"It's just us three bigs," Zeller said. "Will was our fourth big, and we don't have that. It's me, John and Justin Knox. We've all got to adapt more and get into better shape and stay out of foul trouble."
Obviously, the Wear twins would have factored in heavily had they stayed. It's not as if they transferred back to the Big West. They went home to UCLA from North Carolina, so it's hard to paint a negative light on the Tar Heels with those kinds of departures. Still, the timing hurts.
But if there were something seriously wrong with the program, it wouldn't be just on the court. It would show up in recruiting for 2011, '12 and beyond. It isn't.
The Tar Heels have commitments from highly coveted power forward James McAdoo (Norfolk Christian, Va.) and shooting guard P.J. Hairston (Hargrave Military Academy, Va.) and took power forward Jackson Simmons (Smoky Mountain High, N.C.).
"From a recruiting standpoint, not making the NCAAs had no effect," said ESPN recruiting analyst Dave Telep. "After all, they have two titles this decade. UNC recruited well in 2011 and has been trying to lay the groundwork in 2012. They had a plethora of young kids on campus for Midnight Madness, including top target Shabazz Muhammad, the best wing in the nation."
A number of coaches at ACC media day, including Miami's Frank Haith, scoffed at the notion that Carolina's program was in trouble when rattling off the talent on its roster from Barnes to Zeller to Henson to Marshall.
And having the ACC wide open is another indicator that the Tar Heels can erase the bad taste of a year ago rather quickly. Knocking off Duke isn't out of the question, either.
"They are a very, very good team, and everybody [at Carolina] believes they can be beaten," Zeller said. "Play them closely, and it could be very interesting."
The Tar Heels are down in numbers with the unexpected departures of the Wears and Graves, all expected to be major contributors. But none of them is irreplaceable, and committed recruits are in line to fill the gaps created. As long as there is not an NCAA absence in March -- which really would be unfathomable based on the addition of Barnes and the current makeup in the ACC and the country -- then all will return to normal in Chapel Hill soon.
"There's no question we have to stay healthy," Williams said. "Two years ago, even when we won it, we lost Tyler Hansbrough, lost Marcus Ginyard, lost Ty Lawson and Tyler Zeller during that season. We lost Ginyard for the whole season. But we had enough talent to overcome that. With only 10 scholarships and three freshmen and a new player in Justin Knox, we can't afford any significant injuries. But we have the ability to score, and that's something last year's team, from Day 1, I worried about. But we have an ability to put the ball in the basket this year."
The elite status of Carolina won't dip. Matt Doherty recruited well, won early (AP coach of the year in 2001) and then had two poor seasons (missing the NCAAs), which resulted in his demise as coach of his alma mater after only three seasons on the job. Williams' recruiting hasn't dipped, and the injuries, distractions and erratic play of last season shouldn't carry over. There is no need to panic. Carolina should be safe and secure as one of the nation's top programs.
Andy Katz is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
North Carolina went from the penthouse to the outhouse last season. But there is no reason to panic as the Tar Heels should secure their place among the nation's elite programs again.