- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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North Carolina can win the NCAA title if: Ivory Latta doesn't have to (or try to) carry them
Ivory Latta is every bit college basketball's version of a rock star.
North Carolina's diminutive senior loves the spotlight and nobody warms up a crowd quite like she does when she's running, shooting, strutting and posing. But a singer without a band is a weak imitation of musical greatness, a prepackaged radio single with no depth or staying power. A singer without a band is, well, it's "American Idol."
And winning a national championship can't be a solo act.
For North Carolina to avenge last season's Final Four disappointment and win the program's first national championship in more than a decade, Latta must make sure she's more Alex Kapranos than Taylor Hicks.
As good as Latta is -- and her MVP performance in the ACC tournament was a reminder of just what it's like when she's hitting from outside and punishing hesitant defenders off the dribble -- the Tar Heels have the potential to be something special in March not because of their star but because of the talent they can deploy around her. It's what makes this an even more dangerous team than last year's semifinalist.
Despite graduating a great player in La'Tangela Atkinson, the Tar Heels are more balanced than they were last season. Latta averaged 22.4 percent of North Carolina's points in 2005-06, while the other four starters accounted for 45.3 percent of the scoring load. This season, Latta is at just 19.2 percent and the rest of the starters are at 54.2 percent. Even substituting LaToya Pringle, last year's top reserve, for little-used starter Jessica Sell, this year's supporting quartet of starters is carrying a much bigger share of the load.
In part, that's because Latta is shooting less accurately from inside the arc, a fact some have attributed to a slow recovery from offseason knee surgery, but it's also because she has more support. Erlana Larkins remains perhaps the most overlooked dominant post in the nation, averaging 13 points and a team-high 9.6 rebounds. Camille Little and Rashanda McCants both improved their field-goal shooting dramatically (from 45.4 to 47.7 percent for Little, from 37.8 to 43.7 percent for McCants). And Pringle has maintained a gaudy 56 percent mark despite taking more than twice as many shots as she did off the bench last season.
North Carolina had a lot of quality wins during a regular season in which it knocked off Tennessee, Connecticut and Maryland (before adding a second win against the Terrapins in the ACC tournament), but the wins against the Lady Vols and Huskies were examples of the Tar Heels at their most dangerous.
Not only did Larkins -- not Latta -- lead the Tar Heels in scoring against the Lady Vols, but Little also took more shots than Latta. And while Latta did lead the team in field-goal attempts six weeks later against the Huskies, she trailed both Larkins and Pringle in the points column.
The Tar Heels won those games because they had more weapons than two quality opponents could handle.
None of which is to say Latta isn't still the front man for this group. She was the one who hit the clinching 3-pointer against Connecticut and carried the Tar Heels past the Terps in the ACC tournament. But she's also the one who took 37 shots, hitting just nine, in two losses against Duke.
If she lets her teammates play their parts, it might be the Tar Heels taking a curtain call in the city that is home to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.