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Project in the making

After mass exodus, Heels counting on young players

Posted: Saturday October 29, 2005 1:01PM; Updated: Saturday October 29, 2005 1:15PM
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Quentin Thomas
If the Tar Heels have any thoughts of making the NCAA tourney, Quentin Thomas needs to take a major step forward.
Bob Rosato/SI
Seth's Hoop Diaries

North Carolina is the latest stop in Seth Davis' tour of college hoops camps.

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- The banners commemorating North Carolina's NCAA championships of 1957, '82 and '93 are not easily spotted in the rafters of the Dean E. Smith Center. In terms of placement and design, they do not differ in the slightest from the dozens of others that honor many decades worth of ACC championships, Final Four appearances and final No. 1 rankings.

The 2005 national championship banner, however, is easy to find. It hangs all by itself behind a baseline, opposite the dozens of honored jerseys bearing names like Rosenbluth, Worthy, Ford and Jordan. That championship banner is also the only one in the entire building that bears a colorful logo -- that of the 2005 Final Four, which is framed by the St. Louis arch.

As I watched the 2005-06 Tar Heels practice in the Dean Dome on Friday afternoon, it occurred to me that it's a good thing the '05 banner is so distinct. When the 20,000-plus fans who fill this arena are watching their beloved Tar Heels endure their most challenging rebuilding project ever, the blue faithful can let their eyes drift skyward to that banner. It will remind them that a down year is a small price to pay for an NCAA title.

Has any team in recent hoops history lost so much so quickly? Within a few months of claiming the '05 title, North Carolina said goodbye to four underclassmen who departed for the NBA as well as three graduating seniors who played critical roles. In all, the Tar Heels lost 91 percent of their scoring, 88 percent of their rebounding and 184 of 185 games started from last year. This is the first time in ACC history a team has lost its top seven scorers. And in case you haven't noticed, the ACC has been around for a long time.

So what does that leave North Carolina with? Hard to say. Watching practice, I could see that the Heels still have some pretty good players, including capable veterans in seniors Byron Sanders, a 6-foot-9 forward, and 6-6 forward David Noel, as well as 6-8 junior forward Reyshawn Terry. The problem is, those guys are best suited as supporting actors. This year, they will have to to play lead roles. North Carolina has a highly ranked freshman class, led by one of the nation's best in 6-9 power forward Tyler Hansbrough. But Hansbrough's best asset is his rebounding tenacity, and he is most effective playing off other good players. That, alas, is in short supply here.

Unfortunately, North Carolina's other prized frosh, 6-3 combo guard Bobby Frasor, was nursing an injured right hamstring Friday, so I didn't get to see him in action. Based on what I saw of him on the recruiting circuit, however, I expect him to have an immediate impact. Frasor can really shoot, but he also has a point guard's ability to create for his teammates. I was also impressed Friday with a less-heralded freshman, 6-5 swingman Marcus Ginyard, who is a bit on the thin side but still a smooth scorer. In most years at North Carolina, Ginyard would play a limited role behind the vets, but on this team he will be forced into action -- which will benefit him and the program in the long run.

The best thing North Carolina has going these days is the knowledge that a mass influx of blue-chip talent is on the horizon. Coach Roy Williams got a huge commitment last week from 6-9 forward Brandan Wright, who supposedly was going to choose between Duke and Kentucky. How good is Wright? Let's just say North Carolina fans should send thank-you cards to David Stern for implementing a 19-year-old age minimum. When Wright arrives next fall with fellow studs Tywon Lawson and Wayne Ellington -- a starting backcourt that could someday rival Raymond Felton and Rashad McCants -- they will join a talented sophomore class with some real playing experience under its belt. If Williams can keep that group together for a couple of years, it's not hard to envision another banner being hoisted next to the one from 2005.