Checking in with ... North Carolina (cont.)
Herewith is my breakdown of the Tar Heels:
Heart and soul: Hansbrough. He's not just the face of Carolina basketball, he's the face of college basketball. Get a good look while you can. You can't say Hansbrough came back to win a championship, because when he made that decision he was still under the assumption that at least one of his teammates was going to turn pro. The reason Hansbrough came back is simple: He's having fun. Just like we're going to have fun watching him.
Most improved: Thompson. This was a tough call because all of North Carolina's main guys, as I indicated, have gotten better. But both Williams and Holladay suggested I go with Thompson here, based mostly on the improved condition of his body. Thompson came to school overweight, and though he took a big step forward last year, he didn't quite give the team the consistent defensive toughness it needed down the stretch. With muscular 6-9 forward Alex Stephenson having transferred to USC, the Heels will need Thompson to have an even bigger season as a junior.
X factor: Lawson. I went with Lawson here for the same reason I selected Gerald Henderson as my X factor at Duke. North Carolina needs Lawson to play like a lottery pick in order to win a championship. Part of reaching that status involves improving his toughness. For example, Lawson injured his foot on the first day of practice, yet he didn't miss a single session all week. "Last year he would have sat out," Williams said. "The year before we would have had to bring in the Red Cross." If Lawson can maintain that kind of toughness this team will be in great shape.
Glue Guy: Frasor. I'm going with the 6-3 senior here mostly because Ginyard is out, but do not underestimate Frasor's ability to hold this team together. Though Frasor only played 12 games last year, Williams tabbed him as the defensive player of the game five times. Frasor won't win many games with his long-range shooting (he has made 32.3 percent in his career), but he's enough of a threat from behind the arc that teams have to respect him. As a senior who understands his role and fills it with enthusiasm, he has a lot of value.
Lost in the shuffle: Will Graves. A 6-6, 245-pound sophomore with a smooth shooting stroke, Graves would be getting ready to step into the rotation, if not the starting lineup, at most programs. But whereas Zeller and Davis will get pressed into action based on need, Graves is facing a major logjam on the perimeter. He'll have much more opportunity to play next year, once Ellington and Lawson are gone (assuming they turn pro), but for the time being he'll have to do what he can with limited minutes.
Bottom line: I realize I am not exactly breaking news with all this praise, but it's instructive that despite my expectations, the Tar Heels impressed me so much. Winning a championship is never easy, and Ginyard's absence underscores how susceptible any team is to injuries. But aside from bad luck, it's hard to envision a scenario in which North Carolina does not end the season as the best team in America. Until further notice, you can consider them my prohibitive favorite to win the 2009 NCAA championship.