Checking in with ... North Carolina
At an early practice, the Tar Heels are looking better than last year
Tyler Hansbrough is the heart and soul of the Heels and of college hoops
Marcus Ginyard's injury gives the rest of the team time to work on its defense
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- You might think a man wouldn't have any trouble gaining access to a building that bears his name, but at the moment, Dean E. Smith is unable to get into the parking lot outside the Dean E. Smith Center.
The school has recently put up a security gate, and Smith has neither the requisite I.D. card nor the code to push into the dial pad beside the entrance. Smiling sheepishly, Smith suggests to me that we drive to another part of campus and then walk back to his office. Before he shifts his car into a reverse, however, a man in the vehicle behind us offers to use his card to get us through the gate.
As we roll into Smith's parking space, I can't resist asking, "How many wins do you have to have to get into this place?" (For the record, Smith retired in 1997 with 879 career wins, which now stands second only to Bob Knight's 902 in the NCAA record book.) Smith is 77 now, and though he moves a little slower than he used to (partly because of knee replacement surgery last December), and his mind is not quite as sharp as it once was, he is still the same soft-spoken Kansan whose ego was always so much smaller than the enormous edifice that now bears his name.
Soon after coach Smith and I sat down for lunch at the Carolina Club, I pulled out my reporter's notebook. He smiled and made a motion as if he was zipping his lips. He was happy to talk to me, but he preferred I write about the team, not him. So I put the notebook away and we talked hoops and politics, but whenever I tried to nudge Smith to talk a little about himself, he redirected the conversation back to me, my job and my family. It's not hard to get me to talk about my kids, so after a while I let the conversation go wherever he wanted to take it.
When I told coach Smith I was going to be watching the Tar Heels practice that afternoon, he said he planned on going too. It would be the first time in a year that he was going to watch a practice. "I get too nervous and too emotional about everything," he said. "The games make me especially nervous. I thought I needed some distance from the whole thing, so last year I just stayed away."
Later that afternoon, I watched North Carolina, the nation's consensus preseason No. 1 team, practice from the upper deck of the Dean Dome. Smith sat by himself on a chair on the court and quietly slipped out when the workout was over. I didn't get a chance to ask for his impressions, but I can tell you what I told Tar Heels assistant Joe Holladay when he asked for mine. "I think," I said, "that was the best practice I've ever seen on October 22."
This, you see, is the time of year when most teams are trying to figure out who they are and what they have. North Carolina, on the other hand, is fine-tuning the roles of well-established veterans. If the rest of America is going over algebra I right now, North Carolina is already on advanced calculus.
The Heels return their top six players from the squad that reached the Final Four, but it is wholly inaccurate to say they will be the same team they were a year ago. Remember, we're talking about 19- to 21-year-old kids here. They have lots of room to improve, and they've worked hard to do just that. Even from watching a single, two-hour practice, I can tell you that all of North Carolina's main players are significantly better than they were a year ago. And that, my friends, is bad news for the rest of college basketball.
I was struck by this notion time and time again. There was Wayne Ellington, repeatedly attacking the rim, a contact-fearing spot-up shooter no more. There was Tywon Lawson, draining open threes and conducting the half-court offense with aplomb. There was Deon Thompson, sleeker and stronger, quite obviously in the best shape of his career. And of course, there was last season's national player of the year Tyler Hansbrough, creating his own perimeter space and draining fallaway jump shots. Always looking to get in extra work, Hansbrough put himself through an intense pre-practice shooting workout. He consistently sank feathery three-pointers.
On top of all of that, senior guard Bobby Frasor looked fully recovered from the torn ACL that ended his junior season in late December. The two freshmen big men, 7-foot Tyler Zeller and 6-10 Ed Davis, were active and effective, though Davis is probably a little more ready right now to handle the rigors of the ACC. Even 6-4 freshman guard Justin Watts, who was signed in the spring in anticipation that either Lawson or Ellington (or both) would turn pro, pulled off a few moves that made me straighten up in my seat. And keep in mind that 6-5 senior swingman Marcus Ginyard, the team's best overall defender, couldn't even practice because of a stress fracture in his left foot that has him sidelined until early December.
The upside to Ginyard's injury is that his absence will force Williams to give Zeller and Davis more playing time early. It will also force all the other players to tighten up on D, which was this team's only discernible weakness last year. Even the one thing that could trip up this squad -- sky-blue high expectations -- is less of a problem than it would be most places, because that is something that North Carolina deals with on an annual basis.
"We were a big target in 2006 when our leading returning scorer had scored three points a game," a surprisingly relaxed Roy Williams told me before practice as we sat in his office. "It's not like we've been a top 150 team and all of a sudden we're picked No. 1. When you have North Carolina on your chest, you're going to be a pretty big target, so I assume our guys will handle it like they've handled it before."
In many respects, this team will remind people of Florida's "Oh-Fours," the quartet of juniors who turned down the prospect of NBA riches to deliver the Gators to their second straight NCAA title in 2007. Hansbrough, the first consensus national player of the year to return to college since Ralph Sampson came back to Virginia in 1982, didn't even bother putting his name in the draft. "I was either going to do it or not," he told me. "There was not going to be any testing the waters."
Lawson, Ellington and sixth man Danny Green did put their names in, but they all came back after learning they weren't going to be picked in the first round. (Lawson probably would have stayed in if he had not been arrested in June for underaged drinking while driving.) Their decisions to test the draft waters gave them the chance to work out against other draftable players, hear straight from NBA general managers what they needed to work on, and then return to school to shore up those deficiencies. Hence the obvious improvements.
All of this is a long-winded way of recommending to my friend Dean Smith that he get his I.D. card ASAP. He'll want to make sure he can get into the Dean Dome without a problem this season. I have a feeling he's going to like what he sees.