August 29, 2011
They return all five starters from last year's ACC championship team. They're No. 1 in almost every preseason poll. They can't go to dinner off campus without strangers telling them they're going to win a national title.
Yes, it would be easy for the North Carolina Tar Heels to enter the new season overconfident, but some influential alumni have taken responsibility for keeping the players' egos in check.
Three times a week this summer, former North Carolina greats like Sean May, Raymond Felton, Marvin Williams and Shammond Williams roughed up the current Tar Heels in spirited five-on-five pickup games at the Smith Center.
One of the few times the youngsters left with bragging rights was the day in late July that they won five of seven games. The pros endured some friendly trash talk before delivering a swift dose of humility, sweeping seven straight games the next day and then winning seven of eight the following evening.
"It keeps us humble," sophomore point guard Kendall Marshall said. "If all we saw were the rankings that had us preseason No. 1, we might have slacked a little bit, but having the pros here keeps us working hard. When we have players like that beating up on us constantly, it makes us realize we do have things we have to get better at."
The annual summer pickup games at the Smith Center have long contributed to North Carolina's decades of sustained basketball success, but the format has changed since last year's freshman class arrived in Chapel Hill. Instead of mixing current and former Tar Heels on both teams, the college players brashly requested the regular matchup be their best five taking on the pros' best five because they relished the chance to defeat their elders.
Victories have been rare for the current Tar Heels, but the elite competition and sage advice the pros have provided has been invaluable. The message many of the pros tried to convey to the current Tar Heels this summer was the importance of ignoring preseason accolades and avoiding complacency.
When North Carolina entered the 2004-05 season with similar hype to what this year's Tar Heels have received, May recalls he and his teammates lost focus and dropped their opener against unheralded Santa Clara. May has seen signs the 2011-12 team has the hunger and humility to avoid a similar fate, especially the way the current players contested shots and dove for loose balls during pickup games or demanded rematches to redeem themselves after losses to the pros.
"Us coming back during the summer and beating up on the current guys, it brings them down to earth and humbles them a little bit," May said. "For the most part, we've handed it to them all summer. I think that's a good thing because otherwise their focus can drift and their confidence can get too high."
North Carolina's ability to avoid lapses in concentration will likely determine whether it has a historic season or merely just a good one because the Tar Heels will be the more physically talented team nearly every time they step on the floor. Potential lottery picks Harrison Barnes, John Henson and Tyler Zeller each postponed their NBA dreams and returned to school this spring, ensuring the core of last year's Elite Eight team will be back to take aim at the program's third national title since 2005.
Marshall, whose increased role was the catalyst for North Carolina's second-half surge a year ago, has worked hard this summer to add an improved jump shot to his arsenal so opposing defenders can't play him to drive.
Reggie Bullock, the shooting guard who suffered a season-ending torn meniscus last February, has showcased a more consistent jumper and improved perimeter defense since returning from injury.
Barnes, the highly touted recruit who struggled to meet impossibly high expectations the first half of last season, hopes to pick up where he left off a year ago late in conference play and during the postseason.
And the frontcourt trio of the 6-foot-10 Henson, the 7-foot Zeller and 6-foot-8 McDonald's All-American James McAdoo gives North Carolina a combination of length and athleticism that few opposing teams will be able to match.
"They're going to be good," May said. "My one piece of advice would be for them to stay focused, don't get caught up in reading the hype and come to work every day. Their talent will take care of the rest. If they buy into what coach is saying, they have enough talent to do special things."
As impressed as May has been with the talent, competitiveness and focus the young Tar Heels have shown during the summer pickup games, he would be equally proud of how Marshall responded to a tricky question last week.
Asked whether anything short of a national title would be disappointing given the talent on North Carolina's roster, Marshall insisted the team isn't looking that far ahead and is only focused on getting better in practice. The sophomore did acknowledge, however, that he believes this year's team is even better than the one that edged heavily favored Duke for the ACC title last year and then fell one victory short of a Final Four berth.
"I think we're a lot deeper than we were a year ago and a lot more confident in our abilities," Marshall said. "Last year, we weren't sure how good we could be. This year we know how good we are and we just have to prove it."