North Carolina wasn’t expected to repeat as national champion last season after losing four key players to the NBA, but did better than many predicted.
The second-ranked Tar Heels are expecting much more this season.
They open with another talented mix of freshmen, hoping it meshes well with last year’s group, when they meet Sacred Heart on Tuesday in the first round of the NIT Tip-Off at Charlotte, N.C.
North Carolina lost underclassmen Sean May, Rashad McCants, Raymond Felton and Marvin Williams from its 2005 national title team and wasn’t even ranked heading into last season. The Tar Heels responded with a group of newcomers led by ACC rookie of the year Tyler Hansbrough to go 23-8 and win nine of their final 11 games.
“Last year everybody kind of counted us out, and we had to make a statement to everybody,” Hansbrough said. “It’s a totally different year. Last year, I don’t think anybody would have us in the top 5 preseason. But we’re going to approach it the same way.”
Hansbrough, who averaged 18.9 points and 7.8 rebounds as a freshman, was the leading vote-getter on the preseason All-America team and he’ll have plenty of help.
Coach Roy Williams’ latest superstar recruiting class includes several players who are expected to contribute immediately. The McDonald’s All-American trio of Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington and Brandan Wright are the best of the bunch.
Lawson is a point guard who led Oak Hill Academy to a 42-1 record as a senior last year. Ellington won the 3-point shooting contest at the McDonald’s game and is considered one of the best shooters in the college game. Wright is a 6-foot-9 forward known for his shot-blocking ability.
It remains to be seen how Williams will fit in the new talent. The Tar Heels have four starters back and none of them are eager to give up their place.
“I guess the word is that it’s going to be detrimental to the team, to have so many great players fighting for minutes,” sophomore guard Marcus Ginyard said. “But I think it’s going to be an advantage to the team to have that competitiveness in practice and even in games to have people quote-unquote ‘fighting’ for these minutes.”
The Tar Heels had an offensive explosion in a 140-101 victory over Division II Pfeiffer in an exhibition game on Saturday. It was the most points North Carolina has ever scored in a game as Hansbrough had 24 points and 15 rebounds.
Ellington and Wright were the only freshmen to start, although Lawson is expected to eventually supplant Bobby Frasor at point guard.
Sacred Heart, which has never faced North Carolina, lost its opener 80-78 at Fordham on Friday. The Pioneers made just 17 of 29 foul shots and committed 17 turnovers.
The Tar Heels are 84-12 all-time in season openers.
The winner will face Iona or Winthrop on Wednesday.