North Carolina has a wealth of scoring, speed, talent and depth at its disposal heading into a season of expectations that will only be satisfied by winning the NCAA tournament.
But the top-ranked Tar Heels likely will not have reigning national player of the year Tyler Hansbrough as they open their season on Saturday by hosting Penn at the Smith Center.
When Hansbrough - expected to become North Carolina’s all-time leading scorer and rebounder as well as the Atlantic Coast Conference’s all-time top scorer - Wayne Ellington and Ty Lawson all decided to return to Chapel Hill, the Tar Heels instantly became the team to beat in college basketball.
They garnered the first-ever unanimous No. 1 preseason ranking in the AP Top 25, and with it, a staggering amount of pressure to exceed their Final Four appearance from last season, when they fell behind 40-12 in a loss to eventual champion Kansas in the national semifinals.
“We were 36-3 last year,” said Tar Heels coach Roy Williams, who has his top six scorers back. “There’s not a heck of a lot of glaring weaknesses out there, I don’t think.”
Hansbrough, though, is not expected to play due to a stress reaction in his right shin. The senior, who averaged 22.6 points and 10.2 rebounds last season, is being brought along slowly since the injury could conceivably evolve into a stress fracture.
“We’re trying to be very conservative,” said Williams of Hansbrough, who has not practiced with the team the past two weeks. “That’s the bottom line, and when you have something like this, there’s no true formula to go by.”
But Hansbrough isn’t the only player Williams will be without. Fellow starter Marcus Ginyard is sidelined until at least December after foot surgery, and on Friday, Williams said backup point guard Bobby Frasor may miss this game after spraining his ankle in practice Monday.
“Needless to say, it’s a big area of concern for me,” Williams said. “But it’s what it is. I can’t slap my hands together like Mr. Miyagi and make them well. We just have to be able to go through it.”
While sixth man Danny Green is expected to start for Ginyard, Frasor’s possible absence means Lawson would have to log significant minutes in the opener. The junior averaged 12.7 points and 5.2 assists while playing 25.3 minutes per game last season, but Williams may be forced to tweak an up-tempo offense that finished second in Division I at 88.6 points per game in 2007-08.
A freshman likely will fill Hansbrough’s spot in the low post, with Williams having the choice of 7-footer Tyler Zeller or 6-10 Ed Davis. Zeller appears to be the frontrunner after scoring 13 points in North Carolina’s 102-62 exhibition victory over UNC-Pembroke on Nov. 8.
“We understand what it takes,” said Ellington, who averaged 16.6 points and shot 40.0 percent from 3-point range in 2007-08. “That’s something we had to explain to the freshmen. When guys go down, you have to raise your play.
“We just feel like we’re at the point where we have enough guys that have more than enough experience and know what coach wants from us.”
Penn, which was picked to finish second behind unanimous favorite Cornell in the Ivy League, is seeking improvement as it returns four starters from a team that went 13-18 overall and finished third in the conference.
The Quakers return six of their top seven scorers, and Ivy League rookie of the year Tyler Bernardini is expected to emerge as the team’s go-to player after averaging 12.9 points, making a team-high 45 3-pointers and setting a freshman school record for points.
Harrison Gaines, who had 6.7 points and 3.6 assists per game last season, will be given the task of trying to slow Lawson and keep the Tar Heels from their fast-paced offense.
The Quakers have lost 22 straight against ranked opponents since a 73-70 overtime victory over then-No. 6 Temple on Nov. 23, 1998.
Hansbrough had 29 points and 10 rebounds, and Green added 19 points off the bench as the Tar Heels posted a 106-71 victory last season in Philadelphia. Bernardini had 26 points on 10 of 17 shooting for the Quakers, who are 2-5 all-time versus North Carolina.