The nation’s unanimous No. 1 for much of the first half of the season, North Carolina has regained the top spot in the rankings just in time for the second season.
The Tar Heels, however, are hoping they haven’t lost something more important.
Conference player of the year Ty Lawson’s availability is in question for top-seeded North Carolina’s ACC tournament quarterfinal game against Virginia Tech on Friday afternoon, when the Tar Heels will begin pursuit of a third consecutive league tournament crown.
With its entire core in tact from a team that reached the Final Four in 2008, North Carolina (27-3) began this season as an undisputed No. 1, a title coach Roy Williams’ team held until it was stunned at home by Boston College in its ACC opener Jan. 4.
After a surprising 0-2 start in conference play, the Tar Heels finished the regular season by winning 13 of their last 14. They captured the outright ACC regular-season title with Sunday’s 79-71 win over then-No. 7 Duke, then claimed the top spot in the AP poll one day later for the first time since Dec. 29.
“I am extremely proud of our team,” Williams said. “We started off 0-2 and a lot of people were abandoning ship and criticizing our team a great deal, and I told our team … that it was a long year.”
But bad news also emerged from the weekend for North Carolina, with Lawson’s right big toe swelling up after he played with an injury he sustained last Friday. Williams said Tuesday that Lawson’s status for this game and beyond was unclear.
“It’s just tough for me to move on it or pivot off it right now,” Lawson said Sunday after having 13 points, nine assists and eight rebounds. “It felt numb. I felt like I was running on four toes. I was able to do everything I could, but now I’m coming down off it and it’s real painful right now.”
The junior point guard has been outstanding this season, playing in every game, averaging 15.9 points and ranking third nationally in assist-to-turnover ratio (3.32). He beat out teammate Tyler Hansbrough - the reigning national player of the year - for the conference’s top individual honor.
Although Hansbrough’s numbers aren’t quite as impressive as last season, the senior is still averaging 21.1 points and 8.1 rebounds.
It was Hansbrough’s jumper in the final second that gave North Carolina a 68-66 win over Virginia Tech (18-13) in last year’s ACC semifinals, as the Tar Heels went on to capture a second straight league tournament title and record 17th since the formation of the ACC in 1953.
They’ll be facing the Hokies for the second time in 10 days after beating them 86-78 in Blacksburg on March 4.
While Virginia Tech struggled with a difficult stretch of its schedule in losing six of seven to close the regular season, the eighth-seeded Hokies used a 14-0 second-half run to beat Miami 65-47 in Thursday afternoon’s first-round game.
Sophomore Malcolm Delaney had 17 points on 14-of-15 shooting from the free throw line, while senior A.D. Vassallo added 14. They are both among the top six in the ACC in scoring.
The Hokies also held Miami to 33.3 percent shooting from the field, with no Hurricanes player reaching double figures in points.
“I told them - ‘Don’t be afraid,’” coach Seth Greenberg told the Hokies’ official Web site. “Just go out and play. Trust yourselves. Play to win and enjoy the moment. That was my biggest focus.”