Plugged In: North Carolina's Surprising Season
Feb. 17, 2006
By David Droschak
Who really believed North Carolina would be competing for a first-round ACC Tournament bye in mid February?
Not many outside of the UNC locker room, that's for sure.
Prognosticators considered a .500 record a real possibility after the Tar Heels lost their top seven players off a 2005 national championship team loaded with four first-round draft picks.
Who was going to score? Who was going to lead? Who was going to play? Those were the questions asked over and over again this past summer, not only by the so-called experts but by coach Roy Williams.
"Coach Williams told us from day one that we can do what no one expects us to do, that we can be the darlings of America," said freshman guard Bobby Frasor.
So faster than expected, North Carolina basketball is a big story again. UNC has won 16 of its first 22 games while compiling a 7-4 ACC record - good for a solid fourth place heading into Sunday's road game against Wake Forest.
The Tar Heels have done it with a pesky defense, a never-say-die attitude and one of the best freshman in ACC history in Tyler Hansbrough. The 6-9 Hansbrough was a prep All-American and highly touted, but he's even exceeded coach Roy Williams' expectations as he continues to pile up remarkable numbers.
In Wednesday's 20-point comeback victory over Georgia Tech, Hansbrough put a stamp on his stellar season by scoring an ACC freshman record 40 points while grabbing 10 rebounds.
"He works as hard as any youngster I've ever coached," Williams said of his budding star, who is averaging 19 points a game. "He comes every day trying to do the best he can do. He's a big-time player and Popular Bluff, Missouri (Hansbrough's hometown) is one of my favorite places."
Georgia Tech coach Paul Hewitt knew Hansbrough was going to be a tough matchup for his club Wednesday, but he believed he had enough inside depth to wear the talented freshman down. Instead, Hansbrough got stronger as the game progressed.
"I can't remember the last time I saw a freshman run the floor that hard," said Hewitt.
The 40-point, 10-rebound game all but sealed up Hansbrough's eighth rookie of the week honor in the ACC.
"I know I've got a few of them and something I'm proud of," Hansbrough said.
Just when it appeared North Carolina's young players had hit the wall in mid-January, losing three of four, they turned around and reeled off five wins in six games. Included in that stretch were double-digit road victories at Maryland and Miami, two teams the Tar Heels have now passed in the ACC standings.
The Tar Heels have four ACC road wins, a remarkable accomplishment considering four of the team's top seven players are freshmen.
"We're a lot better and our freshmen are definitely turning into sophomores," said David Noel, one of two seniors on the roster. "They are doing exactly what they need to do in order to help us win games -- and not just games -- but big games."
"Every game we've progressed and we're starting to get things clicking, starting to turn the corner," said Frasor.
One key improvement in UNC's last two wins has been ball security. The ACC's worst at protecting the ball coughed it up just 13 times each against Miami and Georgia Tech.
UNC's recent surge has come after guard Wes Miller was inserted into the starting lineup. The 3-point ace has been clutch from the outside and has been a hawking defender on opposing point guards.
"Our goal was to try to compete every game and then try to be there at the end of the year. We now have that chance," said Miller.
With one more ACC win, the Tar Heels will likely lock up an NCAA Tournament bid, something that seemed kind of far-fetched months ago.
"This is not as gratifying as it can be," Noel said. "We've got five ACC games left and our fate is in our own hands. We can continue to creep up the standings or we can fall off the earth. Hopefully we can continue to play well, especially on the road and we'll be there at the end."
For Williams, this has turned into a special group. It also has turned into one of his best coaching jobs one season after reaching college basketball's summit for the first time in an illustrious career.
"I feel lucky," he said. "I feel like I've stolen every cookie out of the cookie shop."