The names in the headlines may be different, but the Tar Heel team will still be a contender.
By Charlene Curtis for theACC.com
On the backs of Ivory Latta , Camille Little, and Erlana Larkins, the University of North Carolina won three consecutive ACC Tournament Championships, earned three straight number one seeds in the NCAA Tournament, played in two consecutive Final Four semifinal games and advanced to another Elite Eight. Latta and Little, two of the most decorated players in Carolina history, are now playing in the WNBA. Yet, the 2007-08 version of Carolina basketball is still talented enough to make a run at a national championship again this season.
Larkins (6-1, Sr. Forward), a three-time All-ACC selection and a National Player of the Year candidate, is back to anchor the inside for the Tar Heels. She spent the summer winning her fourth gold medal for a USA Basketball team and, according to head coach Sylvia Hatchell, is an "even better player now."
After leading her team in rebounding (9.4 rpg) and field goal percentage (.567) last season, Larkins will be expected to add leadership to her list of responsibilities this season. "Coach Hatchell has told me that whether or not I think I am a leader, I am," said Larkins.
Not only is Larkins a better player but Rashanda McCants (6-1, Jr. Guard/Forward) is much improved. "The light is even brighter," Hatchell said when speaking of McCants' development and versatility. She can play the 2 or 3 and maybe even the 4."
An improved McCants gives Carolina the versatility on offense and defense that will be missed by the graduation of Little (All-ACC and ACC All-Defensive team honoree). McCants is long and athletic. She can stretch the defense with her three-point shooting, hit the mid-range jumper off the dribble, or take the ball all the way to the basket. On the defensive side, McCants had 82 steals which was second only to team-leader Little last season.
LaToya Pringle (6-3, Jr., Forward/Center) complements Larkins inside. Like Larkins, Pringle runs the floor well making life difficult for opponents' post players who historically tend to struggle keeping up with the athletic Carolina posts. Whereas Larkins uses her power and foot speed to go around defenders to score, Pringle uses her length and jumping ability to score over defenders.
Defense is also one of her strengths. Pringle recorded 121 blocks, which is the most-ever in Carolina history. "She is an excellent defensive player," said Hatchell. "All her defensive concepts are excellent. She has great timing."
Added to that is a wealth of experience. Alex Miller (5-6, Sr. Guard) can play either the point or the shooting guard positions. Heather Claytor (5-8, Jr. Guard) is a three-point specialist. Iman McFarland (6-3, Jr. Forward) and Jessica Breland (6-3, So., Forward) give the Tar Heels more length and experience inside. All of that lets Carolina patiently bring along its two high school All-American freshman guards, Cetera DeGraffenreid and Italee Lucas.
"The freshmen are going to play," said Hatchell. "Lucas and DeGraffenreid are fast as lightning. It's going to be hard to keep them out of the lineup. At the beginning, we may start veterans, but it won't be long before those freshmen will be in there (the lineup)."
Just like she did with Latta and Little when they were freshmen, Hatchell will be patient with her freshmen this season. "I told the freshmen two things - 'Don't slow down, and don't look back,'" Hatchell said. "I will let them make mistakes just as long as they don't slow down, because we can correct those mistakes. I just don't want them to slow down to compensate for their mistakes. In the long run, our tempo, our pace, (and) our aggressiveness on offense and defense will payoff big dividends for us."
Without the emotional leader Latta (UNC's all-time leading scorer and two-time consensus All-American) and the versatile Little on the court for the first time in four seasons, the Tar Heels will be a different-looking team. Or will they? Lucas and DeGraffenreid bring a Latta-type flash in the backcourt. They both were McDonald's and WBCA High School All-Americans. And Lucas has already won two USA Basketball gold medals which means she has already competed with and against very talented basketball players at a very high level.
Expect the Tar Heels to continue to push the tempo, to challenge teams with their speed and quickness on offense and defense, and to share the scoring load. But whereas the "big three" last season were Larkins, Little, and Latta, the "big three" this season will be "Larkins, Pringle, and McCants." Whereas, Latta was the go-to in crunch time last season, look for Larkins' number to be called on in crucial situations.
"When it gets to be down the stretch, she (Larkins) will be a go-to player," Hatchell said. "In pressure situations, you have to go to your main horse. We'll run a lot of things for Erlana."
Larkins may be the main horse, but North Carolina has a lot of talented players who are capable of carrying the load this season. Pringle's growth and development will make it difficult for teams to focus too much on Larkins. Lucas and Miller provide legitimate scoring options on the perimeter if McCants draws too much attention. And then you can't forget about Claytor, who is always hanging around the three-point arc.
It may take a few games for the first-year All-American guards to get their feet wet and for the Tar Heels to adjust to life after Latta and Little, but North Carolina is talented, athletic, fast, and deep. Opponents will need to take their best shots early in the season if they hope to pull off upsets. Otherwise, as Hatchell stated, "Come tournament time, we'll be a whole lot better than we're going to be in the beginning."