Even with losses North Carolina still formidable, players say

Team loses 4 players, will start freshman; tough questions arise

acarter@newsobserver.comOctober 18, 2012 

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UNC's James Michael McAdoo (43) drives to the basket against Jackson Simmons (21) during the annual "Late Night With Roy" kick off to the basketball season on Friday October 12, 2012 at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill, N.C.

ROBERT WILLETT — rwillett@newsobserver.com

— Roy Williams walked into the same hotel on Wednesday as he did about a year ago, and answered questions from some of the same people. They wanted to know then how North Carolina would handle the burden of high expectations.

And wanted to know now whether the relative lack of expectations might free his Tar Heels. For the first time in two years, Williams and his team on Wednesday weren’t the focal points of the ACC’s annual basketball media day. The Heels entered the past two seasons as the overwhelming favorite to win the conference.

Now they will enter the season with an overwhelming amount of questions: How will UNC recover from the loss of four players who were selected among the top 17 picks in the NBA draft? Is freshman point guard Marcus Paige ready to start from day one, as Williams hopes? Who will emerge as the Tar Heels’ most reliable, go-to players?

Yet some things, Williams and his players said on Wednesday, haven’t changed.

“North Carolina is still North Carolina basketball,” Reggie Bullock, the junior guard, said. “… I feel like we still have the bull’s-eye on our back.”

UNC might always have that, given the history and prestige of its program. Yet even Bullock admitted there’s a different feel that surrounds this team, which must find its way without Harrison Barnes, John Henson, Kendall Marshall and Tyler Zeller – the four players most responsible for UNC’s success the past two seasons.

With those four, the Heels entered last season the favorite to win the national championship. Without them, Bullock and James Michael McAdoo, the Heels’ sophomore forward, faced questions on Wednesday about whether this is a rebuilding year.

“I don’t know why y’all would really say that,” McAdoo said. “We still have a lot of the guys that are here from last year’s team. Granted, Leslie [McDonald] and Dexter [Strickland] were hurt.”

As he went on, McAdoo changed his course and said, “I can see why you might say it’s a rebuilding year.”

But, he added, “It’s another chance to prove ourselves … People are really, I think, selling us short. But that’s fine. We’re not worried about that. We’re not worried about any of the preseason rankings or preseason accolades that other teams might be getting over us.”

While the Heels aren’t surrounded by the kind of hype that followed them into last season, they might be free of some of the burdens that come with that kind of attention, too. During the second half of last season, Marshall, the Heels’ former point guard, expressed frustration with those expectations.

If UNC won a close game, Marshall sometimes told reporters that it wasn’t good enough – that fans and media members always expected more.

“Like Kendall was saying, we win by five, six points, people still felt like we didn’t give all that we could,” Bullock said.

If the Heels are successful this season, it’s likely there will be no doubting their effort. They’ll need all of it to reach their potential.

Williams on Wednesday reflected on the differences between now and a season ago, and in some ways he said it wasn’t all that different. His roster has undergone dramatic change, yes, but the expectations that routinely surround his team are still there, he said.

After entering each of the past two seasons as the conference favorite, UNC was picked to finish third in the ACC’s annual preseason poll. He admitted he has to teach things more slowly to a team that will rely on the contributions of four freshmen, and that he has questions of his own about how good the Tar Heels can be.

But, Williams said, “We say (we are) without expectations but we were picked third in the league. And this is a pretty good league.”

He said he preferred how it was a year ago, when people were telling him how good the Tar Heels should be. Now he hopes they can prove they’re better than some believe they can be.

Carter: 919-829-8944

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