CHAPEL HILL — The things that Leslie McDonald recalls from his freshman year at North Carolina, hed rather not remember.
Being honest, he said, I try to forget.
McDonald, a fourth-year junior guard who sat out last season while recovering from a knee injury, came to Chapel Hill in 2009 with John Henson, Travis and David Wear and Dexter Strickland. It was, in some ways, the best of times. The Tar Heels had won the national championship the season before.
But McDonald, Strickland and the rest of their class arrived at a time when everyone else, it seemed, had gone. The departures from North Carolinas 2008-09 national championship team were significant. Tyler Hansbrough. Ty Lawson. Wayne Ellington and Danny Green.
Still, Strickland said, The expectations were high. I expected us to be very good, still, just being the fact that we are North Carolina. Me being a freshman, I just expected us to win every game.
Instead, North Carolina lost 17 times. The Tar Heels finished 5-11 in the ACC and missed the NCAA tournament for the only time in Roy Williams nine seasons as coach.
Thats what happened the last time North Carolina suffered as many personnel losses as it did after last season, when Henson, senior Tyler Zeller and sophomores Harrison Barnes and Kendall Marshall moved on to the NBA. The more recent losses have brought back bad memories for McDonald and Strickland,
The 2009-10 season was a long, miserable one, filled with problems that were obvious to the public like injuries and ones that might not have been so obvious, like division among the older and younger players. Among that freshmen class, McDonald and Strickland are the only ones who remain.
The Wear twins left after their freshmen season and transferred to UCLA. Henson departed after last season and was selected 13th in the NBA draft.
During the past few years, McDonald and Strickland, similar in appearance and playing style, created a bond. They were roommates. They endured similar knee injuries, similar surgeries and kept each other company on the bench during the second half of last season while they wished they could be on the court.
Me and Dexter are brothers, McDonald said. Not by blood. But I came into this organization with him and weve experienced the highs and weve experienced the lows.
And now, three years after they arrived, faced with a similar set of circumstances as those they encountered when they first stepped on campus, they are determined to avoid a repeat of history.
This isnt new to Williams, who has experienced two other mass exoduses at North Carolina. The first came after his first national championship season, in 2005. Raymond Felton, Sean May, Rashad McCants and Marvin Williams left to become NBA draft lottery picks.
The Tar Heels entered the next season unranked and off the radar. ACC media members predicted the Tar Heels would finish sixth. Instead they finished second, won 12 league games, 23 overall and closed the regular season with seven consecutive victories including one at No. 1 Duke on the Blue Devils senior night.
Ill go back and say 2006 was the most fun Ive ever had coaching, Williams said.
The comparisons among this team and the 2005-06 and 2009-10 teams come naturally. Like those teams, this one will attempt to rebound from the losses of four star players. Like those teams, this one will begin a season surrounded by questions. Like those teams, this one will rely on returning role players to play a larger role, and on freshmen to contribute immediately.
Williams has experienced both extremes. The 2005-06 team exceeded expectations by a wide margin. The 09-10 team, which along with Duke was picked to win the ACC, failed by a wide margin.
Williams doesnt know yet which of those teams this one will mirror. Yet he has a guess.
Its more similar to 06 than it (is) 10 because there we only had David Noel and Reyshawn (Terry), I think, were the only guys that averaged over two points a game, Williams said. But we had a freshmen class that I really, really liked, with one exception. I thought Tyler (Hansbrough) was going to be the biggest dog in the neighborhood when he stepped on the court and I thought hed be that as long as he stayed.
We dont have anybody that has that and has me feeling that right now.
No, but there are four freshmen whom Williams has lauded at various points. Marcus Paige, the point guard, and Joel James, a burly 6-foot-10, 260-pound forward, are likely to start from day one. With his leaping ability and athleticism, J.P. Tokoto has drawn comparisons to Vince Carter. And Brice Johnson is a rangy, versatile forward.
They join a returning cast that includes Strickland, guard Reggie Bullock and forward James Michael McAdoo a trio of former McDonalds All-Americans who have all shown flashes of potential but who will all be asked to play leading roles.
We have several keys guys who were, quote, complementary players, or role players or whatever name you want to put on there, Williams said. Now theyve got to be able to do it with the defense aimed at them. Youve got some other guys, like Leslie and Dexter who are coming off ACL (injuries), they need to be able to play.
And they need to be successful. And then you have four freshmen who have to come in and step up for us.
Young teams crawl; Roy runs
Like the team he coached last season, Williams could move fast. The Tar Heels entered last season with five returning starters, all familiar with Williams expectations and style. It took just a few days for Williams to be reminded that he cant move so fast nowadays.
It was toward the end of North Carolinas third practice of the season. The first two, Williams said, had been, Bang, bang, bang.
I started to introduce something else at the end of practice and Ive got two freshmen looking at me and I cant even see their face because all you can see are their eyeballs, Williams said.
That is the biggest difference, Williams said, between coaching an experienced team and one like this one.
Williams had to move more slowly during the 2009-10 season, too, but few things he tried that season worked. Injuries didnt help, either.
The difference between 06, when we had the great year after the championship, and 2010, when we had a bad year after the championship, is that we kept people healthy, Williams said. I mean, in 2010, Ed Davis and Tyler Zeller they only played one conference game together. So you cant prepare for that.
McDonald and Strickland certainly werent prepared for what awaited them during their freshmen season. They knew itd be challenging, given all the personnel losses, but they expected a somewhat seamless transition from the end of one teams championship run to the beginning of another.
But things fell apart when ACC play began. Amid injury woes, and a certain level of dysfunction behind the scenes, the team won just two of its nine conference games. At the time, McDonald and Strickland felt isolated.
I dont want to throw anybody under the bus, Strickland said. I think we had great people on our team. Its just the leadership wasnt there as it should have been we didnt feel the chemistry as we should have.
Because of that, Strickland and McDonald said they have attempted to create the kind of environment they never had during their freshmen season. Already close with returnees like Bullock, McAdoo and P.J. Hairston, McDonald and Strickland have tried to create bonds with Paige and the other freshmen.
McDonald and Strickland, both known for their loose, calm demeanors, have been more vocal and serious.
I reiterated to the younger class that there are some things that me and Dexter have experienced that were not trying to go that route again, McDonald said. So this is why you need to listen listen up to what were saying.
Paige could hold the key
The most common question entering this season is an obvious one. Will the Tar Heels be more like that 2005-06 team or that 2009-10 team? Both teams surprised observers one in a positive way, one in a negative way.
McAdoo, the sophomore forward, said recently that hes ready to live up to the expectations that came from his strong finish to last season. McDonald, after sitting out all of last season, is simply ready to play. And Strickland is ready, he says, to prove hes more than a defensive specialist.
The fans and everybody see me as a defensive player, he said. And what they dont realize is I can score easily, and Ive been a scorer all my life.
As it often does in college basketball, North Carolinas success might depend most on the success of its freshmen. In 2006, Hansbrough arrived. This year, Paige, who will replace Marshall at point guard, might prove to be the teams most important player.
Marcus Paige has a chance to be really good, Williams said. Little rascal is little, but he does know how to play and he has savvy and toughness, so Im really counting on him to be good.
Williams expects his team to be good, too, but he has had to be patient. patience. The things he expected the past two seasons, he wont be able to expect for a while.
He also has McDonald and Strickland, who arrived together and together experienced Williams worst season at North Carolina. It was a time both players say taught them lessons, and a time neither ever wants to repeat.