CHAPEL HILL — On the morning it became clear that North Carolina guard Dexter Strickland had fired the first shots of the 2012-13 college basketball season, at least in this area, he awoke to dozens of messages on his phone.
“Oh, my goodness,” Strickland recently said with a smile, reflecting on when his disparaging commentary about N.C. State had gone viral.
In an interview with CBSSports.com, Strickland had said that N.C. State represented the “least of our worries.”
“They talk those guys up every single year and we beat them every single year,” Strickland told the website about the Wolfpack, picked to win the ACC for the first time since the 1973-74 season. “… Beat us one year and then they can talk smack.”
Since then, Strickland said he has heard plenty from N.C. State fans. And from one Wolfpack fan in particular.
“There’s this one guy, I don’t even know his name,” Strickland said. “He tweets me every day, and he counts down to the days. It’s a State fan. He says, ’95 days until we destroy UNC.’ And then the next day, ’94 days …’”
Strickland’s comments are representative of his brash personality. He was born in Newark, N.J., and “where I’m from,” he said, “we always talk trash.” But his comments also are representative of a UNC team that enters the season with the edge of an underdog and the optimism that it will prove its doubters wrong.
For the first time in more than 30 years, N.C. State is the clear favorite in the ACC. Media members selected Duke, which has questions of its own, to finish second. Then there are the Tar Heels, who started four players a season ago who were chosen among the top 17 selections in the NBA draft.
UNC, which begins the season at the Smith Center on Friday night against Gardner-Webb, last faced as many questions as it does now in 2009-10, after losing four starters from a national championship team. Strickland was a freshman then, when chemistry problems and injury woes led to 17 defeats and a trip to the NIT.
Yet that was then, he said. And this is now.
“I think we’ve just got to prove everybody wrong,” Strickland said. “The questions that we have this year were the same questions that we had in ’09 – are they still going to be good, are they still going to be able to run the floor?”
The Tar Heels will begin to provide answers during a hectic early-season stretch. They host Gardner-Webb on Friday and Florida Atlantic on Sunday before traveling to Long Beach State on Nov. 16. UNC then will travel to Hawaii for three games in three days in the Maui Invitational.
By the time the Tar Heels play at No. 1 Indiana on Nov. 27, Strickland and his teammates will have likely provided an indication – good or bad – of UNC’s potential. Until then the Heels are eager to prove they can be a formidable, albeit unknown, contender.
UNC enters the season ranked 11th but has adopted the mentality of an underdog. James Michael McAdoo, the sophomore forward, recently said he hopes opponents disregard UNC.
“Hopefully they’ll be smart and realize that we’re still North Carolina, and we’re still competitive,” McAdoo said. “But just going off human nature, they probably will [overlook us] knowing that we lost so much.”
McAdoo is among the many questions that surround the Heels. His strong finish to his freshman year – when he averaged 10.6 points and 4.9 rebounds during UNC’s final seven games – significantly increased his confidence and the expectations that surround him.
Now he just might be the most recognizable name on a team that will need to reconstruct its identity.
“I feel like I did play pretty well at the end of the year but I feel like I could play so much better,” McAdoo said. “And that’s what has me so excited about this year – that I’m going to be able to go out there with the minutes and with the opportunity.”
Other questions include how quickly freshman point guard Marcus Paige can lead the offense, whether junior guard Reggie Bullock can transition from a shooting specialist to more of a consistent, aggressive scorer, and Strickland’s hope to become known as much for his offense as his defense.
Williams, entering his 10th season as UNC’s coach, hasn’t agreed with the notion that his team lacks expectations. After all, UNC was picked to finish third in the ACC.
“And this is a pretty good league,” he said.
Yet how good his team will be depends on how it answers those questions.
“I think a lot of people underestimate us,” said McDonald, who sat out all of the 2011-12 season while recovering from a torn ACL. “Just because we’re a young team, and just because we lost some high caliber players doesn’t mean that we’re not the same North Carolina that we were two years ago, or a year ago.
“I just think that a lot of people, the fans, are in for a surprise.”
Williams is optimistic, too, but wary. His job was easier a year ago. When Williams looks at his team now, he sees potential – but it’s mostly unproven.
“The easiest way to say it is this team has got to play as close to their potential as they possibly can to be successful,” Williams said. “We’re not going to be like last year – well, if this don’t work then (Tyler Zeller) will score anyway or Harrison (Barnes) will get a shot or John (Henson) will block a shot and then Kendall (Marshall) will find somebody on a break.
“This team’s got to play as close to their potential as they possibly can.”
What that potential is, exactly, and how UNC goes about meeting it will begin to become clearer on Friday and in the weeks ahead.