By Eddy Landreth
Basketball season for the University of North Carolina men opens on Wednesday at 7 p.m., when the Tar Heels will play Davidson in Charlotte. And this is an excellent Davidson team.
Stephen Curry, son of former Charlotte Hornets' star Dell Curry, scored 27 points to lead the Wildcats to a 120-56 victory against Emory in the season-opening game for both of those teams on Friday.
Stephen Curry played on a U.S. national team with Deon Thompson of Carolina this past summer. His Davidson team this fall is the real deal. The Wildcats have been picked by some to go as deep as the round of eight, or more, in the 2008 NCAA Tournament.
But the NCAA Tournament is a long way off. Right now, Carolina has to worry about Wednesday.
Davidson has experience, and it's experienced at winning. The Wildcats return all their scholarship players and add three freshmen to the mix for a club that went 29-5 overall, 17-1 in the Southern Conference last season.
"We worked hard to get in this position, one where we've received national recognition," said 6-foot-8 senior forward Thomas Sander. "There's no reason for us to feel pressure."
No there is not.
Regardless of how much anyone thinks of this team, the Wildcats will still be expected to lose. They're playing the nation's No. 1.
The pressure will be squarely on the shoulders of North Carolina. How the Tar Heels handle it will reveal just where this basketball team stands.
Coach Roy Williams says exhibition games are practice with people watching. What people saw in Carolina's two preseason matchups was a team seeking its own identity.
This is not the team that finished the season against Georgetown. This is a remix without Brandon Wright, but with Thompson and Alex Stepheson.
Carolina closed out its pre-season with a 107-52 victory Friday against Lenior-Rhyne at the Smith Center. The Tar Heels played better Friday than they did against Shaw in their first exhibition game. The improvement showed on defense in particular.
"We need to work on focusing," said junior guard Bobby Frasor, who hit the Tar Heels' first three-pointer of the year. It came in the second half against Lenior-Rhyne.
In the opening exhibition, Carolina looked disjointed, and the kids getting used to a revamped lineup pointed to the newness of it all as the reason. Another week of practice and another game revealed a team hard at work.
Redshirt freshman Will Graves is the only new face, and he was here last season. Graves sat out last year to gain some separation from his class and improve his body and skills. He did not play on Friday because of a sprained ankle he suffered in practice.
He watched his teammates chisel away at their flaws on Friday. They successfully smoothed out some of the rough edges, but Shaw and Lenior-Rhyne do not simulate Davidson. UNC will be forced to play physically and with some strength of will to win this opening game.
It will not be unlike last year's second game of the season, which was played in Charlotte against Winthrop. UNC had to scrap to defeat Winthrop, 73-66.
UNC cannot afford to make so many mental mistakes, the players said.
"There are a lot of errors we're making by ourselves," Frasor said. "Teams are not forcing them. We're throwing the ball away, not doing the right thing on a play we had designed."
Junior Danny Green, who is moving between post play and the wing this year, gave an excellent performance against Lenior-Rhyne. He hit 5-of-9 field goals, all six free throws, had 10 rebounds, 16 points, three blocks and two steals, while coming off the bench.
"I was just doing the job coach wanted me to do, come in and give the team energy," Green said. "I felt like we played a lot better than we did in the last game. We were better defensively. We talked more, and it showed."
He's still adjusting to his time at power forward.
"The more I do it in practice, the more comfortable I get with it," Green said. "I'm still an amateur at it, but I'm getting used to it and learning from the other guys."