Wednesday, November 14, 2007

From Winston-Salem Journal

Heels to face early test
By Bill Cole

Tyler Hansbrough, Danny Green, Deon Thompson and the rest of North Carolina’s basketball players have been itching to get back on the court since last March 25, when the season ended in the NCAA Tournament East Regional championship game.

Today is the day they get to scratch.

North Carolina, the No. 1 team in both national polls, will open its season against Davidson, an old in-state rival from the Southern Conference. Tipoff is 7 p.m. in Charlotte at Charlotte Bobcats Arena.

“The way that we ended last season was so bad,” Thompson said. “I think we’re all excited and ready to play. We’ve been waiting. We’re going to come out full force ready to play. We’re pumped up and ready to go.”

The game will begin Roy Williams’ fifth season as the Tar Heels’ coach. The program is entirely his now, with no players left from the previous coaching staff, and the season will open against a dangerous opponent.

Davidson has become the class of its conference under Coach Bob McKillop, who will begin his 19th season at the school. Davidson has all its starters back from last season’s team that won 29 games, a school record, and has 25 wins in its past 27 games.

Williams watched a tape of Davidson’s last game last season to prepare for the opener. In that game, Davidson pushed Maryland to the end in the NCAA Tournament’s first round before falling 82-70.

“There are some problems; there’s no question about that,” Williams said. “I think more than just opening on the road, opening against a quality opponent like Davidson is probably more difficult than where you’re playing. It’s who you’re playing.

“They’re a very confident team and a well-coached team. They’re a very dangerous team. This is a major challenge for us.”

The Tar Heels will likely start the same lineup that they started in both of their exhibition wins. Everything starts with Hansbrough, a 6-9 junior center who averaged 18.4 points and 7.9 rebounds last season.

The forwards were Thompson, a 6-8 sophomore, and Marcus Ginyard, a 6-5 junior and the team’s most consistent defensive player. The guards were sophomores Ty Lawson, at the point, and Wayne Ellington.

Williams said that all of his bench should be available with the possible exception of Michael Copeland, a 6-7 junior forward from Winston-Salem. Copeland was accidentally struck in the forehead, near his left eye, by Alex Stepheson’s elbow and needed five stitches. He suffered what Williams called a slight concussion.

The Wildcats have three seniors and a junior in their starting lineup. Forwards Boris Meno and Thomas Sander are both 6-8 and weigh 220 pounds. The fifth member of the lineup is Stephen Curry, a 6-3 sophomore who more than lives up to the designation “shooting guard.”

Curry scored 27 points in Davidson’s season opener, a 120-56 win over Emory. Curry made five 3-point shots and handed out seven assists, a career high. Williams said that Curry is as deadly a shot as his father, Dell, a former NBA star.

Thompson saw Curry first-hand last summer. Both played on the United States’ under-19 World Championship tournament team that finished second in the competition in Serbia.

“The kid can shoot; I’ll tell you that,” Thompson said. “No matter where he’s at on the court, he can shoot it. He’s a real cool kid. He’s real quiet, but once you get around him and he gets comfortable, he talks a lot and he laughs.”

Thompson and Green are confident that North Carolina will need no convincing to take Davidson seriously. The players have taken note of early upsets in which Gardner-Webb shocked Kentucky in Rupp Arena and Mercer whipped Southern Cal in Los Angeles. Most of the players say they’re still seething from last season’s 96-84 overtime loss to Georgetown in the regional-championship game and want to atone for that loss.

“We’re ranked up high in the polls, but Coach feels that we should be better than what we are right now,” Green said. “I guess we feel like we should be better with a chance to prove to him how good we really are.

“He feels we can be better defensively. He just wants us to communicate more. The last couple of days we’ve showed him that we’re ready. We want to be fully prepared and not be surprised by anything and play our best basketball. If we play our best basketball we feel like nobody can touch us.”

Williams said he isn’t concerned about being the No. 1 team in the polls. The ranking might give the Tar Heels’ opponents more incentive, but Williams doesn’t consider it a burden or an inspiration.

“It adds absolutely zero to my preparation and my thought process,” Williams said. “If there’s anything less than zero, that would be where it stands. I can give a flip.

“I would love to be No. 1 one time, and that’s the last Monday night.”

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