Carolina defies the skeptics

Four freshmen help depleted champion return to rankings

ACC Notebook

December 07, 2005|By PAUL MCMULLEN | PAUL MCMULLEN,SUN REPORTER

That didn't take long.

After losing its top seven players, four to the first round of the NBA draft, North Carolina was supposed to take a giant leap backward this season. Tabbed to finish in the middle of the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Tar Heels became the first NCAA defending champion since 1988 to be left out of the Associated Press preseason rankings.

That was the year Kansas had to replace star player Danny Manning and peripatetic coach Larry Brown. The Jayhawks hired a young North Carolina assistant named Roy Williams, so he has some experience in picking up the pieces.

His current rebuilding job gained speed Saturday with a four-point win at then-No. 10 Kentucky. The Tar Heels are the only member of the ACC besides Duke, which has beaten Memphis and Indiana, to post a victory over a Top 25 team, which was good enough to move them to No. 23 in this week's poll.

For the second time in four seasons, North Carolina is starting three freshmen. In 2002-03, Raymond Felton, Sean May and Rashad McCants were brought in to get the program back on track. They couldn't even get to the NCAA tournament, which led to the resignation of Matt Doherty and a homecoming for Williams.

This freshman class represents his first all-out recruiting effort as the North Carolina coach. Four of the five rookies make up half of the eight-man rotation that in the span of five days gave No. 11 Illinois a scare in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge and posted the Tar Heels' first win at Rupp Arena.

Tyler Hansbrough is fast becoming a folk hero in Chapel Hill, as the 6-foot-9, 235-pound player from Missouri leads the Tar Heels in scoring and rebounding.

Bobby Frasor, a coach's son from Chicago, had already won the starting point guard spot from Quentin Thomas before the shaky sophomore suffered a foot injury that kept him out of the past two games.

Danny Green, the third Tar Heel to play in the 2005 McDonald's All-America game, is coming off the bench because classmate Marcus Ginyard, Mr. Basketball in Virginia last winter, is the better defender at the shooting guard spot.

The other North Carolina starters are 6-8 junior Reyshawn Terry, who played five minutes at the 2005 Final Four, and 6-6 senior David Noel, the team's No. 8 scorer last season. Wes Miller, a 5-11 junior guard who began his college career at James Madison and got all of 26 minutes for the Tar Heels last season, went 20 at Kentucky, where he hit three three-pointers.

Of course, no one in the nation got more last season out of practice, where Noel matched up against McCants, Terry had to go up against Marvin Williams and backup big man Byron Sanders tried to move May.

North Carolina is the only ACC team besides Duke shooting 50 percent from the field. The Tar Heels have just 10 scholarship players, but Williams has them playing fast and taking the ball to the rack, as they've attempted nearly twice as many free throws as the opposition.

The Tar Heels get Saint Louis at home tonight. They could be 10-1 come Jan. 7, when they open conference play at home against North Carolina State.

Quieter Clemson

North Carolina wasn't the only ACC team to record a significant win over a Southeastern Conference foe.

Thanks to a 19-point win over South Carolina, Clemson took a 6-0 record into last night's game against Wofford. The Tigers have lined up their typically lame non-conference fare and may not face a ranked team on the road until February. It's easy to see their improving on last season's first-round exit from the National Invitation Tournament, their first postseason appearance since 1999.

Clemson lost Sharrod Ford to the Phoenix Suns and Cheyenne Moore to George Washington, but it returns three starters from the team that went 3-0 against Maryland. Before last night's game, Clemson had seven players averaging between 12.3 and 8.7 points.

Guard Shawan Robinson and big man Akin Akingbala are seniors whose careers started 9-0 in 2002-03. That season went nowhere, got Larry Shyatt fired and created the coaching vacancy for Berlin native Oliver Purnell.

paul.mcmullen@baltsun.com

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