North Carolina wants to play as fast as possible, and the return of Ty Lawson gives the Tar Heels the ideal catalyst to turn up the tempo. There may be no one in the nation who is faster with the ball in his hands than Lawson, one of the three Tar Heels who pulled out of the NBA draft – shooting guard Wayne Ellington and small forward Danny Green were the others. Lawson can solidify a spot in the first round with a solid year. Most deadly in the open court, Lawson generates a lot of transition baskets. Although he isn't much of an outside shooter, he excels at attacking the basket and can score with a floater or finish around the basket. The junior point guard's decision-making and on-the-ball defense have been shaky at times. If he can improve in those two areas and stay healthy – his missed seven full games and most of two others with ankle injuries – it will be tough to stop the talent-laden Tar Heels from winning it all.
Forward Tyler Hansbrough returns after a monster junior season for North Carolina.
F Ed Davis, 6-10, Fr.
Rivals.com five-star prospect
Ellington gives the Tar Heels a steady No. 2 scoring threat and an outside shooter that defenses must respect. The junior made big strides last season, scoring in double figures in 34 of 39 games while raising his scoring average from 11.7 to 16.6 points per game. He also hit a number of clutch shots and shot 40 percent (78-of-195) from 3-point range. The Tar Heels lack another reliable 3-point shooter, so avoiding a cold stretch - especially when the postseason rolls around - is critical.
The Tar Heels will be without starting wing Marcus Ginyard for at least the first two weeks of the season. Ginyard recently had surgery for a stress fracture in his left foot and is expected to return sometime in December. A defensive specialist, Ginyard normally guards the opponent's top perimeter scorer and is also counted on for rebounding help. He needs to fully recover or the Tar Heels' overall defense will suffer.
Ginyard's absence early on probably means more playing time for senior Bobby Frasor and freshman Larry Drew II. The original plan was for Frasor to back up Lawson and for Drew to back up Frasor. But both may be needed on the wing to back up Ellington. Frasor is returning from a torn anterior cruciate ligament that ended his year in the 12th game last season. Frasor was the starting point guard as a freshman and did an adequate job, but he has been a role player since. Drew, who is a solid ballhandler and shooter, was the No. 10 point guard and No. 71 overall prospect in the 2008 class.
Tyler Hansbrough isn't just the best big man in college basketball. Hansbrough is one of the best big men ever to play the college game. The numbers and awards Hansbrough has piled up have earned the 6-foot-9 senior a place among the game's greats. Hansbrough is on pace to become the ACC's all-time leading scorer – he needs 602 points to pass Duke's J.J. Redick – and the NCAA's all-time leader in made free throws – he needs 173 free throws to pass Wake Forest's Dick Hemric. Hansbrough also has a good chance to become just the second four-time first-team All-American (Purdue's Paul Hoffman managed the feat in the 1940s) and the first four-time first-team All-ACC selection.
It's tough to imagine Hansbrough getting any better. The menacing power forward is coming off a season where he set career highs in virtually every statistical category, including points per game (22.6) and rebounds per game (10.2). But Psycho-T has a work ethic that perhaps no one else can match, and word is he has been sharpening up the jumper from 15-18 feet that he added last season. One final chance to win a national title – perhaps his true reason for staying in school – adds extra motivation. The point being, don't be surprised if he manages to improve a little more.
Green probably will slide into Ginyard's starting spot early on, which will make the Tar Heels even better on offense. Green was perhaps the nation's premier sixth man last season, averaging 11.5 points and 4.9 rebounds. In the Tar Heels' 76-68 win at Duke, the versatile 6-6 swingman was the best player on the court, scoring 18 points, grabbing eight boards and blocking seven shots. He can play just about every role imaginable, which will help if Ginyard's recovery takes longer than expected.
The Tar Heels are hoping that junior power forward Deon Thompson will be their most-improved player. The 6-8 Thompson has the potential to give the Tar Heels a second inside scoring threat and another big force on the glass. Thompson became a starter last season and made some significant strides, but he didn't have the breakthrough year many envisioned after he played so well at the U-19 World Championships in the summer of 2007. Thompson chose to stay on campus this past summer to focus on his body and his game, and he is noticeably slimmer.
Alex Stepheson, who backed up Hansbrough and Thompson last season, transferred to USC to be closer to his ill father. But the Tar Heels are going to be deeper and more talented on the inside thanks to the addition of a pair of highly touted freshman big men: 6-10 Ed Davis and 7-0 Tyler Zeller. Davis, a long, athletic lefty, was ranked No. 15 in the 2008 class. Zeller, who runs the court well and has a solid jump shot, was No. 33. It's important that at least one develops quickly and provides some interior depth, and it's possible that both could be part of the rotation.
Coach Roy Williams wants the Tar Heels to push the pace and look to score in transition whenever possible. They work particularly hard on secondary breaks and getting their big men to beat their counterparts down the court. In half-court sets, getting the ball to Hansbrough on the blocks will be the main priority.
The Tar Heels are the biggest favorite for the national title since perhaps UNLV in 1990-91. That didn't turn out so well for the Rebels, who were upset by Duke in the Final Four. Florida also returned all five starters in 2006-07 in its quest for back-to-back titles, but there were other teams that year with just as much talent. Nobody appears to be in the Tar Heels' league. The three other No. 1 seeds who reached the Final Four last season are dealing with some heavy personnel losses. The newest contenders have some big question marks (i.e., No. 2 Connecticut and No. 3 Pitt lack good outside shooters). The lack of another great team has generated talk in Chapel Hill of the first undefeated season since Indiana in 1975-76. That's probably asking for a little too much. UNC isn't without question marks of its own. Their defense is far from great, and Ginyard needs to get healthy by ACC play. Still, the Tar Heels are clearly superior to everyone else. They've got a tremendous amount of talent and experience at every position. They've got the best player in the country in Hansbrough. They've also got a coach who is just three years removed from winning his first national title. When the dust settles on the 2008-09 season, Williams should be clutching his second.
When the Tar Heels' offense goes cold it's a problem because their defense isn't the stingiest. Opponents averaged 72.5 points per game last season, a number that doesn't bother Williams because the Tar Heels averaged 88.6 points. But the fact opponents shot 42.5 percent, which ranked fifth in the ACC, does bother the coach. He'd like to see that number closer to 40 percent.
The Tar Heels use an aggressive man-to-man in an effort to force turnovers. At times, especially when their big men land in foul trouble, they'll mix in a 2-3 zone and a point zone that is similar to a 1-3-1.
Shoes to Fill
Quentin Thomas. There may not have been a better backup point guard in the nation. When Lawson missed nearly seven full games in February, Thomas led the Tar Heels to a 6-1 mark, averaging 6.5 assists per game during the stretch. Frasor doesn't have Thomas' speed, but he's more than capable of handing the backup duties. Frasor started out as the backup last season and beat out Thomas for the starting job three seasons ago.
Must Step Up
Thompson. This big man disappeared too often last season for someone with his size and athleticism. Thompson is capable of averaging double figures in scoring, but he can make a bigger impact on defense.
Davis. No newcomer is going to make a big impact on this veteran-laden squad, but Davis could very well play 10-15 minutes a game. With the departure of Stepheson, the Tar Heels need a quality big man to bring off the bench - and Davis is the top candidate. He may be the most physically gifted of all of their post players.
Andrew Skwara is a national basketball writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.