'06 or '10: Which way will Tar Heels go?

November, 7, 2012
11/07/12
1:30
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Leslie McDonaldCal Sport Media/AP ImagesUNC will need players like Leslie McDonald to carry and inexperienced team this season.
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Former North Carolina guard Marcus Ginyard will never forget the laughter and pride of starting on the 2005-06 team that exceeded so many expectations en route to a top-10 ranking and the second round of the NCAA tournament. But he also will always remember the frustration and sadness of being part of the 2009-10 team that suffered so many dysfunctions as it plummeted out of the rankings and to the postseason NIT.

His advice for the current reconstructing Tar Heels, who like both of those squads could go in either direction after losing the bulk of last season’s starting lineup:

Play with a sense of urgency.

Form an unbreakable bond.

Find -- and follow -- a strong leader.

“I want for this team to realize that it isn't the same as ‘05-06 or [’09-10], but I would hate for them not to see how they are similar and how they can take two drastically different routes during their season,” Ginyard, who now plays professionally in Poland, wrote in an email. “So my hope is that they see what things worked for one team and what didn't for the other.”

When this season’s Tar Heels open the season against Gardner-Webb at the Smith Center on Friday night, it will be a unique group. Unlike coach Roy Williams’ most successful teams of the past, this squad is light on experience in the post, and it will be counting on experienced wings (such as Reggie Bullock, Leslie McDonald and P.J. Hairston) to carry a lot of the scoring load.

Like ’06, it will be starting a freshman point guard and using “something-to-prove” as its rallying cry.

Like ’10, it begins the season ranked (No. 11 now, No. 6 then) -- more on potential than proof -- and living up to that potential is key.

“Reggie and James Michael [McAdoo] played significant roles last year as complementary players, and now they need to step up when the defense is aimed at them,’’ coach Roy Williams said. “Dexter [Strickland] and Leslie have to come back from major surgery and have to be able to pick up where they left off and improve. Then you're talking about P.J. and Desmond [Hubert] who have to be players this year, and four freshmen have to step up.

“The non-experience factor is the biggest negative we have. It's a big-time challenge for those players to step into bigger roles.”

Sort of like their predecessors.

’06 SUCCESS

No one expected much of the ’05-06 team.

After losing six of their top seven scorers from Williams’ first national title squad (including lottery picks Marvin Williams, Raymond Felton, Sean May and Rashad McCants), the Tar Heels began the season unranked, and Sports Illustrated didn’t even pick them to make the NCAA tournament.

Perhaps that played in their favor.

“I really think that, more than anything, drew us together at first -- the fact that no one really believed in us, except us,’’ said Wes Miller, a junior on that season’s squad, and now head coach at UNC-Greensboro. “… And there were absolutely no egos on that team either, especially not from the freshman class."

Indeed, three rookies started their first game that season: Ginyard, point guard Bobby Frasor, and forward Tyler Hansbrough. And it was Hansbrough, who became ACC Rookie of the Year, who led the surge as the Tar Heels won 12 ACC games and closed the regular season with seven straight victories -- including an upset at No. 1 Duke on the Blue Devils’ senior night.

“That season, 2006, was the most fun I’ve ever had coaching,” Williams said.

In retrospect, the fact that that team would put their faith (and the ball) into the hands of a freshman was key, and an example of its team-first philosophy.

But equally as important was senior David Noel, who buried a game-winning 3-pointer against Gardner-Webb in the Tar Heels’ regular-season opener and became, Williams said, “the best leader I’ve ever coached.”

Noel knew how to rally and inspire, his teammates always said, while soothing and re-energizing and making sure everyone was on the same page. Players accepted their roles because he did.

“It was very easy for us freshman to find our way when we had a great example of how to conduct ourselves on and off the court,’’ Ginyard wrote of Noel.

’10 DESPAIR

On the flip side, perhaps everyone expected too much in ’09-10.

After the Tar Heels won the 2009 championship, they lost four of five starters (Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington, Hansbrough and Danny Green). But this time, they returned a lot more experience: Seniors Deon Thompson and Ginyard had both started; sixth-man Ed Davis had toyed with an early jump to the NBA draft; sophomores Larry Drew II and Tyler Zeller had played. That -- perhaps combined with the memories of the ’06 overachievement -- led to a No. 6 preseason ranking by the Associated Press and a media prediction that they would finish the season tied atop the ACC with Duke.

Maybe all of that hype partially led to their downfall.

“Just the fact the fact that we were at Carolina, I think we all just expected that we would be good,’’ said McDonald, a freshman on that team and a redshirt junior now. Perhaps, he added, they thought it would come too easy.

But where ’06 clicked, ’10 collided.

Williams is quick to point out all of the injuries that season, strains and bruises and breaks that made it difficult to set a consistent rotation. But the pains went beyond that.

The Hall-of-Fame coach grew increasingly irritated that players weren’t learning the plays he was trying to teach them in practice -- which then showed up in games. It also didn’t help that two freshmen were trying to fit in at new positions: Strickland, a natural shooting guard, at backup point guard; and John Henson, a natural power forward, at small forward.

Strickland, a senior now, says too many players that season were out for themselves, rather than for the team. Cliques formed; chemistry suffered. “Even though I was a freshman and not playing that much, even I was selfish, and that hurt us a lot -- because it all rubbed off on everyone else,’’ he said. “Everyone just wanted to do their own thing.”

Williams has often called that season the most frustrating of his career, and for good reason. Although the Tar Heels opened 11-3, a loss at College of Charleston began their downward spiral. They won only five ACC games, tied for ninth in the league. And when Williams asked for a vote of who wanted to accept an invitation to the post-season NIT, he was the only one who said yes.

Ginyard, who along with Thompson were the senior leaders of that team, takes a lot of responsibility -- saying he believes he failed to quickly assess the team’s issues and find solutions.

“I feel like I didn't work hard enough to create an environment of competitiveness, especially for the young players to see,’’ he wrote. “Maybe in a way I assumed that they knew what it would take on a daily basis in the classroom, in practice, and on game day to be successful. As a result, you saw a talented team that wasn't always a cohesive unit, lacked GREAT leadership, lacked an edginess, and competitive fire that the 05-06 team had.”

WHICH WAY IN ’13?

To try not to repeat the mistakes of ‘10, Strickland and McDonald -- the only players left from that NIT runner-up squad -- have made a concerted effort to rally this team off the court.

Early and often, they have warned the freshmen of the rigors of practice, the spotlight of games, the importance of class. And when they aren’t shooting around, playing pick-up or practicing, players can often be found in McDonald’s room or Bullock’s apartment, just hanging out. Just bonding.

“We play video games with each other, ping-pong tournaments, joke on each other -- just little stuff that I think could be a big deal for this team this season,’’ Strickland said.

By all accounts, these players have become close-knit, with little reason to believe personalities or egos will rub. On the court, Williams said last month that he believes these Tar Heels are more similar to ’06 than ‘ 10, with a large exception: He thought Hansbrough would be "the biggest dog in the neighborhood" as soon as he played in his first game. "We don’t have anybody that has that and has me feeling that right now,” he added.

What they do have is sophomore forward James Michael McAdoo (6.1 ppg, 3.9 rpg last season), who despite starting only three games likely would have been an NBA lottery pick, but chose to return to UNC because he wanted to prove himself at the college level. He and Bullock (8.8 ppg, 5.5 rpg) are expected to be early go-to guys and on-the-court leaders, Williams said, because they have the most experience.

The Tar Heels also boast a four-man freshman class led by leftie point guard Marcus Paige, who will start. They’ll need him to be both steady and speedy, and get the ball to the right people.

Williams said this week that his wings will have more freedom to take and make shots -- but they also need some of their less-experienced big guys (freshmen Joel James and Brice Johnson, sophomore Desmond Hubert) to take some of the load off McAdoo in the post.

"To be successful, this team has got to play as close to their potential as they possibly can," Williams said.

The ’06 squad did. The ’10 team did not.

For better or worse: “This team,’’ Ginyard wrote, “is similar and different.”

Follow Robbi Pickeral on Twitter at @bylinerp.

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