Returning talent still the key for UNC

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- The returning North Carolina Tar Heels -- notably Marcus Ginyard, Deon Thompson and Ed Davis -- were hanging out on the east side of the White House this May, soaking up the visit with President Barack Obama and enjoying the final celebration of their 2009 title.

But there was still a void for all three of them. They had contributed to the national title, but all three said then that they wanted a championship that was clearly more theirs to claim.

Now they have their shot.

North Carolina tipped off the 2009-10 men's college basketball season Monday night against Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas, who was making his college basketball debut as coach at Florida International. One thing that was very clear from the opening tip was how much Carolina will rely on its returning players to challenge for a shot at the Final Four in Indianapolis.

Maybe it was a poor assumption that the highly touted recruiting class assembled by coach Roy Williams and his staff would be an integral part of this team. Albeit just a snapshot in a long season, the 88-72 victory over the Panthers seemed to indicate that the Tar Heels freshmen will play more of a complementary role this season.

"Myself, Marcus, Will [Graves] and Tyler Zeller have to play every night so we don't put so much pressure on the freshmen," UNC senior forward Thompson said. "It's important for the older guys to have an impact on the game."

That's an understatement.

Williams started Graves, who was suspended for most of last season but was allowed back on the team, and went with returnees Thompson, Davis, Ginyard and Larry Drew II, who started at the point. That's two seniors, a junior and two sophomores in the starting lineup.

Zeller, a sophomore who was limited by a broken wrist last season, was the first off the bench before Williams even looked to freshman forwards John Henson, David and Travis Wear and guards Dexter Strickland and Leslie McDonald.

"Maybe everyone forgot," Thompson said. "Marcus of course was forgotten last season, but he was a starter on a Final Four team and would have started last season. He was shooting 3s [2-of-4 Monday], and his shot looked good. Will Graves didn't make it through a full year. We're bringing back myself, who played 20 minutes; Ed, who played 20 minutes; Will and Marcus, who played a lot before."

And it showed. Thompson was dominant at times inside, scoring 20 points and snagging 10 boards, prompting Thomas to say the veteran Tar Heel was as good as many of the big men in the NBA. Thomas, the former Toronto Raptors and New York Knicks general manager as well as coach of the Knicks and Indiana Pacers, said the Tar Heels had three pros on the floor (Thompson, Davis and Henson).

Ginyard didn't look gimpy from a leg/foot injury at all, making two 3s and flushing a dunk that proved he had his ups back. Davis was solid with 13 points, 11 boards and four blocks. But the best news for the Tar Heels was the steady play of Drew, who can't be compared to the speedy Ty Lawson but is handling himself quite well. Drew scored seven points, set up his teammates with six assists and had only two of the team's alarmingly high 26 turnovers.

"I can play way better than this," Drew said. "I'd give myself a C. We definitely have some guys that did significant things on a championship team."

Drew is almost like a quarterback still trying to figure out his receivers, as he has a plethora of lengthy big men to finish plays as he pitches ahead passes and feeds the post.

"I get in a zone, and I'm looking for the first open white shirt to kick it to," Drew said. "I have an idea who it is, and then I spot them and I know they'll do something with it."

What else could you cull from the opener?

• The Tar Heels have incredible length and likely will be known as a defensive team. UNC had eight blocks and 10 steals, and Williams has plenty of choices to go big.

"I want our identity at the end of the year to be known as a defensive team," Drew said.

• Thompson likely will be the Tar Heels' go-to scorer.

• Henson is so lean it might be hard for him to tussle with stronger post players such as Clemson's Trevor Booker or Georgia Tech's Gani Lawal.

• Thomas has limited talent but already has instilled a great work ethic. The Panthers forced the Tar Heels into 26 turnovers and never quit, not even when the game got into a 20-plus point spread in the second half.

"I'm proud of our team," Thomas said. "We were very scrappy and extremely competitive."

• Thomas will have to coach with a heavy burden in the coming weeks as his mother, Mary, continues to fight through the results of a heart attack. Thomas was in Chicago by her side Saturday and said he will return Tuesday to be with her.

"My mom raised me to fight, and she told me she doesn't want to die," Thomas said. "She's fighting to live, and she told me to go to work and fight for our team."

• Thomas relished the college atmosphere, and he likely won't get a better one this season than playing at the Dean Smith Center.

"The college fans are great. They were saying a lot of things to me, coming up with 'Magic, Magic, Magic,'" Thomas said, in reference to the controversy since Earvin Johnson alleged in his book with Larry Bird that Thomas had spread rumors about him after Johnson contracted HIV.

• The Panthers played some zone in the second half, and Williams said he expects the Tar Heels to see plenty of it throughout the season.

• One stat that likely will be in Carolina's favor for nearly every game this season was certainly on display Monday, as UNC outrebounded Florida International 44-29.

• FIU won't have any more nationally televised games in the regular season, but Thomas said he doesn't want people to forget about the Panthers. He said he fully expects his team to improve throughout the season and make a run in the Sun Belt tournament in March.

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.