CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Once again, North Carolina enters a season staring down expectations for nothing short of greatness.
The Tar Heels have five starters back from a team that won the Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season championship and fell a game short of the Final Four. That includes three players who passed on the chance to enter the NBA draft early, including sophomore star Harrison Barnes.
It was only three years ago that the Tar Heels started a season in similar position, and that team went on to win Roy Williams' second NCAA championship in five years. The Hall of Fame coach said he has "no problem" with saying this year's group should be among the nation's best. His players don't mind saying it, either.
"We have no players that are talking about getting to the NBA," point guard Kendall Marshall said. "They all turned that down for a reason, for a team concept of winning the national championship. All of our goals are team-oriented. We want to become dominant. We want to win games. We want to be the No. 1 team in the country."
Williams can see the parallels between this group and his 2008-09 squad. That group was coming off a Final Four run and had Tyler Hansbrough, Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington and Danny Green return to school after flirting with entering the draft. The Tar Heels won 34 games and romped their way through the NCAA tournament to a title that everyone expected before the year.
This year's group has a similar dynamic after Barnes, 7-footer Tyler Zeller, and long-armed rebounder and shot blocker John Henson passed on the NBA. It also has a similar March disappointment, with UNC (29-8) rallying from 11 down against Kentucky and tying the game with 3½ minutes left before falling 76-69 in the regional final.
"In reality, whether I like it or not, there are going to be comparisons (to 2009)," Williams said. "You guys are going to ask me the questions all the time and I have to answer it. This team hasn't done anything yet. They just look good on paper."
No argument there. And much of that starts with Barnes, a 6-foot-8 forward who passed on a chance to be a lottery pick to return to Chapel Hill.
He started last year as the first freshman named preseason All-America by The Associated Press but got off to a slow start as the Tar Heels looked lost in January. But Barnes got rolling with a series of clutch late-game shooting performances as the Tar Heels won 17 of 19 to end the regular season. He averaged 15.7 points and finished a point behind Zeller for the team scoring lead.
"Coming into last year, there was a lot of expectations, but we didn't know what to expect and we didn't know how things went," Barnes said. "There wasn't really anybody we could talk to on the team who had been through that . ... I think this year we kind of know what to expect. We're not looking at it as championship or bust. We're looking at it as go out and play the best basketball we can."
Joining Barnes on a formidable front line is Zeller, a senior and reliable post scorer who averaged nearly 26 points and nine rebounds in the NCAA tournament. Then comes Henson, a 6-11 junior who averaged a double-double and was the ACC defensive player of the year. They'll have plenty of help in the frontcourt from freshmen James Michael McAdoo — one of two McDonald's All-Americans along with outside shooter P.J. Hairston — and Desmond Hubert.
In the backcourt, so much depends on Marshall, whose rise to the starting lineup after Larry Drew II quit the team without warning at midseason played a big role in both Barnes' and the Tar Heels' second-half surge. His primary backup is fellow backcourt starter Dexter Strickland — the team's best perimeter defender — and Williams said his biggest concern is developing depth at the point.
While the Tar Heels ranked near the bottom of the ACC in 3-point shooting, the arrival of Hairston and the return of sophomore Reggie Bullock from knee surgery that sidelined him the last nine games should help, though losing top shooter Leslie McDonald to an offseason knee injury could hinder that improvement.
Regardless, the Tar Heels know they've got the right pieces for a big season. They also know it won't matter if they don't play like they did through the second half of last season.
"We know we're supposed to be good, but supposing to be good doesn't get you anywhere," Zeller said. "You've got to be able to prove it."
Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company