Many of those in and around the program claim they wouldn't trade sophomore Tywon Lawson for any other point guard. It's tough to argue when you look at how the former five-star recruit finished last season. Over the last 13 games, Lawson averaged 11.8 ppg, 6.3 apg and posted a stellar 3.4-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. Look for that kind of production to carry over into 2007-08 and for the playmaker to emerge as one of the nation's elite players. Nobody is faster with the ball in his hands and now he's armed with valuable experience.
NORTH CAROLINA TAR HEELS
Forward Tyler Hansbrough gives UNC an elite scorer inside.
The Tar Heels are also expecting sharp improvement from shooting guard Wayne Ellington, another former five-star recruit. After a solid freshman season, he must boost his scoring average (11.7 ppg) significantly with the departures of lottery pick Brandan Wright (14.7 ppg) and Reyshawn Terry (9.7 ppg). Most important, Ellington needs to become a more reliable 3-point threat so opponents can't double- and triple-team Tyler Hansbrough inside. Terry and the departed Wes Miller ranked among the team's top shooters from beyond the arc.
Junior wing Marcus Ginyard (6-5) could join Lawson and Ellington in the starting lineup and almost certainly will see his minutes increase. Roy Williams, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in the offseason, prefers to start his best perimeter defender – think back to the 2004-05 national-title team and Jackie Manuel – and Ginyard is the latest to fit that description. He does little on offense, but has the quickness to keep up with some of the fastest guards. Look for him to play the role of defensive stopper and rank among the ACC's leaders in steals.
Junior Bobby Frasor gives Williams some experience off the bench. Frasor, a streaky 3-point shooter, was a full-time starter as a freshman. Senior Quentin Thomas will be the backup point guard.
There may be better post players, but there is no better inside scoring threat than junior Tyler Hansbrough. He thrives in the paint, where he often overpowers defenders and creates foul trouble for opposing big men. Hansbrough attempted an ACC-high 315 free throws last season. If there is a weakness, it's his defense. While most of the other elite big men are good shot blockers, Hansbrough doesn't swat away or alter many attempts.
The development of sophomore power forward Deon Thompson, who was a steady part of the rotation last season, will be key. He is expected to move into the starting lineup and replace Wright, the ACC's 2006-07 Rookie of the Year. Thompson put together an impressive performance at the U-19 World Championships this past summer in Serbia, leading the team in rebounding (6.1) and blocks (1.4). Thompson has slimmed down to 235 pounds from 260. With a rapidly skill set, look for him to be one of the nation's most improved players.
Sophomore power forward Alex Stepheson needs to emerge and become a steady contributor. Stepheson played 6.4 minutes a game last season, but will be the main backup for Hansbrough and Thompson. Junior small forward Danny Green will come off the bench and play a variety of roles again.
Few coaches try to push the pace more than Williams. His game plans often revolve around trying to create as many possessions as possible. With the speedy Lawson, he has the ideal weapon to do just that.
When defenses do slow down the fast break, the first option will be to get the ball to Hansbrough in the post, especially against undersized frontcourts. The more touches Hansbrough gets, the better it is for the Tar Heels.
Improving the Tar Heels' man-to-man defense is Williams' main priority. The Heels had solid defensive stats last season – opponents shot 41.6 percent from the field – but they showed some cracks down the stretch. North Carolina State shot 54.7 percent in the ACC Tournament final and Georgetown shot 57.6 percent in its Elite Eight victory over the Heels. UNC had particular problems guarding athletic wings in those games, as Brandon Costner scored 28 points and Jeff Green scored 22.
Outlook with postseason forecast
Everything is coming together at the right time for UNC. While the bulk of the ACC teams appear to be regressing – eight other teams lost their best player – the Heels remain loaded. Hansbrough is the league's best player, and Lawson - who is poised for a great season - could emerge as the second-best. Ellington is a future NBA player. Thompson and Stepheson give the Tar Heels the size to match up with bigger frontcourts. Williams also has a solid group of experienced role players. Going undefeated in ACC play is a reasonable goal. Postseason success will depend largely on outside shooting and defense. If the Tar Heels do a solid job in both areas, they will have their second national title in four seasons.
Shoes to Fill
Wright. Replacing Wright's size (6 feet 9, with a 7-3 wingspan) and efficiency (ACC-leading 64.6 field-goal percentage and never fouled out of a game) is near impossible.
Must Step Up
Thompson. The Tar Heels don't need this promising big man to match Wright's 14.7 ppg. What they do need is a good interior defender and a steady force on the boards. Thompson must fill both roles for the Tar Heels to reach their massive potential.