It has been more three decades since major college basketball saw its last undefeated team as Indiana went 32-0 in 1975-76. The only squad to come that close to perfection since is the 1990-91 Nevada-Las Vegas team that lost to Duke in the national championship game.
North Carolina became the first team since The Associated Press began conducting a pre-season poll in 1981-82 to a unanimous No. 1. The Tar Heels also were a unanimous top pick in USA Today's coaches poll. The combination invites the question of whether they can go undefeated this season. Coach Roy Williams laughs off that idea.
"There are just so many good teams out there," Williams said. "You have Louisville, Duke, Connecticut, Georgetown, the list goes on and on and on. I just don't see how any team could go undefeated in this day and age and, honestly, I have no dreams of going undefeated, none. I could really care less. I'll take a great year, a great run in the NCAA tournament and just a great overall effort from our team day in and day out. If we do that, I'm sure I'll be happy and this season will turn out fine."
Williams then thought back to 1988 when Kansas knocked off Oklahoma in the national championship game.
"Kansas had 11 losses that year and they were starting to print NIT tickets in Lawrence," Williams said with a laugh. "They might have lost 11 games but I don't think they were too concerned about that when it was all over. In fact, I'm sure they were quite happy with the end result. Being undefeated really means nothing. The biggest thing you can accomplish in our sport is to be standing there at the end."
There seems to be no reason to think North Carolina won't be the last team standing when the season concludes with the national final at Ford Field in Detroit. The Tar Heels, even with a couple of starters expected to miss Saturday's opener against Pennsylvania at Chapel Hill because of injury, are the overwhelming choice to win it all.
North Carolina has everyone back from a team that went 36-3 and reached the Final Four last season before falling behind 40-12 on its way to losing to eventual national champion Kansas in the semifinals. Leading the way is senior forward Tyler Hansbrough, the consensus national player of the year in 2007-08 when he averaged 22.6 points, 10.2 rebounds and 1.5 steals a game. He was 22nd in the nation in offensive rating (125.2), 44th in free throw rate (70.5), 54th in offensive rebounding percentage (13.0), 88th in turnover rate (12.7), 171st in defensive rebounding percentage (19.8) and 189th in percentage of possessions (26.8).
Hansbrough has a stress reaction in his right shin but is progressing well enough that he could possibly return for the second game of the season Tuesday night against Kentucky. He has been an ironman throughout his career, playing in every game and missing only one practice, that coming last season as he sat out the day after scoring 47 points in a double-overtime win over Clemson while playing with an infected big right toe.
Hansbrough surprised many by opting to come back for his senior season instead of entering the NBA draft. Williams expects him to be even better this winter.
"It's unusual to see a player of Tyler's ability return to school, no question, but it did not surprise me," Williams said. "I know he agonized over the decision more than people think but I'm glad he came back. It's very rare to have as talented of a senior class that all decided to stay in school for four years and we obviously couldn't be happier about it."
The other returning senior, swingman Marcus Ginyard, is on the shelf until mid-December because of a broken left foot. He averaged 6.9 points, 4.5 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 1.1 steals a game last season.
The rest of the returning starters are junior guard Wayne Ellington (16.6 points, 4.5 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 1.1 steals last season), junior guard Ty Lawson (12.7 points, 5.1 assists, 1.6 steals) and junior forward Deon Thompson (8.4 points 4.8 rebounds, 1.3 steals). Ellington was 79th in offensive rating (119.9) and 153rd in turnover rate (13.7) while Lawson was 39th in offensive rating (123.0), 50th in assist rate (32.9) and 161st in percentage of steals (3.3) and Thompson was 142 in percent of blocks (5.9).
Williams believes it is a deep bench that will carry the Tar Heels through until they get healthy and also why they rate an edge over everyone else in the nation.
"If you look, a lot of teams around the country have excellent starting fives but I think the big difference for us is that we get into games where the seventh, eighth and ninth men are key factors then we're going to have a definitive advantage," Williams said. "We can go very deep in quality players. I can go to the bench knowing we have a lot of guys that can be put into the game without us really missing a beat."
To gain that advantage, Williams wants to play an up-tempo style and increase the defensive intensity, even though the Tar Heels were first in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency (126.0) last season and 19th in adjusted defensive efficiency (89.4).
"We need to play at a fast pace so there enough possession in each game where our depth truly can make a difference," Williams said. "If we can do that, I believe we can win a lot of games. I'd also like to see us become a better defensive team, be aggressive and take more chances on that end of the floor because that can also go a long way in setting the tempo. Really, we were pretty much an average defensive team until the last month of the season. That's why I felt coming into the NCAA tournament that Kansas was the favorite to win. They were playing the best defense in the country and they did indeed win the national championship."
Kansas handled North Carolina 84-66 in the semifinals then rallied to beat Memphis in overtime in the title game. That semifinal loss still sticks with the Tar Heels and makes Williams confident that his players will not get complacent with the unanimous No. 1 distinction.
"I look at a player like Tyler Hansbrough and I can assure you that he did not sit in his room all summer and look at his player of the year trophies," Williams said. "He worked very hard to extend his shooting range to 20 feet and I think he's going to be a real outside shooting threat this season. All our kids have worked hard and now that they have that bulls-eye on their back, they are well aware that they can't take any days off. They understand everyone will be gunning for us this season."
Sherron Collins Returns
Few, if any, players will be under the microscope in the early stages of the season more than Kansas junior forward Sherron Collins will. Collins, the only player returning for the Jayhawks who averaged double figures in minutes played last season (23.8), had a 107.1 offensive rating, 22.1 assist rate (321st in the nation) and 2.8 percentage of steals (354th).
Collins, though, hasn't exactly put together the resume of a veteran leader. When he came to Kansas as a freshman, he was so out of shape that he was thrown out of his first two individual workout sessions because he couldn't keep up. He still wasn't in top condition last season and wound up having knee surgery at the end of the season, then sat out during the Jayhawks' trip to Canada over the Labor Day weekend because he fell behind in his rehabilitation.
Collins also had a lawsuit dropped against Thursday in Douglas County (Kan.) Court in which he was accused of sexually assaulting a 35-year-old woman in an elevator in May 2007.
Yet, Collins will be asked to be the fulcrum of a young team that still has enough talent to make noise in the Big 12 Conference and opens its season Sunday at home against Missouri-Kansas City.
"I think everyone is watching me to see if I'm ready to handle it," Collins told the Kansas City Star. "I think it's a fair question at this point. Honestly, I think I can handle it. I just love when a lot of pressure and responsibility is on me. I thrive on that. Last year, we all looked at each other. Now more of the guys are looking toward me. I've got to be more vocal. It's my team and I have to be responsible. I have to bring everyone together."
Jayhawks coach Bill Self has been left exasperated by Collins many times over the last two seasons. Yet, Self believes Collins can be the guiding light on a young team.
"He's always had the most innate leadership ability of anyone we've had here," Self said. "You could make that, within our players' minds, Sherron can get them to do what he wants them to do if he plays his cards right and learns how to massage the situation. He has great leadership abilities and these guys want to be led."
Wooden Award List
North Carolina has the distinction of being the only team with three players on the pre-season list of top 50 candidates for the 2008-2009 Wooden Award with Hansbrough back to defend his title while joined by Ellington and Lawson.
Six schools have two players on the list: Connecticut (A.J. Price, Hasheem Thabeet), Duke (Kyle Singler, Gerald Henderson), Louisville (Earl Clark, Terrence Williams), Marquette (Dominic James, Jerel McNeal), Pittsburgh (DeJuan Blair, Sam Young) and Texas (A.J. Abrams, Damion James).
Collins is also under consideration on a list rounded out by UNLV's Wink Adams, Washington's Jon Brockman, Xavier's Derrick Brown, Arizona's Chase Budinger, Florida's Nick Calathes, Temple's Dionte Christmas, UCLA's Darren Collison, BYU's Lee Cummard, Davidson's Stephen Curry, South Carolina's Devan Downey, Memphis' Robert Dozier, Syracuse's Jonny Flynn, USC's Taj Gibson, Oklahoma's Blake Griffin, Notre Dame's Luke Harangody, Arizona State's James Harden, Tennessee-Martin's Lester Martin, Purdue's Robbie Hummel, UTEP's Stefon Jackson, Baylor's Curtis Jerrells, Wake Forest's James Johnson, Wisconsin's Marcus Landry, VCU's Eric Maynor, Miami's Jack McClinton, Saint Mary's Patrick Mills, Michigan State's Raymar Morgan, Vanderbilt's A.J. Ogilvy, Gonzaga's Jeremy Pargo, Kentucky's Patrick Patterson, Villanova's Scottie Reynolds, Boston College's Tyrese Rice, Tennessee's Tyler Smith, Georgetown's DaJuan Summers and UAB's Robert Vaden.
News and Notes
- Mississippi sophomore guard Trevor Gaskins will miss the season after undergoing surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. He averaged 14.3 minutes a game last season and had a 102.0 offensive rating and 12.8 assist rate.
- Georgia Tech senior guard Lewis Clinch will miss at least the first seven games of the season after being ruled academically ineligible. He averaged 23.5 minutes a game last season and had a 91.5 offensive rating and 10.2 assist rate.
- Minnesota senior center Jon Williams and Virginia Tech sophomore J.T. Thompson are both expected to miss 4-6 weeks after undergoing hernia surgery. Williams averaged 14.8 minutes a game last season and had an 83.7 offensive rating, 7.9 offensive rebounding percentage and 14.8 defensive rebounding percentage. Thompson played 14.6 minutes a game last winter and had a 110.1 offensive rating, 10.6 offensive rebounding percentage (221st in the nation) and 14.6 defensive rebounding percentage.
- Tennessee freshman guard Daniel West has been declared ineligible for this season by the NCAA, though he is appealing the decision, which was reportedly sparked by an accreditation issue with a standardized testing survey.
- Towson coach Pat Kennedy suspended freshman forward Rick Brown for the first five games of the season, senior forward Junior Hairston for the first three games and senior forward Tony Durant for the opener because of team rules violations. Hairston figures to be the key loss as his 23.1 defensive rebounding percentage last season ranked 62nd in the nation and his 6.0 block percentage was 138th. The Tigers open tonight at home against Navy then visit Niagara on Sunday and host Hampton on Nov. 22.
- Montana coach Wayne Tinkle received a three-year contract extension that takes him through the 2011-12 season. He is 31-31 in his first two seasons with the Grizzlies.
Games to Watch
Five games to watch for the week of Nov. 14-20, based on the 2007-08 season-ending Pomeroy Rankings:
No. 32 Butler at No. 27 Drake, Saturday November 15, 8 p.m.
No. 60 Massachusetts at No. 2 Memphis, Monday November 17, 11 p.m., ESPN
No. 55 Kentucky at No. 4 North Carolina, Tuesday November 18, 9 p.m., ESPN
No. 18 Xavier vs. No. 44 Missouri at Puerto Rico Tip-Off in San Juan, Thursday November 20, 1 p.m., ESPNU
No. 8 Duke vs. No. 63 Southern Illinois at 2K Sports Classic in New York, Thursday November 20, 7 p.m., ESPN2
John Perrotto is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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