CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — North Carolina guard Wayne Ellington's usual smile faded for a moment, and a grimace took hold.
Funny what the memory of a half of basketball from more than half a year ago can do to a guy. But then the first 20 minutes against Kansas in the NCAA Tournament semifinals in April in San Antonio were that bad for the Tar Heels; they shockingly trailed 44-27, and that was essentially that.
"It's something that hurts all of us," Ellington said recently, glancing around at his teammates in the gym. "It left a feeling in our stomach that we want to get rid of."
That's not some half-baked goal.
Although he, point guard Ty Lawson, forward Danny Green and consensus national player of the year forward Tyler Hansbrough all flirted with the NBA, all withdrew from the draft and opted to stay in college.
"It's unusual, there's no question about that," coach Roy Williams said of his Fab Four staying together.
But that's why his Tar Heels are just about everyone's preseason favorite to get to Indianapolis for the Final Four and another shot at the championship, even if it now comes with a caveat:
Less than two weeks ago, the school announced that Hansbrough has a stress reaction — the precursor to a fracture — in his right shin, and the three-time first-team All-American would be out indefinitely. He has done no weight-bearing work since and is expected to be re-evaluated again this week. Even if a bone scan shows Hansbrough is 100 percent, you can bet Williams won't rush him back.
No team, of course, wins a trophy in November and December.
No team is built better to withstand some adversity (assuming it is temporary) than UNC.
It has its top six scorers back from last year's team that finished 36-3, including senior guard/forward Marcus Ginyard. He's the fifth returning starter, the team's top defensive player and the perfect complement (read: unselfish) to his NBA-caliber teammates, but he had surgery in early October to repair a stress fracture in his left foot and is expected to be sidelined until December. Williams also welcomes a heralded freshman class, including 6-10 forward Ed Davis and 7-0 forward Tyler Zeller.
No matter who's in the lineup, the Tar Heels will be marked men.
"I like having the target on our back," Williams said. "I think it makes us play to a higher standard each and every day, concentrate to a higher standard; you can't take any days off. I've said many times, if everybody's saying you're going to be pretty good, you've probably got a chance to be pretty good.
"All coaches would love experience or talent, and if you can have both, that's the best of all worlds. And that is what we have."
He hopes, anyway.
He wants the kind of depth needed for his team to play his full-throttle style, insisting that this year's team can push the pace more frenetically than in the past. But he also realizes that depth is the answer to injuries.
Last season, for instance, backup point guard Bobby Frasor tore his left ACL in late December and was done. Then Lawson went out with a sprained left ankle in early February and missed six full games. But Quentin Thomas had been getting sufficient minutes at the point, which allowed him to gain the necessary confidence to keep the Heels winning until Lawson could return.
"I've always been about preparation, in case something happens," Williams said presciently before the start of practice a few weeks ago.
Not that he dared envision Hansbrough's situation.
Nor one where Davis and Zeller might be pressed into more prominent roles from the jump. Historical reminder: In the 2004-05 season, freshman forward Marvin Williams immediately became a contributor on a veteran UNC team.
"My second year here we had all five starters coming back, but the one who came in was pretty doggone good," the coach said. "You tell me one of those big young rascals out there is going to be as good as Marvin, I'll feel a heck of a lot better today."
Williams, the team's sixth man, helped the Heels win the NCAA title. He was then the No. 2 pick overall in the draft, ahead of upperclassmen Raymond Felton, Sean May and Rashad McCants.
Could 2008-09 bring a sequel?
"All these guys have come in here and have really worked hard," Hansbrough said recently. "They realize what they need to do, and we're all more focused."
Not a half-bad idea.
Brian Landman can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3347.