After the national championship would come the fall.
At least that's what North Carolina Tar Heel haters hoped.
The Tar Heels lost all five starters from last season's national championship team. They lost their top seven scorers, 91% of their scoring and three-point shooting, and 88% of their rebounding.
Gone are Jackie Manuel, Melvin Scott, Jawad Williams, Raymond Felton, Sean May, Rashad McCants and Marvin Williams. Felton, May, McCants and Marvin Williams, who was the Atlantic Coast Conference freshman of the year, were all among the top 14 players taken in the NBA draft. The seven departing players averaged 81.4 points a game and would have been the sixth-highest-scoring team in the nation last season.
So who came back? David Noel, barely a bit player a season ago, was the team leader. As many as four freshmen were going to start this season.
Expectations were so low that North Carolina was being picked to finish sixth in the Atlantic Coast Conference, and maybe an NIT bid was a possibility in the postseason. No Tar Heel was voted to the preseason all-conference team. So what were the chances of defending their national title? Not good. They weren't voted into the top 25 until three weeks ago.
Yet, two weeks away from the start of conference play, the Tar Heels are ranked No. 17 and rising. They've won at Kentucky and lost only to Illinois. Despite the unexpected success, Williams comes cautiously to the Sports Arena for tonight's game against USC.
"The season's young," Williams said. "We could still fall on our face."
That's the pessimist hidden inside every coach. Williams is quick to say that he's having a good time this year. "It's a fun, fun group of kids with an amount of enthusiasm that makes things go smoother than I expected," he said. "They're always trying to do what I ask. So who knows?"
Williams could have had a free pass this year.
Tar Heel fans plan on winning big every year, but Williams was going to be excused from that this time around. Celebrate the championship this year and then back to the pressure next year.
Williams has recruited a 2006-07 class considered one of the top two or three in the country. It includes three players listed in the top 13 on the respected Rivals.com rankings (6-9 Brandon Wright of Nashville, 6-4 Wayne Ellington of Merion, Pa., and 5-11 Tywon Lawson of Clinton, Md.,) as well as top 100 prospects Alex Stepheson, 6-10, of North Hollywood Harvard-Westlake and 6-8 Deon Thompson of Torrance.
This year? Have some fun.
Noel averaged 3.9 points a game last year, and he was the leading returning scorer. As far as North Carolina statistics keepers can find, that's the least amount of points a leading returning scorer has averaged since World War II.
Noel played 20 minutes of the 2005 national-championship game, and his presence was mostly required as a defender. Since 1970 only one other NCAA champion team, the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers, lost close to what North Carolina is missing. "Four starters," Williams said. "But we lost our top seven scorers."
At this season's first practice, though, Williams stood before Noel and told the 6-foot-6 forward that he needed to score more. And rebound more. And defend harder. And lead. Lead by words, by deeds, by the way he practiced, the way he attended to his schoolwork, the way he handled the road, the taunting of Duke fans and disappointment.
Williams had to work with a roster that included five freshmen and assorted other veterans who had not contributed much.
Turns out the freshmen are good.
Tyler Hansbrough, a 6-9 forward, leads the Tar Heels in scoring (16.0) and is tied with Noel for the lead in rebounds (7.3). Reyshawn Terry, a junior guard, has gained confidence along with more playing time and is averaging 14.3 points a game. Noel has become the leader Williams needed. In the huddles, during timeouts, the rookies always look to Noel. On the practice court it is Noel who is first on and last off.
Williams said one of his old high school coaches told him he would enjoy practice more this year than last year. "I said, yeah, but how about the games?" Williams said. "We've had 42 practices so far this year and out of those I've left the gym mad twice. We're so young we can still stumble. I am certain we will have some adversity this year."
But probably not as much as expected. Or as much as rivals had hoped.
Fun Games During the Holidays
When you need to sneak away from the family, maybe to the TV tucked in a spare bedroom or down in the basement, there will be a good reason. These games might really matter when it comes time for NCAA tournament seeding to happen. That's your story, stick to it. For example:
Gonzaga at Memphis, Tuesday -- Bulldogs continue quest to play every top 15 team in the country before West Coast Conference play begins. At least that's the way it seems.