Carolina embraces its status as favorite

The Baltimore Sun

During the offseason, North Carolina men's basketball coach Roy Williams made decisions that indicated he had confidence - and a lot of it - in this season's team.

Williams didn't add a freshman to a roster already talented and deep enough to contend for a national title, even though he had one scholarship to give. And when he made the schedule, Williams included four straight solid nonconference road games against Ohio State, Rutgers, Kentucky and Pennsylvania. The Tar Heels will play in Chapel Hill, N.C., on Nov. 20 and won't come back for a month.

"I would not have made this type of schedule if I didn't think we were going to be pretty doggone good," he said.

Not everyone in the league, though, thinks the Tar Heels will remain as invincible as the preseason rankings and hype suggest. UNC was the media's unanimous favorite to finish first in the Atlantic Coast Conference, but there are a handful of other league teams expected to show significant improvement. They are capable of making late-season runs similar to what North Carolina State, Maryland, Virginia Tech and Virginia were able to do last season.

"They have a team that is a legitimate title contender today," Clemson coach Oliver Purnell said of the Tar Heels. "The rest of us, we're building to that. We're a work in progress. There are going to be some teams in this league that emerge because of the talent we have and the coaches that emerge who are good enough to beat them. But that's going to be 17 games into the season. Most of us need 17 games.

"There's definitely hope," said Purnell, who returns 11 of his top 12 players. "No one is conceding it to them."

It's an attitude Williams said he expects from his coaching counterparts.

"Nobody, I don't give a darn who it is, has more desire to win a national championship than I do," Williams said. "Frank [Haith of Miami] is going to say that. Sid [Lowe of N.C. State] is going to say that. It's our way. I'm not trying to brag, by any means. Everybody is pretty doggone good, or we wouldn't have the jobs we have."

North Carolina is ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press preseason poll - edging UCLA and Memphis for the top spot. But No. 13 Duke and No. 21 N.C. State also worked their way into the rankings, and Clemson wasn't far from cracking the list. Virginia has the league's leading returning scorer in Sean Singletary, and Florida State has four starters back from a team that won 22 games.

N.C. State's only loss was point guard Engin Atsur, but Iowa State transfer Farnold Degand and Tennessee transfer Marques Johnson are viable alternatives. After depending on five- and six-man rotations, Lowe recruited enough talented players to almost double his depth.

"I think we're capable of winning every game we play," senior forward Gavin Grant said. "I definitely feel good about the team, and we have high expectations."

After last season's unimpressive and uncharacteristic 8-8 finish in the league, Duke lost its mystique - and its ability to strike fear into its opponents. Still, if Greg Paulus can develop into a playmaker and the Blue Devils can find a reliable post presence to compensate for the departure of Josh McRoberts, Duke has enough talent on the roster for a resurgence.

Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg predicted the ACC will earn seven bids to the NCAA tournament and said Duke will be "much improved" and Clemson will be "magnificent."

"N.C. State is as talented as anyone in the country, and they will probably be as good offensively as anyone in the country," Greenberg said. "No one is just going to hand the league championship over to Carolina. I think there are other teams that can compete at a very high level."

All that's left is to prove it - something UNC's three starters from last season's Elite Eight team have already done.

"My buddies in coaching tell me I set myself up for failure because I talk about our team being one of those teams that has a chance to win it," Williams said, "but I think we are."

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