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November 2, 2007

UNC should have no excuses in 2007-08

Rivals.com has selected the top 25 storylines for the 2007-08 college basketball season and will be releasing articles daily, counting down from No. 25 to No. 1. The No. 4 storyline looks at North Carolina, which enters the season with perhaps the highest expectations of any program.

North Carolina looked destined for the Final Four last season.

After surviving a scare in the Sweet 16 against USC the kind many national-title teams often encounter in the NCAA Tournament top-seeded UNC raced out to an 11-point lead over Georgetown in the second half of an Elite Eight contest. The Tar Heels led by 10 with six minutes left, then fell apart. North Carolina allowed a late comeback and surrendered 14 consecutive points in overtime before falling 96-84.

The collapse was somewhat understandable. Sure, the Tar Heels were remarkably talented, but they also were remarkably young. The roster included 11 freshmen and sophomores, and eight were part of the rotation.

The same result won't be tolerated again.

"We're not young anymore," UNC junior wing Danny Green said. "We have more experience. We are more mature. There are no excuses. This should be our year."

Green is far from the only one with that belief. The Tar Heels are ranked No. 1 the USA Today preseason coaches' poll and appear to have the pieces needed to make a championship run. They remain one of the nation's most talented teams. They have balance. They have depth at every position. Now, they have some seasoning, too.

They also have the kind of superstar often found on great teams. Junior Tyler Hansbrough, voted the ACC's preseason player of the year, arguably is the best big man in the nation.

"The last thing other coaches they say before leaving the locker room is 'Let's stop Tyler,' " UNC coach Roy Williams said. "It's been that way for two years."

So far, few of those coaches have succeeded. Hansbrough (6 feet 9, 245 pounds) has destroyed numerous game plans with his penchant for scoring on the inside and getting to the free-throw line. Hansbrough has averaged 18 points in each of the past two seasons and shot 568 free throws over that period.

He could be even better in 2007-08. He turned down an invitation to Pan American team tryouts over the summer, instead choosing to focus on individual workouts and adding some new dimensions to his offensive arsenal.

"I think he will shoot the ball better facing the basket," said Williams, who was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in September. "He's not going to shoot as many '3s' as Wayne (Ellington). If he does, there's going to be somebody else coaching. But I think you will see his development there. I think you will see that his assist-to-error ratio and his passing out of the double-team is even better."

Sophomore guards Tywon Lawson and Wayne Ellington (ranked No. 4 and No. 13 among point guards and shooting guards, respectively, in Rivals.com's preseason power rankings) also are expected to be better. They started a combined 68 games last season. The ultra-quick Lawson led the ACC with a 2.5-1 assist-to-turnover ratio and ranked third in the league with 5.6 assists per game.

"We want (Lawson) to be more aggressive," Williams said. "He's got to force things more and raise the tempo. But I always add two words: under control. It must all be done under control."

No Tar Heels are expected to improve more than sophomore power forwards Deon Thompson and Alex Stepheson, who played limited roles last season. Both are being counted on to help replace Brandan Wright, who was the ACC rookie of the year last season. Wright declared for the NBA Draft following the season, and was selected with the No. 8 pick.

Thompson, a 6-8, 240-pounder who has lost more than 30 pounds since arriving on campus, was one of the Americans' top players at the U-19 World Championships in July. Thompson led the team in rebounding (6.1 per game) and blocks (1.4 per game). Teammates say Stepheson (6-9, 235) also is in better shape and has made tremendous strides.

"Both (Alex and Deon) are five times better than when they first got here," Green said. "I'm not concerned with replacing Brandan. As long as we can play together and build good chemistry, I think we'll be fine."

Green joins junior guards Bobby Frasor and Marcus Ginyard as part of an experienced group of role players. Green can play multiple positions. Frasor is a dangerous shooter. Ginyard is the team's best perimeter defender, which may land him in the starting lineup.

"We can go big; we can go small," Green said. "Coach has more options."

The one option Williams and the Tar Heels don't have is finding a valid excuse for not getting to the Final Four.

Andrew Skwara is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at askwara@rivals.com.

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