North Carolina’s 2008-09 edition presented itself to the public for the first time on Friday night, as the annual Late Night with Roythese days, I guess 8 p.m. is pretty latespectacle entertained an adoring crowd at the Dean Smith Center.
The event typically marks the opening of practice, but UNC officials pushed this year’s event back one week to accommodate students, who were on fall break last weekend. As always, there were skitsthe best of which featured senior guard Bobby Frasor impersonating Roy Williamsand player introductions and, finally, a brief scrimmage.
But while the action on the court, basketball and otherwise, revealed little about a highly experienced team that is America’s consensus No. 1 heading into the season, the real action was in the stands.
Because in truth, these season-opening exhibitions are designed for fans, and it’s the fan turnout and reaction that gives them value. On this night, the crowd emanated two dominant emotions: excitement and fear.
On paper, this should be one of the best teams in modern UNC history. The axiom among college coaches is that you can win with talent, and that you can win with experience, but the best way to win big is to combine talent and experience. And no team in America offers greater talented experience than the Tar Heels.
So there’s your excitement. This club returns all five starters from a team that finished 36-3 last year, won the ACC regular season and tournament titles, and advanced to the Final Four. The Heels also welcome three touted freshmen-plus the return of valuable senior guard Frasorand will boast the nation’s reigning national player of the year in Tyler Hansbrough. Again, excitement.
But while fans recalled images from the 2005 national championship-Woody Durham’s call of the final seconds, or the huddled post-game prayer between Roy Williams and seniors Jawad Williams, Jackie Manuel and Melvin Scott-another, more recent image also sprung to mind.
This would be the 130-minute nightmare of a Final Four performance, when the Heels trailed Kansas by a humiliating score of 40-12 before losing 84-66. The same team that demonstrated commendable mental toughness all season suddenly turned Tin Man in the national semifinal. Might that scenario unfold again? There’s your fear.
Because no matter what the team accomplishes during the regular season, or the ACC tournament, or the first four rounds of the NCAA tournament, it can’t make a real gain in the eyes of its fans or the college basketball world at large until the national semifinal. And so many things can go wrong on the way to that point.
Then again, if there’s one club that could meet those expectations, it’s the crew in Chapel Hill.
Welcome to the season.