The Real Season

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Now that the formalities of the regular season and the conference tournament are over, No. 1 seed North Carolina can now turn its full attention to the championship that it's been waiting for all season long.

Tyler Zeller announced his decision to return to Chapel Hill for his senior season on Apr. 6, 2011. In his prepared statement, the seven-footer referenced the Tar Heels reaching the Elite Eight, but added: "I would like a chance at going out with another title."

Twelve days later, Harrison Barnes confirmed that UNC would return all five starters when he announced his decision to hang around for another season. The Ames, Iowa was direct in stating the one goal that would drive him over the next year – bringing the 2012 national championship home to North Carolina.

The 2011-12 season hasn't been a smooth, uneventful trek to a NCAA-record 14th No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, but they rarely are. The 2009 national title team was a level above its competition, but still managed to start the ACC slate with a 0-2 record.

For a team as talented as the Tar Heels, it's more about surviving the regular season and setting up an opportunity to make a legitimate run at the national championship.

"I feel like the whole offseason and the entire regular season was all building up to getting back to this point," Kendall Marshall told reporters on Tuesday. "We feel like we let an opportunity slip by last year."

Zeller practically repeated his teammate's words verbatim when he was asked a similar question.

"This what we've been waiting for all year," the ACC Player of the Year said. "The Kentucky loss sits with us from last year. We've been waiting to get to this point. We've been playing all year to try to become a one seed and we're finally a one seed, so now we can actually do what we set out to do."

That's easier said than done, of course. Leslie McDonald and Dexter Strickland have dramatically improved the style and dancing ability on the UNC bench over the past five months, but their injuries have shortened Roy Williams's lineup and hurt his perimeter play on both ends of the court.

ACC Defensive Player of the Year John Henson added to those injury problems in the conference tournament, but Williams indicated on Tuesday that he's "hopeful" the first-team All-ACCer will be ready this weekend.

Plenty of prognosticators expected North Carolina to roll through its schedule with little resistance, especially considering a down year in the ACC, but the Tar Heels encountered difficulty early in matching its opponents' intensity for a full 40 minutes.

Marshall acknowledged those issues, but he also believes his team has gotten better as the season has gone along at learning to play a complete game.

"One thing that we struggled with was fighting through adversity, whether it be getting a big lead and teams making that second push and how to respond to that or teams jumping out on us and responding with a punch of our own," Marshall said.

The sophomore point guard pointed to road win at Miami and ACC Tournament contests against N.C. State and Florida State as examples of UNC's determination to persevere.

"I think we've shown lately that we can win and compete in different types of games, and I think that's really going to help in these last six games," Marshall said.

North Carolina rallied from second-half deficits in five ACC games this season, all from six or more points behind.

"We've done pretty well – we've been down and come back in a lot of games," Williams said. "I was dumb enough to think we were going to get it done on Sunday also, but Florida State didn't cooperate."

Last year's Tar Heel team essentially experienced the NCAA Tournament for the first time, minus the minimal on-court contributions of Zeller and Justin Watts in '09. But the 2011 Elite Eight run was an educational opportunity as much as anything, and it's allowed the Heels to approach this postseason with a different mindset that's helped to prepare the younger players for the challenges ahead.

"Focus is definitely a lot greater during the NCAA Tournament," Barnes said. "There's really no way to explain it, but it's just that, ‘Okay, now is when you play your best games. Now is where you have your best performances, your maximum effort, your maximum concentration.'

"This is what you play college basketball for – March Madness."

And it's also the reason this team stayed intact. There's an opportunity that exists over the next three weeks that most basketball players are relegated to pretending in their driveway or at the gym in solitude.

"As a team, we have a chance to put a banner up there [and] to be legendary," Marshall said.

That journey begins on Friday afternoon against the winner of the first round contest between Lamar and Vermont.

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