Felton: ‘The Carolina blood in me'

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Winds of change blew over the North Carolina basketball program during the off-season that would rival any blast Hurricane Isabel could potentially unfurl. It has brought a new spirit among players and fans, yet much of the team's personnel remains the same.

But that's good news, especially considering Raymond Felton will be back leading the Tar Heels in what should be a return to winning ways in Chapel Hill.

"There is no doubt in my mind that we are going to be a better team this year," Felton told Inside Carolina on Monday. "We're experienced, and on top of that, we've got a big key of our team back; we've got Sean [May] back and everybody is healthy.

"It's going to be a heck of a year for us," he said. "We've got guys who can shoot, we've got guys who can post and we've got guys who can shoot and post. So we're going to have a variety of players that can do many things. We're going to be OK this year."

As a freshman, the Latta, S.C. native played in all 35 games last season for the 19-16 Tar Heels, averaging 12.9 points per game, with 236 assists. He also made 69 3-pointers at a 35.8 percent clip.

Even more striking was his noticeable growth as the season went on. Before his injury, May might have been the most valuable of Carolina's talented crop of freshman, and Rashad McCants appeared to be mature beyond his years from the first time he walked out on the Smith Center floor.

But by the end of the year, Felton had become one of the most feared point guards in the Atlantic Coast Conference and had taken over the leadership of the team.

In late-season wins over nationally ranked Duke and Maryland, Felton just wouldn't let the Tar Heels lose.

Much of his desire comes from his deep-down love of the UNC basketball program.

"It's a pride," Felton said. "It's the Carolina blood in me.

"It is all that I thought it would be – all the excitement and the big hype," he said. "When we went down to Cameron and saw how crazy it was in the gym. How it was when they came here and we rushed the court when we beat them. It's crazy. It's a feeling that you can't explain. When you're out there, you have to be a player to experience that feeling. A lot of the fans experience it, but I don't think anyone experiences it like the players do.

"I always wanted to play here, so there it is a joy every time I come out of that tunnel. I'm happy when I come out there, but its another thing that I get to play as hard as I can every time I come out, like it could be my last."

But fans hope that this year will not be the last time they see Felton in a Tar Heels' uniform. Yet realistically, if he has another outstanding season in 2003-04, he would easily project as a high first round draft pick in the National Basketball Association – a temptation that may be too hard for him to resist.

Still, Felton says he will not let that be a distraction this year.

"I just don't think about it," Felton said. "Right now, I'm setting goals for being here. I'm not even thinking about that until that time comes. It could be this year and it could be after my senior year.

"Whenever its time for me to go, that's when I'll decide to leave. I'll talk about that with Coach [Roy] Williams, Coach [Dean] Smith and my parents when the time comes."

Felton is simply focused on the here and now, knowing full well if he tries to predict the future, he could miss out on the fun he is having in college. And while Felton was one of former coach Matt Doherty's biggest supporters, he said he's anxious to play under Williams and his new coach's anticipated up-tempo style of play.

"The situation this year is going to be great, not just for me, but for the whole team," Felton said. "I'm not knocking Coach Doherty, because I would be just as happy if he were here. But now, there is just a better atmosphere for the team altogether.

"In [Williams'] offense, he's going to let us push the ball up the court and basically let us do what we can do," he said. "There is going to be some set offense, but mainly we're going to be pushing the ball up the court trying to beat the defenders down.

"It goes back to the way I played in high school and I've been prone to play growing up – just push the ball up the court and whatever happens, happens. Everything is still going to be structured after we get up the court. It's going to be wonderful."

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