There is no debating the talent that Roy Williams had in his stable last spring, but there were legitimate questions surrounding the team's experience and maturity heading into March. Outside of senior Reyshawn Terry's numbers, the other four starters had a combined total of four NCAA Tournament games under their belts, and none of them had participated in the Sweet Sixteen.
Sophomore point guard Ty Lawson admitted during Thursday's press conference to being surprised at the atmosphere surrounding the NCAA Tournament during his freshman campaign, which led to some nervous jitters on the court.
This season, however, North Carolina's starting five boasts a collective 24 games of Big Dance experience, and having survived a season full of adversity – ranging from defensive criticism to losing Bobby Frasor to playing without Lawson for a month – this Tar Heel group's mental toughness is on a different level than last year's squad.
"I think we are much more mature this year and hopefully we'll be able to handle adversity better than we did last year," said Williams, who has the most NCAA Tournament wins of any coach over the last six seasons (20). "I think this team did handle adversity better during the regular season than last year's team did, so hopefully we'll be able to do it in the tournament as well."
The statistics back up those comments. The 2006-07 squad posted a 2-6 record in games decided by seven points or less or in overtime. This year's bunch is 8-1 in games decided by five points or less or in overtime.
It also doesn't hurt that North Carolina boasts an 8-1 record against NCAA Tournament participants this season, with the only loss occurring 12 games ago against rival Duke (89-78 on Feb. 6).
"We feel a lot more confident, more mature, more prepared and just all of those things," sophomore guard Wayne Ellington said. "We just feel like we're ready. Going into the ACC Tournament, we felt the same way. We came in there with a businessman-like approach, and we were ready to get it done. We're coming into this tournament the same way."
The mindset is resoundingly clear – go ahead and book your plane tickets to San Antonio. The Tar Heels are determined to erase the 2007 Georgetown loss from their memory, and the only way to do that is to move deeper in the tournament than the Elite Eight – a phrase that makes even the most casual North Carolina fan wince in remembrance.
"We all have the experience, we've been through this before, and we know what it takes," Ellington said. "So for us not to get further than we did last year, then yes, it would be a disappointment for our team."
Junior forward Danny Green even took it a step further, saying, "We aren't satisfied with just a regular-season ACC Championship – we want a national championship."
Williams refuses to take that approach. To do so would undermine the monumental success that his team has achieved over the past five months.
"I'm old-fashioned – we're just going to try to do the best we can do every single day," Williams said. "It would be hard for me to understand a season to be a failure when we win the regular season ACC and the conference tournament both, and then [earn] a No. 1 seed.
"You can be extremely disappointed that you didn't do more, but I'm never going to one of those coaches that looks at a second-place trophy and throws it down and smashes it and says, ‘We only think about No. 1.' That's just not me."
But there's no denying Williams' competitive drive. The man has won a NCAA tournament game a record 18 straight seasons, and has been an active participant in three of the last six Final Fours.
But perhaps sophomore forward Deon Thompson summed up the Tar Heels' thoughts best on Thursday afternoon.
"What we've done up to date, you can just look back on that and take that as what it is," said Thompson, who has put in extra time in the gym this week to prepare for the tournament. "But there is still a bigger prize that we are looking towards. But we've still just got to play one game at a time because we are not guaranteed to even play on Sunday if we don't get it done tomorrow."