A Difficult Road to Paradise

LAHAINA, Hawaii – No. 1 North Carolina arrived in Hawaii on Saturday, but due to an inordinate amount of preseason injuries, the Tar Heels are no longer the overwhelming favorite to win the Maui Invitational that they were just months ago.

EA SPORTS, the event's title sponsor, simulated this event using the video game NCAA Basketball 09, and the Tar Heels emerged victorious with a 90-83 defeat of Notre Dame. But computer-generated results don't mean much in the real world, and with seven of North Carolina's 13 scholarship players battling preseason injuries of seemingly every possible kind, UNC encounters a treacherous road to the title against a field that boasts six 2008 NCAA Tournament members and two top-10 programs.

"In the summer, I said, ‘Gosh, this is going to be great in Maui – we've got so much more depth than anybody else,' and now we don't," head coach Roy Williams told reporters during a Sunday morning press conference at the Westin Maui Resort & Spa's Aloha Pavilion. "I think that we're still going to try to play people because this early in the year, I don't think you can put that kind of load – I don't think I can put that kind of load – on people by playing somebody 35 minutes a game, so we're going to play a lot of people."

The list of players dealing with early-season injuries has been thorough -- Tyler Hansbrough (stress reaction in his right shin), Marcus Ginyard (stress fracture in his left foot), Michael Copeland (torn right ACL), Justin Watts (hyperextended left knee), Ed Davis (irritated fat pad), Bobby Frasor (left ankle sprain) and Tyler Zeller (broken left wrist).

Davis, Frasor and Watts have fully recovered from their health issues, and Hansbrough returned to action for the first time in nearly four weeks during Friday night's victory at UC Santa Barbara. But Ginyard and Copeland are out for several more weeks, and Zeller is quite possible done for the year.

Williams even joked on Sunday that new head athletic trainer Chris Hirth's performance thus far should get him fired.

The constant shuffling of bodies in-and-out of practice during the preseason slowed North Carolina's ability to explode out of the gates, as the Tar Heels (3-0) have struggled to find a consistent rhythm on both ends of the court – UNC is connecting on 45 percent of its field goal attempts while its opponents are shooting 43.1 percent.

Williams was asked if three consecutive days of games would help his squad in working out the kinks, but the sixth-year UNC head coach said that was not necessarily the case.

"You could say that, but also, you're still going to make mistakes and you have no time to work on those," Williams said. "So what you want to do is make sure that the mistakes don't become habits during the course of playing three games in three straight days."

Hansbrough scored 13 points and grabbed seven rebounds in 25 minutes of action against the Gauchos on Friday, despite the coaching staff initially wanting his playing time kept down in the 20-22 minute range. How much the reigning national player of the year plays this week is still in question, however.

"I really don't know what I'm going to do with Tyler – I'm more concerned with playing him three straight days than I was about playing him last Friday night," said Williams, who also indicated that his senior forward could have played eight or nine days earlier.

North Carolina opens the tournament against Division II host Chaminade in a game that UNC should win by double digits whether Hansbrough plays or not, but if he sits on Monday, then would he be able to play two games in a row against Oregon or Alabama and possibly No. 7 Texas or No. 8 Notre Dame? Or should he play against the Silverswords, rest a day and then return for Wednesday's final day of action?

UNC's coaching staff discussed the issue twice on Saturday night, with no emerging decision.

"You can make an argument any way you want to make it, but the bottom line is that we don't know and we won't know until we get together after practice today and talk to him and see how he feels tomorrow," Williams said.

North Carolina is no stranger to the Maui Invitational, which celebrates its 25th event this week. The Tar Heels previously won tournament titles in 1999 over Purdue and 2004 against Iowa. Williams has also made his desire to play in this tournament as often as possible known on various occasions, and who can blame him? Palm trees and the Pacific Ocean as backdrops are hard to top.

"It's just such tremendous competition," Williams said. "I guess the first time I came was the fall of '96, and we played great and I thought it was a great experience for our team. Getting them on the road, spending some time together was wonderful for that so-called chemistry. But the thing about it is playing three straight days against the type of competition that you have here, the different types of the basketball that you play against, I just think it's a great experience for your team."

North Carolina and Chaminade play the third game on Monday at the Lahaina Civic Center, which is set to tip at 9:30 pm ET (ESPNU).


Inside Carolina Top Stories