The Final Journey Begins

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – As soon as the core of North Carolina's roster elected to bypass the NBA's bright lights last spring, monumental expectations rapidly demanded a near-perfect '08-'09 season. But while the journey was never that easy, the Tar Heels have reached the final leg of the race with Detroit on the horizon.

North Carolina's NCAA Tournament statistics are mind-boggling. UNC is making its 41st appearance in the dance (2nd all-time), and boasts a 96-39 all-time record that equates to the second-most wins, second-most games and third-highest winning percentage (.711) in NCAA Tournament history.

And it's probably worth mentioning that the Tar Heels own a No. 1 seed for the 13th time since seeding began in 1979 – three more than any other school – and for the fourth time in five years.

So when you combine those figures with the fact that four potential NBA prospects in Tyler Hansbrough, Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington and Danny Green decided to return to school for another shot at the national championship, it's easy to understand why the Tar Heels were considered on a different, more elite level than all other challengers in the preseason.

Dominating early top-10 teams such as Notre Dame (102-87) and Michigan State (98-63) only fueled the rampant speculation that this program could post the first undefeated season since the 1975-76 Indiana Hoosiers.

But Roy Williams downplayed those expectations vehemently, and as it turns out, he was right.

Injuries attempted to derail the Chapel Hill fairy tale before the opening credits ever rolled, as three-year starter and defensive standout Marcus Ginyard suffered a stress fracture in his left foot. Despite the UNC training staff hoping for an early December return, the program eventually announced the decision to red-shirt the senior wing.

Freshman center Tyler Zeller was lost for the majority of the season after breaking his wrist in the second game of the season, and Hansbrough battled an odd stress reaction in his right shin for the first two months of his senior campaign. Add to that Lawson's recent right big toe situation, as well as Will Graves' mid-season suspension, and the excuses are piled up neatly on the table for this Tar Heel squad, readily available for anyone that wants to pick up a copy.

But instead of using those excuses, North Carolina battled back from an 0-2 hole in ACC play to win the conference regular season championship while finishing with a 28-4 (13-3 ACC) record.

"It was the most unsettled preseason that I've ever had in my life, and it's not even close," Williams told reporters during his Tuesday press conference. "… I've never been through a year like this, but the bottom line is what it is and we've got to go ahead and play.

And still, many observers are looking at this season as a national championship-or-bust type of scenario. That's the hefty price tag that comes with playing for North Carolina.

"People were talking about trying to win a championship before the season even started," Hansbrough said. "We even talked about it and said, ‘Hey, as a team, we're playing one game at a time.' We're not trying to overlook anybody… When you overlook somebody, that's when you get beat. But we're just trying to take this one step at a time and everybody else is going to have their own expectations about what this team needs to do or what we will do, and we're going to stay within ourselves."

These Tar Heels are not attempting to deny the heavy expectations that saturate the physical boundaries of Chapel Hill or the infinite reaches of the UNC fan base. Instead, they're acknowledging the weight without succumbing to it.

"There's a little pressure there, but at the same time, I think we're just focusing on our team goals and not really listening to the outside pressure," Ellington said. "We're just worried about ourselves and worried about the business we have to take care of."

And all No. 2 North Carolina can do is focus on the next game. Booking airfare to Detroit doesn't do much good if the Tar Heels slip up in Greensboro against No. 16 seed Radford or the winner of the No. 8 LSU-No. 9 Butler matchup. UNC can only do what it has done all year – continue to work to get better with every opportunity.

"We can't invent something and all of a sudden find a cure, but generally speaking, what I've tried to do, what Coach Smith tried to do, what Bobby Knight tried to do, is play the best you can each and every day, try to improve and then if things go well, you'll be playing your best at the end of the year," Williams said.

Despite this program not living up to its unrealistic preseason expectations, North Carolina is still a heavy favorite to return to a second-straight Final Four, which it has done seven times in its previous 12 stints as a No. 1 seed. And while Ty Lawson is still questionable for Thursday's NCAA Tournament opener – pending his ability to practice on Tuesday and Wednesday – the necessary ingredients are gathered on the kitchen counter, ready for a proper mixing.

When asked about how he will remember this year's team on Tuesday, Williams pointed to his kids' toughness in dealing with the injuries and suspension that added speed bumps to this season's track meet. But he was hesitant to give his final answer, indicating there was more work to be done.

"The greatest thing is [that] there's still some possibilities of doing some more, and that's what you coach for," Williams said.

North Carolina's opening round game against No. 16 seed Radford tips at approximately 2:50pm on Thursday at the Greensboro Coliseum.

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