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October 19, 2011Perhaps the biggest reason Carolina coach Roy Williams and his players have embraced their potential publicly is their confidence is based on the work they did in the offseason, not just the obvious amount of talent on the roster.
"I feel like this has been the longest off-season since I've been playing basketball," sophomore point guard Kendall Marshall said. "To be as close as we were last year, to making it to that Final Four, one game short, we have almost been itching to get back.
"The longest someone took off from our team was two weeks. We have been playing basketball since, working out, getting better, preparing for this moment."
There is certainly no backing away from the expectations.
"We should be good this year," Williams said at the ACC's annual Operation Basketball on Wednesday. "I have no problem saying that. We had a nice run at the end of the year last year -- 17-3 against ACC teams or NCAA Tournament teams. [We have] five starters back, Reggie [Bullock] back, adding James Michael [McAdoo] and P.J. [Hairston].
"It's more experience. We've got some things so we should be good. But I'd rather be picked No. 1 than No. 346."
There will be two critical areas that will probably make the difference between winning the national championship and not. The biggest is injury. UNC has already suffered a potential season-ending injury when Leslie McDonald tore knee ligaments this summer.
"Injuries are always something you pray doesn't happen," junior forward John Henson said. "Leslie was a very big part of our outside shooting and part of our team. We just have to fight through it."
But mention injury to most Carolina fans and their immediate reaction is that Marshall absolutely cannot get hurt for the Tar Heels to win another title.
Marshall is aware of his importance and he says he has worked hard to give himself the best chance of staying healthy.
"It was part of my training this summer," Marshall said. "I have to really focus on taking care of my body. I'm doing a lot of stretching, trying to stay flexible, getting in the cold tub, icing, things like that, just to make sure I will be able to go day-in an day-out."
Those are the work habits a guy named Tyler Hansbrough used to have when he was a Tar Heel.
The other key to realizing the potential this team possesses is the approach it takes on a daily basis. The 2009 team did not just have talent. It had a team that could not be outworked. That team played as hard or harder than anyone else every night.
The combination of talent and playing hard is what has separated Carolina and Duke from the rest of college basketball for so many years.
Each gets a team's best shot every night, and more often than not, the two respond to the challenge.
To be that consistent means focusing on fundamentals, cultivating the art of maintaining one's concentration for an entire game and foregoing the urge to win games by going one-on-one instead deferring to team play.
"We're focusing on conquering little goals," Marshall said. "We conquered conditioning. Now we're getting through the first two weeks of the season. And then we'll move from there."
Now it comes down to not letting up. If this team can avoid serious injuries and it takes care of the details as it says it will, the Tar Heels are going to be a difficult team to be when the NCAA Tournament arrives.
"We have a lot of weapons on this team, just from the guys returning from last year," said sophomore Harrison Barnes, voted the preseason ACC player of the year on Wednesday. "Our freshmen, James [McAdoo] is ready to contribute. P.J. [Hairston] is ready to contribute. When everyone is clicking this year, we're going to be hard to stop."