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March 13, 2012
Year of preparation
All of the experiences, effort and lessons fourth-ranked Carolina has undergone since the 2011 NCAA Tournament ended form the pool of knowledge from which this group can draw throughout the 2012 NCAA Tournament.
General health and the ultimate success it has in translating this knowledge into action will determine how far UNC ultimately travels. The journey begins at 4:10 p.m. on Friday at the Greensboro Coliseum against either Larmar (23-11) or Vermont (23-11).
Those two will play Wednesday at 6:40 p.m. for the right to play the Tar Heels.
"This is what we have been waiting for all year," said Tyler Zeller, the ACC player of the year. "The Kentucky loss [in the 2011 round of eight] is something that sits with all of us from last year. We've been playing all year to try to become a one seed. Now we're a one seed, and we can actually do what we set out to do."
The first order of business is to learn whether John Henson, first-team All-ACC performer and the league's defensive player of the year, will be able to play.
Henson injured his wrist when he fell in the opening game of the ACC Tournament against Maryland. He sat for the remainder of that game and the following two days as well. Whether he would have made the difference against Florida State in the championship game is something no one will ever know for sure.
But there is little doubt the Tar Heels do not want to play this tournament without Henson in the lineup.
If Henson can play, at least by the Sunday's second game, sophomore Harrison Barnes says Carolina will be prepared and ready to make a serious run at a national championship.
"Assuming John is healthy, I think we are," Barnes said. "There is no substitute for experience. Everyone is healthy. We're playing together. We're starting to have some of our best performances.
"The bench is playing great basketball for us, great basketball. So I think, yeah, we're probably more ready than ever."
There is little doubt Justin Watts, P.J. Hairston and James Michael McAdoo have been playing with far more confidence and greater production since the regular-season finale at Duke.
Barnes even joked about Watts' amazing versatility on the plane back to RDU from Atlanta, said sophomore point guard Kendall Marshall, who was named a first-team All-American on Tuesday by CBSsportsline.com.
"Harrison made a joke on the way home from Atlanta: 'How does Justin Watts prepare for games? Does he shoot jump hooks or does he do ball-handling?'" Marshall echoed Barnes. "You never know what he's going to be asked to do. Every team needs a team someone like Justin Watts.
"He played four positions. One play he brings the ball up the court and runs a box play. The next time he guards Richard Howell in the post. That is not something just anyone can do. He's very valuable to our team."
Not only did Watts play those positions, he played them well. He looked as if he had been playing point guard throughout his whole career when he took over for Marshall.
Later he made a critical save on a loose ball along the baseline.
One lesson this team has learned, Marshall said, is to play for the moment. A year ago, the game against Kentucky came and went quickly. The next thing the youthful Tar Heels knew they were coming home, and the Wildcats were on their way to the Final Four.
"The whole off-season and the regular season was all gearing up to getting back to this point," Marshall said. "We feel like we let an opportunity slip by last year. One thing coach always said is people are always talking about next year. But we're here now. Why not make the most of it?
"But we didn't do that last year. We didn't come out to play for a full 40 minutes the last game we played. This year we are approaching it with a different mindset. We know what to expect. We can really bring the younger guys along. Hopefully we can have a special ending to this season."
The Tar Heels are known for their fast-paced running game, and they will certainly score as quickly as they can when the opportunity presents itself. Carolina is second in the country at scoring at 82 points per game.
Nonetheless, with Henson in the lineup they are even better at the defensive end.
They have proven in the last month or so they can win running, playing half-court, even in a game in which they barely break 50 points.
"We've gotten better throughout the season of learning to play a complete game," Marshall said. "One thing we struggled with was fighting through adversity, whether it was getting a big lead and teams making that second push, or teams jumping out on us and we had to respond with a push of our own.
"We've shown lately that we can compete and win in different kinds of games," Marshall said. "It's really going to help us in these last six games."
The combination of these experiences will make the difference this time around, Barnes said.
"Experience," Barnes said. "Last year we were just so excited to be there. The experience weighed in during the Kentucky game. Because we had beaten them during the regular season, we didn't come out with the same intensity that had in the Marquette game.
"This year we're not looking forward to other matchups. We're just coming out to play."