CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- North Carolina always thought it could be near the top of the ACC standings this season -- no worse than second or third place.
UNC coach Roy Williams recruited Tyler Hansbrough with the idea that he would play alongside Sean May -- and possibly Marvin Williams. He believed they would all three would be in Chapel Hill for May's senior and Williams' sophomore seasons. Roy Williams even thought that could be true after the national title last April. Why wouldn't he when May publicly said as much after the Tar Heels cut down the Final Four nets in St. Louis and Williams privately wavered on his professional future, while he made sure he was seriously being considered as a top-two NBA draft pick?
"I thought a second- or third-place finish in the ACC was realistic," said former Tar Heel Jackie Manuel, on campus Friday for practice.
"I had high expectations for this team," UNC senior David Noel said. "I felt we could be good and we had realistic goals."
The way UNC arrived here, though, with 11 ACC wins and 20 overall, was unexpected -- and could lead to national recognition for Williams as coach and Hansbrough as freshman of the year.
"I envisioned a team with Marvin at the 3, Sean and Tyler inside, and I thought and hoped to have that possibility," Williams said Friday on the eve of Saturday's regular-season finale at Duke in Cameron Indoor Stadium.
"In my wildest hopes and dreams, I would have pictured what we've been able to do [with the current cast]," Williams said. "I always hoped that the team would come together quickly, would embrace the defensive effort and they did. I hoped they would share the basketball and they did."
Let's digress for a moment to consider how the Tar Heels would have played the 2005-06 season with Hansbrough and May together. Would Hansbrough have been able to average 18.7 points and 7.5 rebounds with May beside him? Would he have put up 40 points and 10 boards against George Tech?
"We could have worked well together under the boards and I could have played the 4 or the 5," Hansbrough said. "He would have brought a lot more leadership than I could. But with him being gone I've gained a lot more experience."
"It would have worked out great," Roy Williams said. "Nobody would have been able to double team Tyler because Sean would have killed them, and no would have been able to double team Sean because we would have Tyler. We would have two power forwards and been able to play David (Noel) at small forward."
Williams said the two could have co-existed because of May's perimeter shooting and passing, which were underrated parts of his game. Williams said May had better hands but Hansbrough's are as strong as he's seen.
"When Tyler gets the ball in a crowd, he's still strong enough to get the shot up on the board," Williams said. "He still has enough of a lively body to get it if he misses."
And he has had to do it alone, because he's essentially the team's only post player. That's why there is no question, locally or nationally, who the ACC and national freshman of the year is: It's Hansbrough.
"He's the best player in the ACC right now," said Noel, quite a statement considering what Duke's J.J. Redick and Shelden Williams have done this season. "He wins it hands down. Anyone who gets 40 points in the Dean Smith Center gets it."
And that's one of the main reasons UNC is in position to play for the second seed in the ACC tournament (a win at Duke clinches the No. 2 seed; or a BC loss to Virginia Tech) and a high seed in the NCAAs, instead of worrying about simply getting into the Dance.
"Nobody has done what Tyler has done," said Williams of Hansbrough leading the Tar Heels in points and rebounds. "He's been asked to do more and responded more than any freshman I can remember."
For the record, no Carolina freshman has ever led the Tar Heels in scoring and rebounding. That's a lofty list of first-years to have come through here, but no one had to arrive on the heels of a national title and the departure of the team's top seven scorers.
"A lot of freshmen don't see the playing time that I do on this team," Hansbrough said. "There have been a lot of great players come through here and a lot of them played with other great players. A lot of our players left early and gave me the chance to play right away."
But Williams is quick to celebrate Noel's contributions, too. He said Friday that Noel's leadership has been irreplaceable. Noel is the only returning player that contributed in a significant manner during the Final Four.
Add in the contributions of junior forward Reyshawn Terry, walk-on guard Wes Miller and freshmen Danny Green, Marcus Ginyard and Bobby Frasor, and you've got a team that never doubted itself and yet continues to overachieve -- or so it seems.
Noel and Manuel say that Williams adjusted his coaching style to fit this team, teaching more and yelling less.
"I definitely noticed the difference in the beginning of the year," Manuel said of Williams. "He made sure they had their confidence."
Williams said the season turned at Florida State on Jan. 22 in a game the Tar Heels could have -- and maybe should have -- lost but were able to win by one. Sure, the Tar Heels followed that up with a loss at home to BC, but since losing to the Eagles, have only lost once, at home to Duke by four.
"We knew that North Carolina would be there [near the top], but would be young," Duke's Shelden Williams said. "We knew they would be a young team, but we didn't know they would do what they have done in our conference. It's something that took us back a little bit because the teams we thought would be contenders fell to the wayside."
And that's why it's perfect theatre that Duke and Carolina enter Saturday's finale 1-2 in the ACC yet again.
Regardless of the outcome, Carolina has exceeded outside expectations, but there's still plenty more to achieve within the Tar Heels' locker room.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.