Heels lack experience, but not tons of talented depth

Before his basketball team played at North Carolina on Wednesday night, Miami coach Frank Haith was asked what worried him most about facing the No. 3 Tar Heels.

"They can overwhelm you with their speed and how fast they get the ball on you," Haith said. "You have to have the ability to get back and set your defense very quickly. That's the one thing that you really have to be prepared for. You can't turn the ball over. If you turn it over, it's the kiss of death in terms of how fast they put the ball on you. Even if you score, you've got to be in a dead sprint getting back in transition defense."

The Hurricanes rarely got back on defense against the Tar Heels, who crushed Miami 105-64 for their 20th victory in their first 22 games. Since losing at Virginia Tech 94-88 on Jan. 13, North Carolina has won each of its past five games by at least 16 points, including a 28-point blowout at then-No. 19 Arizona on Jan. 27, the worst home loss in Lute Olson's 24 seasons coaching the Wildcats.

Halfway through the ACC schedule, and with about six weeks to go before the start of the NCAA Tournament, the Tar Heels are beginning to resemble the North Carolina team that won the school's fourth national title in 2005. It was the first national championship for coach Roy Williams, who previously failed to win the title in four trips to the Final Four during his 15-year tenure at Kansas.

Now, after waiting so long to cut the nets on college basketball's biggest stage, Williams might be on the verge of winning a national title for the second time in three seasons.

"I don't think anybody is better than North Carolina in the country right now," Maryland coach Gary Williams said.

Indeed, the Tar Heels are substantially more talented and deeper than any other team in the ACC, and they're quite possibly, with all due respect to defending national champion Florida, the best team in college basketball.

"North Carolina, in my mind, might be the best team in the country," Haith said. "I think in terms of their depth, in terms of their talent and in terms of what coach Williams brings to the table, I think they're a great basketball team."

So was the 2004-05 North Carolina team, which finished 33-4 and won its first two games in the 2005 NCAA Tournament by a combined 55 points. After surviving close victories in the regional semifinals and final, the top-seeded Tar Heels crushed Michigan State 87-71 in the national semifinals, then beat Illinois 75-70 in the championship game.

That North Carolina team had a significant characteristic this Tar Heels team lacks -- experience. Two seniors and three juniors started for North Carolina in the 2005 national championship game. Senior Jawad Williams was a versatile player and one of the team's top 3-point shooters. Senior Jackie Manuel was a stout defender, and senior Melvin Scott was one of the team's top reserves.

The junior class on the 2005 team was grossly talented. So much so that point guard Raymond Felton, center Sean May and forward Rashad McCants, along with ultra-talented freshman Marvin Williams, decided to forgo their remaining eligibility and enter the NBA draft less than a month after leading North Carolina to its first national title since 1993. Each of those players was selected among the first 14 picks in the draft.

The trio of Felton, May and McCants combined to score 57 points against the Illini. May was sensational throughout the 2005 NCAA Tournament, but especially against Illinois in the final. He scored 26 points on 10-for-11 shooting with 10 rebounds and was named Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four.

This season, North Carolina starts forward Reyshawn Terry, one of two seniors in the playing rotation and a seldom-used sophomore reserve on the 2005 team. He starts along with one sophomores and three freshmen. Five of the Tar Heels' top six reserves are freshmen or sophomores, and guard Wes Miller is the only senior who regularly plays off the bench.

But North Carolina compensates for its youth with superior talent and depth. Four of its five starters -- forwards Tyler Hansbrough and Brandan Wright and guards Wayne Ellington and Ty Lawson -- were McDonald's All-Americans in high school. The Tar Heels have at least 12 players who are averaging 7½ minutes or more; the 2005 North Carolina team used only eight players in its regular rotation. North Carolina won at Arizona 92-64 even though it played without Wright (stomach virus) and reserve guards Frasor (foot) and Marcus Ginyard (stomach virus).

"I'll tell you one thing -- this team is very gifted," Roy Williams said. "But, boy, that [2005] team was very gifted and had great experience also. I've always thought the easiest way to be great is to have experienced talent. This team has no where near the experience that team had, but we are gifted."

Especially North Carolina's starting frontcourt players, who combined for nearly 33 points and 15 rebounds per game. Hansbrough, a 6-foot-9, 245-pound native of Poplar Bluff, Mo., is similar in size and strength to May. Hansbrough leads the Tar Heels with 18.4 points and 8.2 rebounds per game and, much like May, has strong yet soft hands around the basket.

Wright, a 6-foot-9, 205-pound freshman from Nashville, averages 14.8 points and 6.4 rebounds. Wright isn't as strong as Hansbrough, but might be more explosive around the basket and runs the court very well. Wright is considered a potential lottery pick if he decides to leave North Carolina after his freshman season and enter June's NBA draft.

Despite their production, Williams is looking for his big men to be more physical under the basket instead of settling for midrange jumpers.

"I don't want us to fall in love with the jump shot," Williams said.

The Tar Heels are at their best when Lawson is pushing the basketball up the floor. Lawson, a 5-foot-11 freshman from Oak Hill Academy in Virginia, has an assist-to-turnover ratio of better than 2-to-1. Felton, the No. 5 choice in the 2005 NBA draft by the Charlotte Bobcats, had a 1.93 assist-to-turnover ratio while leading the Tar Heels to the 2005 title.

Much like Felton, Lawson struggled early in setting the pace Williams wants on the floor.

"We've continued to try to push him to use his speed and quickness more, and I think he's understanding that a little bit more each and every game," Williams said. "Every kid that I've ever recruited says, 'Yeah, boy, Coach, I love to run up and down.' Then they find out how hard it is and they don't love it as much because I want them to do it every single possession.

"Ty has always turned it off and turned it on, and you can't do that at this level. To get somebody to run as hard as we want them to on a consistent basis is difficult to do."

Williams wants Lawson to shoot the basketball more, too.

"I've been after him a little bit for several weeks not to forget that you have an outside shot and if you're open, you can shoot the basketball," Williams said. "I don't have a point guard that can't score, or at least try to score. We've been trying to get him to focus on that a little bit more, so he has been looking for his shot."

Each of the Tar Heels' five starters averages more than nine points per game. Ellington, another freshman, leads the team with 45 3-pointers. Terry has made 25 3-pointers and rebounds the basketball exceptionally well.

With ultra-talented guards, so many scoring options and superior depth, the Tar Heels seem like the perfect basketball team for March. But with half of the ACC schedule left to play, Williams isn't getting too far ahead of himself.

"Even if I wasn't the coach at North Carolina, I would say I don't think we're head and shoulders above the rest of the ACC," Williams said. "Just a couple of weeks ago, people around here were wondering what I was thinking because Virginia Tech had us by 23."

Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.