North Carolina's Sylvia Hatchell, while coping with leukemia last season, promised that she would return to the sideline for 2014-15 as the most excited, enthusiastic and grateful coach in all of sports.
On the eve of her Tar Heels starting their season Friday, she's not having any trouble keeping that vow.
"This is my 40th year in coaching, but in some ways it's like my first year," Hatchell said. "I love every minute of practice, being with the players.
"The main thing I'm thinking about is how to help those kids have the best experience they can. That's what it's all about. With what I've been through, I feel now like I can do anything."
Hatchell says she is cancer-free and feeling very good physically. She works daily with a trainer and has gained back a lot of strength.
"My reserve tank is not full as it's always been, but I'm working as hard as ever," she said. "I'm pretty much back to full speed. You don't realize what a part of you something is until it's taken away. I'll never take another minute -- whether it's basketball or just my everyday life -- for granted."
With Hatchell's longtime assistant Andrew Calder on the sidelines last season, the Tar Heels went 27-10 overall and 10-6 in the ACC. They advanced to the Elite Eight in the NCAA tournament. There, they lost 74-65 to Stanford on the Cardinal's home floor at Maples Pavilion.
Then there was another kind of loss, as leading scorer Diamond DeShields opted to transfer after her freshman season. DeShields isn't necessarily getting the Voldemort treatment now by the Tar Heels, but ... she's "the player who left," in Hatchell's words.
It didn't sound as much like sour grapes as simple pragmatism. Hatchell didn't get to coach DeShields, who averaged 18.0 points and 5.4 rebounds in her one season at UNC before transferring to Tennessee.
Hatchell said that truly surprised her. But what's done is done, and all of Hatchell's attention is on moving forward. In particular, she relishes talking about sophomore guard Allisha Gray, who was second on the team to DeShields in scoring last season at 13.9 PPG.
"She's so smart and talented," Hatchell said of Gray. "I know everybody says they have great kids, but Allisha really is great. This kid is exceptional. That shows with her leadership, her demeanor, her maturity."
While DeShields seemed naturally suited for the spotlight, Gray has the kind of low-key, low-maintenance personality that made her too easy to overlook last season. But that probably won't happen as much this year. The 6-foot Gray should be one of the top players in the ACC and a leader -- albeit still a fairly quiet one -- for the Tar Heels.
"I know more of what to expect, and more how to handle different situations," Gray said. "I think our offense is way more balanced, and everybody knows what everybody else can and can't do. It's more of a team this year."
It didn't sound as if Gray meant that as a dart directed at DeShields, but there's no denying that her departure has been a rallying point for the Tar Heels. With DeShields, North Carolina would have been considered a pretty strong Final Four contender for 2015. Without her, there are more doubts. Which could be fuel for the Tar Heels.
"We definitely got closer, and you can tell," Gray said. "I think we have great team chemistry."
"I think our offense is way more balanced, and everybody knows what everybody else can and can't do. It's more of a team this year. I think we have great team chemistry." Sophomore Allisha Gray
Whether they actually do play more cohesively this season remains to be seen. But it's not going to hurt for the Tar Heels to try to spin this as something they can turn into a positive. Heck, that's the best way to handle a breakup.
The balance Gray spoke of might allow for a more inside-out offensive attack this season, led by junior Xylina McDaniel (11.3 PPG last season) and sophomore Stephanie Mavunga (10.7 PPG).
"Stephanie is great at finishing around the basket; she is just so strong, she has great hands, and she can shoot outside, too," Hatchell said. "Xylina also has expanded her range and her moves to the basket. We've also got strong back-ups there, too."
The Tar Heels look to have a lot of depth both in the paint and on the perimeter. No one player is as dynamic as DeShields, who was the consensus national freshman of the year last season. But as a unit, North Carolina has a lot of athleticism to throw at opponents.
Senior Latifah Coleman led the Tar Heels in assists last season with 119; sophomore Jessica Washington had 95. And while the Tar Heels will never be known as great caretakers of the basketball -- or even good, for that matter -- a slight reduction in turnovers just might be something they achieve this year.
Last season with Hatchell out and the DeShields-led freshmen class so huge a part of everything North Carolina did, there was a sense that you never quite knew which group of Tar Heels might take the court from one game to the next. They had the understandable ups-and-downs of a team with so many young players in key roles.
This season, there is only one freshman on the roster, guard Jamie Cherry. Hatchell expects her to be a contributor, but she won't have to do it surrounded by several other newcomers.
"We've got all the ingredients that it takes," Hatchell said. "Some people are still learning new roles. And I'm trying not to mess them up and just let them play. But I love the potential we have. I feel we still have the expectations of a Final Four team."