CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- For what will surely be the only time all year, last Friday night the 2009-10 North Carolina Tar Heels emerged from the tunnel at the Dean E. Smith Center before a game and were all but ignored. No band blaring "Here Comes Carolina", no cheerleaders tumbling and no raucous standing ovation from a sold-out crowd of 22,000 fans. Yet there was no reason for the current Tar Heel team to feel slighted.
With all due respect to Ed Davis, Tyler Zeller and Marcus Ginyard, this year's squad was not who the fans had come to see in the Dean Dome on this night, and by the time they came out to take their seats behind the basket closest to the Tar Heel bench, all eyes were still focused not on this year's defending national champions but on the stars of yesteryear who had assembled in the tunnel for the Alumni Game that kicked off Carolina's centennial season.
(SEE MORE PHOTOS FROM THE UNC ALUMNI GAME)
Busting through the tunnel like they had in their college days, there was Vince Carter, flying through the air like it was 1998 all over again. Near the sidelines was Danny Green, doing his "Jump Around" pre-game dance one more time and getting some unexpected competition from Shammond Williams in the process. There was Dante Calabria rocking his familiar low-top sneakers last seen in Chapel Hill in the mid-90s, and RashadMcCants flashing Jay-Z's dynasty hand gesture. And there were the two icons of Tar Heel hoops, Michael Jordan and Dean Smith, sharing a courtside row with NBA coaching legend Larry Brown and current Tar Heel boss Roy Williams while two squads of Tar Heel pros performed the college basketball world's greatest nostalgia act.
"This is the greatest place in the world for college basketball because of these guys over here and you guys up there," Williams told the crowd after the game.
In a weekend that was all about celebrating the Carolina dynasty, those who are charged with carrying on that legacy were all but forgotten. But that won't be the case come November, when the Tar Heels open defense of their national championship in an already much-talked about matchup against Florida International in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic.
Just as they were after last winning the title in 2005, the newest Tar Heels are defending champions in name only. Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington, Danny Green and Tyler Hansbrough, are all gone to the NBA, leaving a largely untested team in their place.
In the Tar Heels' locker room, a few of the departed players, most notably Hansbrough and Lawson, still have their names above their lockers, suggesting that the transformation to this year's squad is not as far along as some might expect with the start of practice a little more than a month away. It's a transition that will take more than simply changing a few nameplates, however.
Among significant changes to the Heels since cutting down the nets: this year's team is thin in the backcourt. Sophomore Larry Drew II is the only true point guard on the roster, and is the only returning guard to have played significant minutes down the stretch a year ago.
But the '09-'10 Heels are loaded with big men, including senior Deon Thompson, and Zeller, a sophomore who missed 12 weeks last year with a broken wrist. They also bring in a recruiting class that's ranked fifth by Rivals.com.
But the player who is perhaps most important to Carolina's success is Ginyard. He arrived in the heralded recruiting class of 2005 charged with keeping the Tar Heels from following their title that spring with a collapse the following winter, and he and his classmates -- including Hansbrough, Green and Bobby Frasor, another McDonald's All-American -- did just that. Over his first three seasons, Ginyard became the team's defensive stopper, quick enough to front guards and big enough to bother big men in the post. He also became a valuable leader on a team that at times seemed devoid of on-court leadership.
Without teammates and housemates Hansbrough, Green and Frasor, Ginyard has a new address (he got a house with Thompson and fellow senior Marc Campbell) and a new role: captain.
So far, he says everything's going well. From organizing the team's frequent pickup games to their offseason workout schedule to what the players can wear to Carolina football games ("nicer than what you'd wear to class" he says), Ginyard's embraced the captain's role, thanks to some help from 2006 captain David Noel.
But for Ginyard, organizing pickup games might be the easiest part of the season. Once the year begins, he will be charged most often with pointing the way for the vastly inexperienced Heels. Despite their many losses off the court, if preseason hype is any indication, most pundits aren't expecting to see many losses on the court this year.
"We expect this ballclub to be in [the Final Four] trying to win a national championship," Ginyard said. "It's going to be a completely different team than last season, but we know we have the talent to get to where we need to be."
Along with filling in the holes left by departed players, the Tar Heels will need Ginyard to bounce back from a broken foot he suffered last preseason that kept him out for all but three games during the year. He says he's back to full strength, and was a regular participant in summer pickup games like the ones last weekend with the rest of this year's Tar Heels and a few prospects including top recruit Harrison Barnes. (Another top recruit, James McAdoo, a forward and one of the top players in next year's class, who is the nephew of former Tar Heel All-American and Hall of Famer Bob McAdoo, committed to the Tar Heels during the holiday weekend.)
But the most interesting pickup games were the ones played in the previous two days at the Smith Center that matched past and present Tar Heel greats and where two courts were needed to accommodate all the stars who had returned to their alma mater. The games were so flooded with talent that even Carter, the eight-time NBA All-Star and former Tar Heel All-American, couldn't get on the court at one point. During a break in the action, Rashad McCants turned to Sean May, both of whom were stars on the '05 title team and NBA lottery picks that spring, and said, "I can't believe we're back here playing again."
"It brought back so many feelings and so many memories," said Carter, who eventually got back on the court in that pickup game and then stole the show in the Alumni Game with a pair of off-the-backboard dunks. "Think about the guys that weren't even here."
On Friday, that locker room was like a roll call of college basketball legends. At one point, Roy Williams stood up in front of the group to talk. Many of them were players he had never coached. Some were players he had coached during a decade as a Tar Heels assistant. Others were his own players from his six years back as head coach. All of them were family. "Your love for this place only grows because you get older and you realize what you had," says Williams.
And everyone in the room knew he was right. Because all of them, whether they were born or bred, are Tar Heels, until the day they're dead. In proving their love for their school, they had disproved what a Tar Heel grad once wrote: You can, in fact, go home again.