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November 10, 2008

Story line No. 1: Can UNC go undefeated?

MORE: North Carolina season preview | Rivals.com preseason top 65

Rivals.com has selected the top 25 story lines for the 2008-09 season and revealed one daily. At No. 1, we look at heavy national title favorite North Carolina and its chances of being the first team in 33 years to go undefeated.

Nowhere on the lengthy list of North Carolina's lofty goals for this season is there any mention of going undefeated. Tar Heels coach Roy Williams doesn't want his players to even entertain the notion.

"I have no dream of going undefeated," Williams said. "Not a blip. I could care less about it."

You can't blame Williams for that attitude. He was coaching in high school the last time a team managed to make it through an entire season without a single blemish on its record. That was in 1975-76 when Indiana went 32-0. There were only 32 teams in the NCAA tournament at the time.

Whether Williams wants to talk about it or not, the Tar Heels may have the best chance of going undefeated of any team since the Hoosiers found perfection.

All five starters return from a team that went 36-3 and reached the Final Four. That includes senior big man Tyler Hansbrough, the first Associated Press national player of the year to return to school in 16 years (LSU's Shaquille O'Neal was the last to do it in 1991-92). The Tar Heels even have the nation's top sixth man, senior swingman Danny Green, back this season.

Perhaps more important, their competition doesn't look nearly as strong as in years past. The other three teams from the 2008 Final Four lost a combined 11 starters defending national champion Kansas lost all five, and runner-up Memphis and UCLA lost three apiece (10 of those were drafted into the NBA). Every other team in the top 10 also lost at least one starter. That led to the Tar Heels receiving every first-place vote in both preseason polls something not even Florida managed in 2006-07 when it returned every starter from its first national championship team and that kind of royal treatment doesn't bother Williams a bit.

"If everybody is saying you are going to be pretty good you probably have a chance to be pretty good," Williams said. "I like having a target on our back. I think it forces you to play at a higher standard each day."

The Tar Heels will also be aided by what appears to be a relatively mediocre non-conference schedule. They are only assured of facing one preseason top 25 team outside of ACC play, a matchup with No. 6 Michigan State at Ford Field (the site of the 2009 Final Four) in Detroit as part of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.

The Tar Heels are also in the Maui Invitational, but begin play with Division II Chaminade. They will likely face at least one top 25 team (No. 7 Texas or No. 9 Notre Dame) in the final. There are only two true non-conference road games, trips to Nevada and UC-Santa Barbara.

Getting through the ACC unscathed looks to be far more difficult. Last season the Tar Heels went 14-2 in league play, with the losses coming at home to archrival Duke (which returns four starters and is ranked No. 8) and Maryland. The Heels also had to survive three league games that went to overtime, including a double-overtime thriller versus Clemson at home.

Only nine Division I teams have gone undefeated since the NCAA tournament began in 1939. North Carolina has the best chance to become the 10th this season.
Season Team Record
1955-56San Francisco29-0
1956-57North Carolina32-0
1972-73N.C. State**27-0
* - Kentucky turned down an NCAA tournament invite after three players were ruled ineligible for the event.
** - NC State was barred from the NCAA tournament that year for recruiting violations.
The ACC tournament is also moving outside of the Tar Heel State this year to Atlanta. The Tar Heels were aided by a pro-UNC crowd while capturing the tournament title in Charlotte last season.

Defense, however, is the biggest concern for Williams and the Tar Heels − and rightfully so. While their offense ranked among the best in the nation, opponents shot a respectable 42.6 percent from the field, which ranked 117th in the nation.

"The defensive end of the floor is something we feel like we can improve," Green said. "I felt like we got to a point last year where we were a good defensive team, but I think we can be much better."

Not getting any worse on defense may be the main goal early on. That's because their best defender, senior guard Marcus Ginyard, is sidelined with a foot injury and won't return until sometime in December. Ginyard has guarded the opponents' top perimeter scorer in the past.

Williams said he believes the second most important factor for the Tar Heels is creating some significant depth. Once Ginyard returns, the Tar Heels have a chance to play an 11-man rotation. Former backup point guard Bobby Frasor has recovered from an anterior cruciate ligament tear, and sophomore swingman Will Graves played in 36 games last season.

The Tar Heels have also added four freshmen, and there is hope that the three who were top-100 prospects, guard Larry Drew and big men Ed Davis and Tyler Zeller, can each contribute.

"I think there are several teams that can compare to our [starting] five," Williams said. "But I think where we perhaps may have an advantage over a lot of teams is if we can get into game where the seventh, eighth or ninth man is a huge factor. I don't know of many teams that can be that talented and experienced. We have to get it where there are enough possessions or play fast enough where depth is a factor. The stamina thing for the [opponents] is something we are really looking to make a big positive for us."

If everything goes according to plan in Chapel Hill, nobody will be looking to play the Tar Heels. Their opponents run the risk of being remembered for landing on the wrong side of a historic season.

MORE: North Carolina season preview | Rivals.com preseason top 65

Andrew Skwara is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at askwara@rivals.com.

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