The moment has finally arrived for North Carolina to fulfill all the preseason expectations and lofty rankings that have followed the Tar Heels the past year.
But the Tar Heels stubbed their toe along the way.
Now their chances of winning a national championship probably rest on the injured right big toe of speedy point guard Ty Lawson.
The Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year is still hobbled by an injury he sustained before the regular-season finale against Duke, leaving him uncertain for the first step of a journey the Tar Heels have thought about since last season's Final Four run. It's hardly an ideal way to start the NCAA tournament, a stretch that could go a long way in determining whether this season will be viewed as a success.
Coach Roy Williams said the junior had to practice Tuesday and Wednesday in order to play against 16th-seeded Radford. Lawson jammed the toe during practice two days before the Duke game, but played 36 minutes and nearly had a triple-double in the win.
But the toe swelled significantly the day after, and Lawson didn't play in either of the Tar Heels' ACC tournament games in Atlanta last weekend. Williams said Lawson's recovery had gone slower than expected, though Lawson said in Atlanta that he was feeling better after several days of rest.
"I guess I've been a little surprised at the severity of it," Williams said Tuesday. "I've just been thinking every day, 'It's going to get better, it's going to get better,' but I'm probably as discouraged right now at this moment as I have been since it happened. It's not coming as quickly as we'd like for it to come."
And that leaves plenty of uncertainty whether Lawson will be able to join the Tar Heels (28-4) _ the top seed in the South Region _ when they face the Highlanders on Thursday. North Carolina will open its tournament run in Greensboro, about an hour west of Chapel Hill _ and advantage that has made the Tar Heels nearly unbeatable in instate NCAA games.
"A lot of people were talking about trying to win a championship before the season even started," reigning national player of the year Tyler Hansbrough said. "We're trying to take this one step at a time. Everybody else is going to have their own expectations about what this team needs to do and will do. We're going to stay within ourselves."
The injury is the latest wrinkle in what has been a bumpier-than-expected season for the Tar Heels, who returned their top six scorers from a team that won a school-record 36 games before an ugly loss to Kansas in the national semifinals. Hansbrough, Lawson, Wayne Ellington and Danny Green opted to return to school instead of entering the NBA draft.
Throw in one of the nation's top recruiting classes, and the Tar Heels were considered too talented, too experienced and too deep for the rest of college basketball.
But senior Marcus Ginyard _ the team's top defender and veteran leader _ needed foot surgery in October that ultimately forced him to redshirt after just three ineffective appearances. Then Hansbrough missed the first two games with a nagging preseason shin injury, while freshman 7-footer Tyler Zeller suffered a broken left wrist in the second game that kept him out for 13 weeks before a late-season return.
North Carolina also lost reserve Will Graves to a team suspension in February.
Ginyard's injury further hindered an already-iffy perimeter defense long considered North Carolina's weakness. Now Lawson's toe could rob the Tar Heels of the open-court speed that powers one of the nation's highest-scoring offenses. North Carolina is averaging 90 points per game, but averaged about 75 in the ACC tournament under senior Bobby Frasor and freshman Larry Drew II.
"It would be a lot tougher obviously," Ellington said of winning a title without Lawson. "But I feel like we still have pieces that we can make a deep run. Hopefully we'll have him, but I feel like without him we'd be able to make a deep run."
Despite all that, the Tar Heels bounced back from an 0-2 start in the ACC to win the league's regular-season championship. They are also a No. 1 seed for the third straight season and fourth time in five years, and can win 30 games for the third straight season _ which would be a first for the storied program.
In addition, Hansbrough has become the school's career scoring and rebounding leader, and is three points away from breaking the ACC career scoring mark held by Duke's J.J. Redick.
The only question now is how it all will end.
"I don't think I'll think, 'What if?' because I don't know yet what's going to happen," Williams said. "Some good things still could really happen."
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