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The Case For North Carolina

In the preseason poll, North Carolina was a unanimous pick for the No. 1 team in the country.

Eighteen weeks later, the choice is still that simple: On April 6, the Tar Heels will be cutting down the nets in Detroit.

The only thing currently working against North Carolina is the right big toe of Ty Lawson. And although his recovery is proceeding slower than expected, it will be a tall order for anyone to stop the Tar Heels once the ACC Player of the Year is back in the lineup.

Don't forget, this team went to the Final Four last year and this season's squad is an improved version of that one.

Tyler Hansbrough is still Tyler Hansbrough, even if he hasn't gotten the excessive national attention we've all grown accustomed to. His scoring average of 21.4 points per game led the conference, his free throw percentage is up from 80.6 to 85.6 percent this season and he is turning the ball over less frequently.

But the real strength of North Carolina is that Hansbrough doesn't have to be all-everything anymore.

Despite Hansbrough's All-American season, Lawson has usurped him as the team's best player. In an NCAA Tournament dominated by guard play, the emergence of Lawson makes North Carolina the team to beat.

The Tar Heels are at their best when they play an up-tempo game, even if that means marginalizing Hansbrough, because Lawson can create havoc in the open court, making the team one of the deadliest and most effective offensive units in the country, even while running at a breakneck pace.

Lawson is also reliable option in the clutch, like when he hit a running 3-pointer at the buzzer to defeat Florida State Jan. 28 or when he scored 21 second-half points to rally his team past Duke Feb. 11. And when he isn't scoring, he's distributing by driving into the lane and getting open looks for the team's bevy of long-range shooters, so that Danny Green isn't forced to take a contested three, like the one he clanged in the ACC Tournament semifinal.

Beyond Hansbrough and Lawson, North Carolina can turn to Wayne Ellington, Green and even Deon Thompson. The Tar Heels have suffered their fair share of injuries this season, but this is still one of the deepest teams in country, even without Marcus Ginyard and a perfectly healthy Lawson.

And it was an injured Lawson that returned last year from an ankle sprain to guide North Carolina to 10 consecutive victories, including ACC regular season and Tournament titles. He isn't as hurt now, given that he was able to slice up the Blue Devils after injuring his toe, and he has had time to rest so that he can be at full speed when his team needs him.

Make room for a fifth banner in the Dean Dome. With Lawson at the helm, the Tar Heels will not be stopped in their pursuit of the national championship.

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