Let’s compare the Carolina basketball team that opens the season tonight to the last two that followed mass NBA exoduses. Are the 2012-13 Tar Heels younger and/or weaker than the 2006 and 2010 teams?
The 2006 team that lost the top seven players off the ’05 NCAA champions had one returnee – David Noel – with any considerable experience, if not numbers. Noel did play in all 37 games for Roy Williams’ first national champs as seventh or eighth man, averaging 3.9 points. So Noel was their best returning player.
Byron Sanders and Wes Miller were the only other seniors, and Miller turned out to be a big surprise, sharing the backcourt with freshman Bobby Frasor for much of the season and hitting 44 percent from 3-point range. Obviously, the 2006 team had no returning All-ACC players.

What it did have was a 5-freshmen class headed by Tyler Hansbrough, who turned out to be the most decorated Tar Heel in history – the school’s all-time leading scorer and rebounder, four-time All-ACC first-teamer and pretty much a consensus All-American his entire career. He was also a leader nonpareil.

So with Psycho T stirring that drink, it is now easy to see why the 2006 Tar Heels shocked the world by going 23-6 overall, 12-4 in the ACC including the first of four straight wins at Cameron Indoor Stadium before bowing out to Cinderella George Mason in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

The 2010 team is not fondly remembered for the way it played the last half of the season but, going in, it had higher expectations than the 2006 team. Huh? Yes.

It was young, too, with only two senior scholarship players and 9 freshmen and sophomores. But, relatively, it had a lot more experience than the 2006 team.

Deon Thompson was a returning starter from the 2009 champs. Ed Davis was the ’09 sixth man who, supposedly, could have been a lottery pick had he gone out, too, after his freshman year. Marcus Ginyard, who missed most of the 2009 season, allowing Danny Green to emerge as a star, was back and counted on to join Thompson as the heart and soul of the net-cutting leftovers.

Ginyard never regained any offensive touch, but junior Will Graves turned in a solid season, starting 34 of 36 games as the team’s third-leading scorer and rebounder and its best regular from the 3-point line.

The team was 12-4 at one point, but after blowing a big lead at College of Charleston, went 8-13 the rest of the way, missed the NCAA tourney completely and drove Williams to the brink of suicide even though it did somehow reach the championship game of the NIT. Hardly any consolation there.

Looking back, with more objectivity, what happened to that team is pretty clear. Thompson and Davis seemed like formidable post players, especially with sophomore Tyler Zeller and the Weird freshmen (twins Travis and David Wear, actually). But Davis, the leading scorer and rebounder at the time, missed the last 14 games, Thompson never stepped up to be a tough guy in the paint and sophomore Zeller was still filling out. Larry Drew II was the point guard everyone relied on, unreliably so. Drew II was gone less than a year later, and the Weirds went even sooner.

Williams rebuilt quickly, once the 2010 nightmare ended and the new freshman class arrived. John Henson, Leslie McDonald and Dexter Strickland looked less lost as sophomores and while Graves’ career ended prematurely with a suspension it allowed Williams to settle on a lineup that eventually won two ACC regular season titles and reached the Elite Eight game each year.

The 2012 team, like the ’05 and ’09 national championships, stayed in the top five and only untimely injuries to Henson and Kendall Marshall kept Carolina from what might have been a dream Monday night match-up with eventual national champion Kentucky. Despite not winning it all or even reaching the Final Four, three Tar Heels opted for the NBA draft and joined senior All-Everything Zeller as first-round picks.

So how does what’s left stack up against the smoldering ruins of the 2005 and 2009 national champions?

Well, the team that tips off against Gardner Webb tonight is every bit as young, with only one senior (Strickland), two juniors (Reggie Bullock and returning red-shirt McDonald) and nine freshmen and sophomores. Besides the underrated 6-7 Bullock, there are two sort-of starters back, Strickland before he was injured last season, and sophomore James Michael McAdoo, who replaced Henson while he tried to heal the long left arm of the lane. With the four first-round studs gone, no All-ACC players return.

And while there are no sure-shot pros (except maybe McAdoo) to compare with Hansbrough and Green from 2006 and Davis, Henson and Zeller from 2010, there is plenty of room for ample contributions from the young’uns.

P. J. Hairston will get plenty of minutes, more if he can improve on his dismal 3-point shooting as a freshman. You will love sophomore Luke Davis, a secret weapon transfer from Gardner Webb (hope Davis doesn’t go to the wrong bench tonight) who will share point guard duties with freshman lefty Marcus Paige. And Desmond Hubert will get his shot in the post rotation.

Besides Paige, the other frosh will have to play perhaps before they are ready. Joel James, at 6-10 and a slimmed down 260, is the eventual hope inside, while the much-leaner Brice Johnson has a ways to go. J.P. Tokoto, a 6-5 athlete still learning to play basketball, could be a wild card as a possibility at the 4 spot along with Hairston when Williams decides to “go small” as they say.

Though no one has said anything, my guess is the lineup that runs out to the drum line tonight will be Paige, Strickland, Bullock, McAdoo and James. But at least five others will get significant minutes. The expectations should be tempered while a young team figures it out, but this is Carolina Basketball and last year did not end the way the previous two seasons of mass exodus did. That will make fans more anxious to be good sooner.

The first game with Duke is a lucky 13 weeks away. So there is plenty of time.