2011-12 RTC Class Schedule: North Carolina Tar Heels

Posted by zhayes9 on September 6th, 2011

Zach Hayes is an editor, contributor and bracketologist for Rush the Court.

The most anticipated season in North Carolina basketball history is approaching.

More than those Frank McGuire-coached teams in the 1950s. More than any of the best from the storied Dean Smith era, including the unforgettable Jordan/Perkins/Worthy triumvirate. Even more than when Roy Williams couldn’t resist the call of his alma mater or when Tyler Hansbrough returned for another go-round with Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellington.

When two lottery picks join forces with two other first-round picks, a foundation of complementary pieces and a typically loaded recruiting class, unadulterated glee in Chapel Hill seems rather appropriate.

Navigating an unimpressive ACC this season, a far cry from its heyday as the premiere basketball league in America, renders the trek significantly less treacherous. Although he couldn’t have foreseen Harrison Barnes remaining in college more than one season, Williams knew 2011-12 would be special and challenged his team adequately in the non-conference.

John Henson’s game has grown dramatically the last two seasons

Team Outlook: Last November, it was arch-rival Duke topping the preseason rankings with Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith as seniors. One year later, the Tar Heels take their turn. Carolina’s journey from NIT to Elite Eight was aided markedly by the freshman duo of Barnes/Kendall Marshall plus the development and maturation of John Henson and Tyler Zeller.  Carolina returns their entire starting lineup of Marshall, Strickland, Barnes, Zeller and Henson, adds two potential impact rookies in James McAdoo and P.J. Hairston and features enviable depth off the bench. The lesson here: rebuilding projects at renowned power programs don’t last very long. A third national title for Williams next April doesn’t seem so far-fetched.

Non-Conference Schedule Rank: 8. Only five non-conference contests away from Chapel Hill, but three of the five will pose sizable challenges for the Tar Heels. The season-opening bash on an aircraft carrier in San Diego pits Carolina against a Michigan State team that, contrary to last season, we may be seriously underestimating. Tom Izzo will rely heavily on the versatile Draymond Green, rising star Keith Appling and Valparaiso transfer Brandon Wood. A Las Vegas tournament is also on the docket with a likely win vs. South Carolina preceding a possible final against UNLV in a true road game. The Rebels are pegged by most as the second-best team in the Mountain West under new coach Dave Rice behind their guard duo of Oscar Bellfield and Anthony Marshall. UNC draws rebuilding Texas and Jordan Taylor’s Wisconsin Badgers to the Dean Dome. We’d be surprised if Carolina stumbled once at home this season. Of course, the December 3 showdown with Kentucky in Lexington is the highlight of Carolina’s schedule and could be the most anticipated non-conference game in recent memory.

Cupcake City: Don’t think Williams skipped out on the buy games just because of their lofty status. Carolina faces off with UNC-Asheville, Mississippi Valley State and Tennessee State prior to their Las Vegas trip and are granted a long reprieve after the Wisconsin/Kentucky back-to-back with nine consecutive home games December 6 to January 10. Texas and two ACC duels with Boston College and Miami are mixed in with a number of cupcakes, including Nicholls State, Elon and Monmouth.

Toughest Early Season Test: Prepare yourself, North Carolina vs. Kentucky is going to receive an unprecedented amount of hype for a game in early December. That was made possible when Terrence Jones and Harrison Barnes simultaneously stunned the college basketball world and returned for their sophomore seasons. Other important cogs fell into place, and the recruiting-savvy coaching staffs securing loaded freshmen classes only exacerbated the potential. We just don’t envision a trap for either school that would deny fans a #1 vs. #2 showdown at Rupp Arena. As many as six first-round picks will lace up the sneakers in this one.

Hardest ACC Stretch: Although the ACC lacks depth with so many programs in a transitional period, Carolina will have an enormous target on their collective back every time out. Their last four games – at NC State, at Virginia, Maryland, at Duke — are in no form or fashion a cakewalk, with the hardest game on the docket outside of Kentucky undoubtedly their visit up the road to Durham on March 3. Despite significant departures, there’s tremendous talent on the roster (headlined by incoming freshman Austin Rivers) and knocking off the supposedly fearsome Tar Heels would put a bow on their season. On February 21 and 25, the Heels visit NC State and Virginia. With C.J. Leslie, Scott Wood and Lorenzo Brown back in tow, the Wolfpack won’t fold. Neither will a Virginia program clearly trending upward under Tony Bennett.

Easiest ACC Stretch: A four-game stretch in late January to early February should provide UNC ample opportunity to work out any lingering kinks before their first showdown with Duke. It’s going to take an unbelievable effort to knock off the Heels on their home floor this season given their talent and preferred style of play. Neither NC State nor rebuilding Georgia Tech  have much of a prayer. That’s followed by a two-game road swing at feeble Wake Forest and at a Maryland squad with a gutted roster in Mark Turgeon’s debut season at the helm.

Dexter Strickland is an ace perimeter defender for the Heels

Best Individual Matchup: Rival Duke needs to settle their point guard situation, but they boast a number of talented wings that can do major damage, from the freshman Rivers to sharpshooter Andre Dawkins. If Duke’s recent performance in China can give us any indication, Coach K’s experiment with Seth Curry at the point is paying major dividends with the Liberty transfer averaging 13.5 PPG and scoring in double figures during each of Duke’s exhibitions. Carolina’s ace perimeter defender Dexter Strickland will act as Williams’ Darrelle Revis against whoever has the hot hand for the Blue Devils. Strickland was especially outstanding in last year’s NCAA Tournament run, locking up both Washington’s Isaiah Thomas, Marquette’s Darius Johnson-Odom and Kentucky’s Brandon Knight.

Most Challenging Road Test: If any team in college basketball can go toe-to-toe with Carolina at every position on the floor talent-wise, it’s Kentucky. How the Wildcats trio of hyped freshmen – Marquis Teague, Anthony Davis and Michael Gilchrist – adjust to the collegiate game in just a month’s time of game action could prove the difference on December 3. Even though the game is in Lexington, Carolina’s experience gives them an edge.

Most Anticipated Home Date: There truly has to be an unprecedented set of circumstances for the most anticipated home game at Chapel Hill to not feature rival Duke. Losing Singler, Smith and #1 overall pick Kyrie Irving stings, but Duke is accustomed to reloading and they’ll still feature a top ten team. By the time February rolls around, Coach K will have a much better idea of whether Curry is the answer at point, which freshmen deserve minutes outside of Rivers and whether the Plumlee brothers are assets in the post.

Upset Watch: It took Harrison Barnes’ late-game heroics to down Florida State last season in Tallahassee and #1 Duke wasn’t as fortunate during their visit down South. Although ace defender Chris Singleton is off to the NBA riches, Florida State peaked in March last year without the services of a healthy Singleton. Bernard James is a monster on the boards and ready to emerge. Okaro White has the length to defend quality wings. Talented scorer Michael Snaer can fill it up. If the Seminoles can get their point guard situation squared away and their #1-ranked defense of 2010-11 remains impenetrable, this has upset written all over it.

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