ACC Team Previews: North CarolinaPosted by KCarpenter on November 4th, 2011
North Carolina fans are developing a severe case of whiplash. In 2009, the Tyler Hansbrough and Ty Lawson squad led the team to a dominant and resounding NCAA championship. The next year, Roy Williams had arguably his worst year ever as a coach as the Tar Heels missed the NCAA Tournament entirely. Last year, a late-surging UNC team came within spitting distance of the Final Four, losing to the ever-young and ever-loaded Kentucky Wildcats in the Elite Eight.
This year? North Carolina is again the overwhelming favorite to win it all. Let me put that on a timeline. A year ago, a despondent UNC fan base was praying for a great start to the new season to wipe away the memories of a catastrophically disappointing season. This year, Chapel Hill is bubbling over with excitement. People are throwing all kinds of superlatives around when they talk about this team. We can talk about whether those superlatives are earned or not some other time, but let’s make one thing abundantly clear: UNC is a championship caliber team.
The only losses from last year’s Elite Eight crew are graduate school transfer Justin Knox, who served as a solid if not spectacular backup for the starting frontcourt. The loss of Leslie McDonald to an ACL tear during the summer, however, is slightly more troubling. Though still a backup, McDonald made the second most threes on the team and was the Heels’ most reliable threat from behind the arc. If he comes back at all this season, which seems unlikely considering the severity of the injury, it would apparently be near the start of the ACC Tournament. So for the regular season, I think it’s safe to say that McDonald won’t be playing. Larry Drew, II, of course, left the team mid-season after he lost the starting point guard job. It’s hard to call this a loss, however, since Drew’s departure seemed to catalyze a middling North Carolina team and transform it into the tough and capable offensive team that played deep into March. It’s a textbook case of addition by subtraction.
In terms of straight up addition, Williams added a capable freshmen class that addresses many of the problems that plagued his team last season. James McAdoo is a future NBA lottery pick more in the mold of Ed Davis than Marvin Williams. Just like his two predecessors, though, the highly-touted freshman figures to be the first forward off the bench. P.J. Hairston, another five-star recruit, is slated to back up Harrison Barnes and offer instant offense and accurate three-point shooting. Desmond Hubert and Jackson Simmons are big, energetic, and ready to sub for the suddenly very deep Tar Heel front line. Stilman White, a true point guard, will provide invaluable minutes on a roster that only had a single rotation-caliber point guard last year. Critically, considering the injury to McDonald, Reggie Bullock has made a full recovery from the knee injury that derailed his freshman campaign. Bullock showed flashes of real offensive prowess before his own injury sidelined him, and his size and defensive ability should guarantee him a role in the rotation.
The short story for the roster? An already loaded team just went into overkill mode. Still, while the roster is flush, there are still some significant weak points. Kendall Marshall is a great point guard, but North Carolina is one funny ankle turn away from having no experienced ones on the roster. While Dexter Strickland has done an admirable job sliding over to the lead guard position to spell the starter for the past two seasons, he simply lacks the court vision and refined passing that ignites the explosive North Carolina offense. Meanwhile, White is a freshmen adjusting to playing the most challenging position on literally the biggest stage in college basketball: His first game as a Tar Heel will be on an aircraft carrier in front of the President of the United States. If that doesn’t cause some turnover-inducing nervousness, then I don’t know what will. Williams might need to get creative to find ways to make sure that the offense doesn’t stagnate while Marshall is on the bench.
The other main concern on this roster is three-point shooting. Last year, North Carolina was the worst three-point shooting team in the ACC, averaging 29.2% on very few attempts. With the aforementioned loss of the team’s best long-range gunner, McDonald, the team is left with only Barnes and Marshall as proven three-point threats. While it seemed like Barnes couldn’t miss as the season and tournaments went on, he only shot 34.4% from long range on the year. Marshall made his threes at a 37.7% clip, but his pass-first instinct led to him only taking 53 shots from deep. While Barnes in last year’s late-season form is a pretty good option as a primary long-range threat, the team could benefit from some more dead-eye shooters. Marshall as well as Dexter Strickland have mentioned working on improving their long-range shot, but isn’t that what every guard says every offseason? Believe it when you see it on the court. As for potential threats amongst the newcomers, Bullock and Hairston came to Chapel Hill with reputations as stellar shooters, but neither of the two has yet had the opportunity to live up to these reputations. Without consistent and reliable three-point shooting, North Carolina runs the risk of becoming one-dimensional and facing opponents who pack the paint with impunity, limiting the effectiveness of the front line. If UNC is going to be playing basketball in April, the Tar Heels are going to have to demonstrate an ability to take and make threes with increased frequency and accuracy.
Still, when push comes to shove, this is the team with a ridiculously elite front court in Harrison Barnes, Tyler Zeller and John Henson, and that might be enough to offset any other roster weaknesses. No player who has played at North Carolina in the Roy Williams era has had as much talent as Barnes and if he can play anywhere close to the level he reached at the end of last season, that alone could lead to the boys in blue cutting down the nets in New Orleans. Zeller is one of the most sneakily efficient centers in college basketball, scoring with incredible ease and leading the team in charges taken despite being the tallest and biggest guy on the floor. Henson’s defensive prowess and affinity for blocks and rebounds is well-documented, but what’s less well-known is how effective he is in some specific contexts. He is elite close to the basket and is in the 92nd percentile of all college players at finishing the pick-and-roll. While many might target Henson as a potential offensive liability for his team, the coaching staff has been gradually learning how to best and effectively apply the lanky forward on offense. How many times towards the end of the season did Henson catch a lob for an alley-oop? It’s hard to imagine an alley-oop as a player’s go-to move, but until other teams can figure out how to stop it, we can expect to see a lot of Henson hanging from the rim again this season. If Williams can effectively deploy him on offense, then this front court might not have any weaknesses.
In terms of the schedule, North Carolina has a steady stream of early season non-conference tests and then, surprisingly, one of the easier ACC schedules. While the season opener on the aircraft carrier against Michigan State has the potential to be very challenging, the bigger trap for the Tar Heels might be the game they have two days later on the road against UNC Asheville, a team that’s coming off it’s own NCAA Tournament appearance and conference championship. In December, the team has a trifecta of heavyweight bouts against a very good Wisconsin team, Texas, and, in one of the most gleefully anticipated games in some time, they will travel to Lexington to take on Kentucky. After making it through that, the ACC schedule is somewhat forgiving. While there’s no getting around playing Duke twice, the Tar Heels will face off with Florida State and Virginia Tech only once, albeit on the road for both.
North Carolina can win another national championship. Will they? It’s hard to say. This is a very good team and they are the best team in the country on paper. That doesn’t guarantee a championship — just ask the 2008 North Carolina team. As good as this particular squad is, does anyone really think they could go undefeated? This team will almost certainly lose some games. Probably several. There’s a good chance they won’t win the ACC Tournament; the 2005 and 2009 NCAA champions didn’t. They are going to lose some games and anyone who thinks otherwise is just being silly.
Now, with that out of the way, let’s state the most probable outcome for this team: North Carolina is going to win a lot of games. It will be at the top of the ACC. It will win a national championship, Roy Williams’ third in Chapel Hill.