20 Questions: Is This Roy Williams’ Best North Carolina Team Yet?

Posted by KCarpenter on November 8th, 2011

Kellen Carpenter is an ACC microsite staffer and an RTC columnist.  

Question: Is This Roy Williams’ Best North Carolina Team Yet?

North Carolina enters the season as the near-unanimous choice for the best team in the country. They are the clear Vegas favorite to win the national championship. This team has the potential to be very, very good, and the raw talent assembled in Chapel Hill is impressive.  Let’s take a quick inventory: The team is led by Harrison Barnes, a first team All-America caliber player, and perhaps the most skilled Tar Heel of the Roy Williams era. He’s surrounded by three other All-America (though probably not first team) level players in steady seven-footer Tyler Zeller, pass-first floor general Kendall Marshall, and the lanky defensive terror that is John Henson. The fifth starter is the speedy and defensive minded Dexter Strickland, who some claim is one of the top one hundred players in America. Coming off the bench are three five-star recruits: Reggie Bullock, a big guard with a sweet-shooting stroke who missed most of last year with an injury, and two freshmen. James McAdoo is more Ed Davis than Marvin Williams, but regardless, he seems locked into the role of the big NBA prospect coming off the bench. P.J. Hairston is, like Bullock, a big guard with a penchant for draining threes.

It's All Smiles at Carolina This Season

That’s a pretty good team, and we aren’t even counting two skilled, big freshmen forwards in Desmond Hubert and Jackson Simmons, the senior Swiss Army knife that is Justin Watts, freshman back-up point guard Stilman White, the injured Leslie McDonald, who was last year’s best three-point shooter, and the relentless majesty of Blue Steel, the motley crew of walk-ons. While these players are pretty good, for now let’s just focus on the top eight guys in the rotation since more than likely they will be playing most of the minutes.  Let’s take a step back and look at these eight players.

This 2011-12 squad likely has more All-Americans and NBA draft picks than either of the 2005 or 2009 championship UNC teams. This was the main evidence that Gary Parrish used to suggest that this team will be Williams’ best North Carolina team. It’s an interesting point, mainly because it speaks to the pure potential of this group. There are a lot of guys on this team who have the potential to be truly great. I use the word “potential” here deliberately, though. Outside of Tyler Zeller, the only time this team has really proven its mettle was for the last half of last season. Extrapolating the team’s performance based on its relatively small sample size is risky, and perhaps overly optimistic. Still, for the sake of argument, let’s go with it.

To be the best UNC team of the Williams’ era, this year’s team has to be better than both the 2005 team and the 2009 team. That’s a tall order. Taking the teams as a whole, we can gauge how good they are by looking at their offensive efficiency and defensive efficiency statistics. The ’09 team posted an adjusted offensive efficiency of 124.2 and an adjusted defensive efficiency of 89.6.  The ’05 team put up an 126.6 adjusted offensive efficiency and an 86.7 adjusted defensive efficiency rating. This year’s team, by comparison, is mostly made up of last year’s team, which we can use as a starting point for predicting performance this year. That squad had an offensive efficiency of 112.1 and a defensive efficiency of 88.5. If we figure an improvement in an already very good defense, there is a chance that this year’s team comes within spitting distance of Sean May’s and Raymond Felton’s squad. This is possible, and not unrealistic: Defense was Carolina’s strength last season, and unless you think Kendall Marshall is a serious liability on that end of the floor, it’s quite possible that this group will be better defensively than the 2005 lineup. There are some concerns, however, on offense. Last year’s team comes nowhere close to either of the two championship teams offensively. Even optimistically projecting individual improvement for each and every player on the team, it would be hard for this squad to match up to the excellent offensive rating s of the ’05 and ’09 championship squads.

How large is the offensive gulf? Last year Tyler Zeller and Harrison Barnes led the team in offensive efficiency, posting adjusted ratings of 120.1 and 105.8, respectively. The ’09 team was led by Ty Lawson and Tyler Hansbrough in this category, posting marks of 134.3 (which, incidentally, is incredible) and 124.0, respectively. For perspective, four players on the ’09 team had better offensive efficiency numbers than the best player on last year’s squad. Six players, including Deon Thompson and Ed Davis, posted higher offensive numbers than Harrison Barnes! If you were to assume that every single player on last year’s team had drastic improvements to their offensive efficiency (bump each one up .12 or so), they still wouldn’t match up to the offensive prowess of the ’09 roster.

I like efficiency numbers because they are a measure of actual on-court performance, but let’s give the question a look from another angle: let’s eyeball comparisons by position.

Point Guard

Kendall Marshall Drives Roy's Bus

Kendall Marshall is a pass-first point guard with slow foot speed and a questionable jumper. The passes he makes, however, are among the very best in the nation. He was a great leader even as a freshman, and his size was a nice asset for UNC teams that have tended to run a little small at the point guard position in recent years. Ty Lawson and Ray Felton were speedy floor generals with deadly shooting ability and a penchant for pesky defense, amassing steals by the bushel. Lawson holds the record for most steals in the NCAA Tournament Final (eight). In their championship seasons, Felton shot 44% from behind the arc while Lawson shot 47.2%. Last season Marshall shot 37.7% and only attempted fifty three shots from three. Marshall’s passing ability is significant, and he certainly has the ability to make everyone on the floor better, but Felton and Lawson are simply much better than Marshall in almost every other area but assists. For my money, Ty Lawson’s ’09 season is the gold standard of point guard seasons in the efficiency era, and I’d take him or Felton over Marshall any day.

Shooting Guard

This is the least settled position for this year’s crop. While Dexter Strickland will start at this position, his duties as backup point guard means he’ll see much less time at his original position than the other starters. For the sake of simplicity, though, he’s the starting shooting guard. He’s fast, skilled at getting to the rim, and defensive-minded. Wayne Ellington was a marksman from every part of the court and became a designated perimeter stopper on an ’09 team that lost Marcus Ginyard to injury. Rashad McCants was an offensive flame-thrower, as accurate as Ellington, but even more aggressive. Both players scored roughly twice as much as Strickland on far fewer shots. At the risk of undervaluing defense, it’s hard to pick Strickland over either player.  It looks like the statistics for the player-season in question put Ellington over McCants, but if I were an NBA scout, I could very easily understand being drawn to the athletic potential of McCants.

Small Forward

Here is an area where the ’11 team has the edge, but it’s not as clear as you might think. Danny Green and Jackie Manuel both served as versatile glue guys for their respective teams. Manuel served as a defensive leader for the ’05 squad, while Green was an explosively athletic and sweet shooting fourth scoring option. Manuel possessed valuable intangibles, in terms of senior leadership and defense, while Green was easily the more complete player (considering Manuel’s very limited offensive game). Now, here’s where the comparison gets tough. Consider the tale of Player A and Player B:

  • Player A: 15.6 PPG  5.8 RPG  1.4 APG  0.7 SPG  0.4 BPG  34.4 3P%
  • Player B: 13.1 PPG  4.7 RPG  2.7 APG  1.8  SPG  1.3 BPG  41.8 3P%

Player A scores about three more points and grabs about one more rebound per game. Player B, on the other hand, has twice as many assists, steals, and blocks while being a better shooter (which means much greater offensive efficiency). All things considered, Player B is probably more valuable to your team. As you’ve likely guessed, Player B is Green while Player A is Harrison Barnes. Despite the on-paper similarity between the two, Barnes gets my edge. Green didn’t make as many clutch plays in ’09 as Barnes did last season. Green never scored 40 points in an ACC Tournament game. While Barnes’ season stats look fairly ho-hum taken as whole, they belie the reality of the situation where he came on so strong at the end. Barnes at the end of the ’11 Season was on different level than Green and most other small forwards around. If he can maintain that level for the entire season,  there’s no doubt that we’ll look back at the stats for his freshmen season and laugh.

Power Forward

John Henson is as Unique a Player as Exists in CBB

Here is another position where this year’s Tar Heels are ahead of their championship-winning brethren. John Henson is easily a worse offensive player than either Deon Thompson or Jawad Williams (whose offensive prowess in ’05 was actually sneaky good). It doesn’t matter. Henson is the most fear-inspiring defensive player for North Carolina since Brendan Haywood. He is a much better rebounder  on both ends of the court than either Thompson or Williams, and then there’s the shot-blocking. Oh, the shot-blocking. If Henson were to never play another game as a Tar Heel, he would own the career blocks per game statistic, moving Haywood to second place and Rasheed Wallace to third. Henson is a potential national defensive player of the year, and Thompson and Williams just didn’t do enough on the offensive end to make up the difference.


Do we even need to get into this? Tyler Zeller is a very good center. He’s not better than Tyler Hansbrough. And as little as Sean May did in any other college or NBA season, in 2005, for that one year, he was playing, and, in particular, rebounding at a very high level. While it’s possible to make a case that Zeller may be better than May based on his higher offensive efficiency rating (and even that’s iffy because of May’s much higher usage), there’s just no method of honest stat-geekery that will tell you that Zeller is a better center than Hansbrough was in ’09

The Sixth Man

Freshman James McAdoo competes here with fellow freshmen sensations, Marvin Williams and Ed Davis. Williams and Davis both had excellent freshmen campaigns and if McAdoo can match either of their freshman campaigns, he will be a mortal lock for a high lottery pick in the NBA Draft. Of course, that’s what happened to Williams and Davis too. Without knowing how McAdoo will play on the big stage, let’s call this match-up a draw.

The Bench

Here is where things get interesting. The ’05 team had three bench players (other than Marvin Williams) who played a significant role: Quentin Thomas, David Noel, and Melvin Scott. Thomas was a truly dreadful point guard in his first year, while Noel and Scott were efficient and very skilled substitutes who posted relatively high offensive efficiency numbers in ’05 and helped to spell the starters. The ’09 team’s bench, beyond Ed Davis, also had three players who played a significant role: Bobby Frasor, Larry Drew II, and Will Graves. While Frasor was able to run the offense and play tough perimeter defense when called upon, this trio mostly contributed turnovers and missed three-pointers to the ’09 campaign. Frasor, Drew, and Graves shot 27.4%, 23.1%, and 27.8% while leading the team in turnover rate. Drew managed to turn the ball over nearly half the time that he had the ball.

This year’s UNC bench will be largely unproven but potentially loaded. Reggie Bullock, in limited minutes and playing while injured, showed a lot of potential for offensive brilliance in brief stretches of play last year, while freshman P.J. Hairston comes in with a reputation as a very capable shooter. The big freshmen Desmond Hubert and Jackson Simmons offer energy and size and at least one of them should be able to play meaningful minutes in the front court. Stilman White has a tough job as a freshman point guard, but with Strickland still presumably doing double duty as the second-string lead guard, White’s role is likely to be limited to spot minutes. Still, it seems like he would be hard pressed to do worse than Drew in ’09 or Thomas in ’05. Finally, Justin Watts rounds out the bench. The senior swingman is capable of playing decent minutes at any position besides point guard and center. While Watts is the only truly known quantity coming off the bench, on paper it looks like the bench is in good shape. The ’09 bench was basically a black hole of wasted possessions and though the ’05 bench included two very high quality subs, it’s not unreasonably optimistic to think that this year’s bench, despite the inexperience, will be better than in ’05.

This Tar Heels Bench is Superior to the Previous Two Title Teams

So where does that leave us? I think that, assuming moderate improvement in all the players from 2010 and strong but not extraordinary showings from the freshmen, this team just isn’t as good as either the ’09 or ’05 North Carolina championship teams.  That said, the potential for this team is very high. Harrison Barnes and John Henson are on a clear road to being the best Roy Williams-era UNC small forward and power forward, respectively. Led by Henson and capable players at all five positions, it’s possible that this could be the best defensive team that Williams has coached in Chapel Hill. Barring injury, this could also be his deepest team and the best bench of the Williams-led squads. These are all possible and should be celebrated, even if this team doesn’t turn out to be as good as the ’09 team as an aggregate.

The fact of the matter is that the 2009 UNC team is a nearly impossible benchmark to match. Remember, this is a team that steamrolled its way through the NCAA Tournament and turned the championship game into a rout. Blake Griffin, the 2009 Player of the Year and a future number one NBA Draft pick, led his Oklahoma team to a final margin of defeat of twelve points against the Tar Heels and that’s the closest anyone got to beating this team throughout March Madness. What would it look like to have a team better than that? Beating every tournament opponent by twenty points? Winning the championship by thirty points? Seriously, a team more dominant than the 2009 team strains the limits of imagination in this era of one-and-done-driven parity. I’m not sure it’s possible.

I think the 2011-12 North Carolina team will be very good. It has a great chance of being Roy Williams’ deepest team and his best defensive team since returning to Chapel Hill. I think Harrison Barnes has the potential to be the most talented player that Roy Williams has ever coached and that John Henson could very well be the national defensive player of the year. As good as Kentucky and Ohio State are, I think North Carolina’s team will be the best in college basketball and a very strong favorite to win the national championship. Still, being better than the ’05 national championship team is a higher bar than merely winning a national championship. Being better than the ’09 national championship team, perhaps the most dominant college basketball team in the one-and-done era, is almost impossibly difficult, even for a team that is as good as Harrison Barnes and company.

KCarpenter (269 Posts)

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