ACC Team Previews: North Carolina Tar HeelsPosted by ARowe on November 5th, 2012
Throughout the preseason, the ACC microsite will release a preview for each of the 12 teams. Today’s victim: the North Carolina Tar Heels.
UNC certainly didn’t end the season like they expected, but the unfortunate timing of injuries to key players was mostly to blame. After Bob Cousy Award winning point guard Kendall Marshall went out with a fractured wrist against Creighton in the Sweet Sixteen, the Tar Heels struggled to recapture the offensive flow that led them to a 27-4 record and a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. The Elite Eight loss to Kansas goes to show that you shouldn’t judge an entire season by that team’s postseason finish, due to the unpredictable nature of a single elimination tournament.
The more costly losses in Chapel Hill occurred over the summer, as sophomores Marshall and Harrison Barnes, junior John Henson and senior Tyler Zeller moved on to the NBA. The Tar Heels lost four year-long starters who accounted for 57.5% of minutes played, 66% of points scored, 65% of field goals attempted, 69% of field goals made, 70% of free throws attempted and 73% of free throws made. While Roy Williams and staff have an extremely talented roster returning, there are a number of question marks that will need to be answered this season.
UNC has to hope a lot of those questions will be answered by their 2013 freshman class, especially point guard Marcus Paige. Fortunately for Tar Heel fans, Roy Williams has shown a keen ability to develop point guards throughout his college coaching history. Kirk Hinrich, Jacque Vaughn, Ty Lawson, Raymond Felton, and Kendall Marshall are all NBA players at the lead guard position who Williams has coached. Paige got the start in UNC’s first exhibition game against Shaw on Friday night, and notched six points in the second half. Entering the season as the 28th-ranked player in the country and the 3rd-ranked point guard according to RSCIHoops.com, the expectations for Paige are understandably high. While he won’t be able to replicate Marshall’s season last year, a steady hand and the ability to push the ball in Williams’ secondary break while maintaining control should be enough to keep UNC on the right track. Incoming transfer Luke Davis from Gardner-Webb will also see time at the point guard position. Davis has already made his mark on this team, registering as the fastest mile-runner during preseason conditioning tests.
Down low, freshmen Brice Johnson and Joel James will be counted on to replace John Henson and Tyler Zeller’s excellent play last year. While they likely won’t come close to replicating Henson and Zeller’s 1,100 points and 713 rebounds, the two will need to provide a steady force inside as UNC’s offense is so reliant on post players. When Roy Williams was recruiting James, he weighed 315 pounds. But throughout his senior year of high school going into the start of this season, he’s already lost considerable weight and now stands at 6’11” and 270 pounds. He will be a force inside, whether or not he’s able to be offensively productive. Due to the fast pace of UNC’s offense (their tempo of 72.2 possessions/game ranked 10th nationally last year), conditioning could be a concern for James, but by all accounts he has worked hard to get in shape for the speed of the college game. Johnson is somewhat the opposite of James physically, weighing in at 6’9″ and 187 pounds. While this may be a boon to Johnson in Roy Williams’ secondary break offense, he did much of his scoring in high school close to the basket. Playing with James inside should help Johnson in the half court, and vice versa in the open court.
UNC’s two most experienced players, Dexter Strickland and Leslie McDonald, are both coming off knee surgeries so there is certainly some question as to how ready they’ll be to start off the season. Both wing players, they’ll battle for minutes with each other and junior Reggie Bullock, but this should be helpful to them as they continue their recovery. Williams’ inclination to rotate players often will give both a chance to make their mark, and when they’re on the court together will be counted on for leadership. While both are shooting guards, they bring different talents to the table. Strickland has been known for his defensive abilities on the wing, and he will often be asked to guard the opposition’s best three. His quickness and breakaway speed give him the ability to get to the rim with ease, offsetting a career 23.4% 3-point shooting percentage. Look for him to not only log minutes at the two, but also spell Paige and Davis at the lead guard spot. McDonald is a much better outside shooter (33.1% career) and will share the perimeter scoring load with Bullock, who looked to get his shot more towards the end of last season, and PJ Hairston, who can be streaky but when he’s on, he’s on. Those four players give UNC a balanced attack on the wing and provides great offensive/defensive versatility for Williams depending on the opponent.
Sophomore Desmond Hubert started UNC’s first preseason game against Shaw and gives the Tar Heels excellent depth down low, but as the year progresses I doubt you’ll see him in the starting lineup more often than not. James Michael McAdoo dotted a number of preseason All-American lists, and he is by far the best player in the lineup. Look for McAdoo to rotate between the three and the four as he showcases the ability to score off jumpers and post moves.
Potential Breakout Player
While he may not contend for “breakout” recognition, per se, McAdoo wasn’t able to log as many minutes last season as he would have on other squads. Playing behind Barnes, Bullock, Henson and Hairston, McAdoo “only” played 15.6 minutes a game last year. Even that number is a little misleading, as he never broke 20 minutes played in a game before the last contest of the regular season against Duke. UNC will look to McAdoo early and often this season for offense, and his production should jump accordingly.
UNC has three non-conference games against Top 20 teams in the kenpom.com rankings: Indiana (#3), Texas (#13) and UNLV (#18). All three of those games come within the team’s first 11 of the year, so any questions that UNC has (and there are a lot) will either be answered quickly or become glaring fast. Indiana is the #1 preseason pick by humans in nearly every poll, and playing in Bloomington so early in the year will be a tough test for a largely unproven team like the Tar Heels. In the ACC, UNC plays NC State, Duke, Florida State and Miami all twice. This is one of the toughest league schedules based on preseason rankings.
UNC will have to show that it has recovered from all the lost production last year very quickly, and I don’t see it happening fast enough to knock off Indiana. Texas’ backcourt will be tough to handle but the Tar Heels will be motivated to avenge last year’s loss to the Runnin’ Rebels. I look for UNC to enter league play with a 9-2 record. Because of their tough conference schedule, I see them dropping anywhere from 4-7 games there, with the NC State and Duke games being the toughest on their schedule. I do not see a repeat of 2010, the last time they had to replace so much talent on the roster, but they also don’t have a Tyler Hansbrough clone to lead them to the unexpected results from 2006. Still, their schedule doesn’t cut the Tar Heels any slack. They won’t lose a double-digit number of games in the regular season, but losses in the ACC Tournament and NCAA Tournament will push them to a total of either 10 or 11. Final record: 25-10 with four total wins in the postseason and a Sweet Sixteen appearance.