Zach Hayes is a editor, contributor and bracketologist at Rush the Court. To see the entire group of 2010-11 Class Schedules, click here.
Following a blissful 2009 that culminated in Roy Williams’ second national championship since taking over at his alma mater, life as a North Carolina basketball fan hasn’t exactly been business as usual. The development of the John Henson-led recruiting class didn’t advance as quickly as hoped, guard play and defense continued to be lingering issues, injuries curtailed the seasons of some key players and a staggering five ACC losses at the Dean Dome followed. This all resulted in a spot in the NIT while their bitter rivals from down Tobacco Road emerged as the final team standing. Don’t feel so sorry for Tar Heel fans, though. With a Hall of Famer at the helm, continued success on the recruiting trail and the history and lore of UNC basketball remaining strong, there won’t be too many more NIT berths on the horizon. With a questionable ACC and arguably the best freshman in the nation wearing the powder blue, a jump from tenth to second in the conference isn’t out of the question (schedule here).
Team Outlook: One thing that Roy Williams should stress during October practice and even into non-conference play is that every single spot in the starting five is an open competition. There’s talent and potential stardom flooding this roster, but the roles and minutes have yet to be determined. Larry Drew improved his court vision and shooting touch from his freshman to sophomore seasons, but he could be challenged by incoming freshman Kendall Marshall. Williams also has sophomores Dexter Strickland, Leslie McDonald and rookie Reggie Bullock, known for his athleticism and outside shooting, to compete for time in the backcourt. Harrison Barnes will in all likelihood instantly be their most dynamic player. Barnes is a one-and-done who can create his own shot and has such a mature and refined game for an 18-year old. The question mark could be in the frontcourt where it’s yet to be determined if Tyler Zeller can remain healthy and John Henson can contribute more offensively as a sophomore. Both possess the skill level for breakout campaigns, giving Williams plenty of weapons.
Non-Conference Schedule Rank (ranked 1 thru 10, 10 being the most difficult): 7. After a warm-up against Lipscomb, the Tar Heels embark for Puerto Rico where they’ll be the prohibitive favorites to take the tournament crown. The most threatening obstacles will be Minnesota in the semifinals and a potential championship game against Kevin Jones and West Virginia. After downing Michigan State the last two seasons in the Challenge, Carolina receives another tough test in lllinois on the road. The Illini should be greatly improved in 2010-11 with Demetri McCamey opting to return for a senior season and the skilled frontcourt duo of Mike Davis and Mike Tisdale. The series with Kentucky continues with the Wildcats visiting the Dean Dome, a young, inexperienced group still likely trying to mesh at that early stage in the season. The final challenge is a semi-home game in Greensboro against Texas after the two teams battled it out in Dallas last December, a hyped battle that turned out to be quite pedestrian when both schools grossly underachieved by seasons end. Carolina also faces rebuilding Rutgers in NYC and travels to Evansville for a game against the Missouri Valley bottom feeder.
Cupcake City: I’d give Williams credit for striking an appropriate balance on the number of challenging games a program with the stature of North Carolina should take on while also sprinkling in a handful of cupcakes that will help this curious team mesh and develop chemistry. The opener against Lipscomb is a glorified exhibition and the Puerto Rico opener against Hofstra shouldn’t be an upset threat unless Williams’ rotation is in flux and CAA POY candidate Charles Jenkins has a career performance. The Heels also draw UNC-Asheville and will be looking for some revenge when College of Charleston comes to town (unbelievably, Carolina was ranked ninth during that upset). Two teams that may challenge the Heels are Long Beach State and William & Mary. The 49ers return their top three scorers under former Minnesota headman Dan Monson. The Tribe, one of the feel-good stories of last season that saw their season end in the NIT against Carolina, brings back Quinn McDowell to a team that attempted the third most three-pointers in the nation last season, a dangerous proposition should they catch fire.
Toughest Early Season Test: Due to Kentucky’s inexperience, the question marks surrounding Texas and the lack of another preseason top-25 caliber school in Puerto Rico, look for the Tar Heels toughest early season test to take place when they travel to Champaign to visit the Orange Krush. The return of McCamey changed the prospects of this entire team. The 6’3 senior led the nation in assist rate last season and will have an instant matchup advantage against any one of Drew, Marshall or Strickland. Look for sophomores Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson to greatly improve during their sophomore seasons, the twin towers of Davis and Tisdale are back to man the paint and stretch defenses, and head coach Bruce Weber was able to lure McDonalds All-American Jereme Richmond to Illinois. If the leadership and toughness improve this winter, the Illini could very well challenge Michigan State, Purdue and Ohio State atop the Big Ten. Harrison Barnes will have to be the best player on the floor for UNC to leave such a rabid atmosphere with a confidence-building victory.