Tuesday, January 11, 2011

season preview: North Carolina

North Carolina Tar Heels

Media prediction: 3rd

Last season:

Record: 20-17 (5-11); 10th in ACC
Postseason: NIT runners-up
KenPom: 60th of 347

Returning scoring: 45.3%
Returning rebounding: 33.3%
Returning assists: 61.9%

2009-'10 All-ACC:

1st team: none
2nd team: none
3rd team: none
Rookie: none
Defensive: none


PG: Larry Drew II (Jr.)
SG: Dexter Strickland (So.)
SF: Harrison Barnes (Fr.)
PF: John Henson (So.)
C: Tyler Zeller (Jr.)


G Leslie McDonald (So.)
G Reggie Bullock (Fr.)
F Justin Knox (Sr.)
G Kendall Marshall (Fr.)
G Justin Watts (Jr.)

Coach: Roy Williams (8th season)


Once: Georgia Tech (A), Maryland (H), Miami (A), Virginia (A), Virginia Tech (H), Wake Forest (H)
Twice: Boston College, Clemson, Duke, Florida State, NC State

You'd think a team that was shut out of all-conference honors, bowed out in the first round of the ACC tournament as a 10 seed, and returns less than half its scoring would be all set for another dreary cellar-dwelling season. No luck - this is Carolina. And they're good.

As we've already seen this season, there's been no drop-off in athleticism. Carolina's still big, quick, and they've made huge strides on defense from last season to this. It helps that Tyler Zeller is healthy; last year he missed time with a broken foot. Zeller and John Henson, who's practically a second center on the floor, bring the size. Henson, despite being listed as a forward, really does a lot more of the center's work - more rebounding, more shot blocking. This is because he's a total mismatch for anyone trying to guard or be guarded by him. Zeller, though, is still your standard seven-foot tree, able to simply drop the ball in over top of most defenders. Harrison Barnes is the scoring punch from the wing, and he's made clear and noticeable strides since the beginning of the season. Barnes is the guy that scouts were pimping as the #1 pick in the draft even before the season, but he looks like a player who will really benefit from a year in college. Duke's Kyrie Irving grabbed the headlines early on as Barnes struggled, but by the ACC tournament Barnes will be the guy in the spotlight.

The interesting thing is that while the ACC is supposedly a guard's league, UNC's guard play is only somewhat better than average. Point guard Larry Drew is a horrible shooter and almost entirely a distributor. Most of UNC's guards, while still more athletic than most in the ACC, are fairly interchangeable and very young. When the second group goes in, UNC turns anonymous, and beatable. There's a lot of playable depth, but Reggie Bullock and Leslie McDonald aren't going to blow your doors off.

The bottom line is that Carolina is almost Carolina, but not quite. Barnes should get better and better as the season goes on and give UNC one of the best frontcourts in the nation. The value of their backcourt, though, lies mostly on defense, where they excel. If the frontcourt isn't scoring and the opponent is a good one, the guards aren't going to be able to pick them up. UNC's resume bears this out: they're capable of beating just about anyone when firing on all cylinders (Kentucky is a notable example) but their record against really good teams is tilted toward the L side of the ledger. Illinois, Vandy, Minnesota, and Texas comprise UNC's loss column. This should be good enough to sweep handily through the ACC in a down season, with probably no more than three losses, and a tournament berth is just about definite. Should they fail to make the Sweet 16, though, that too will come as no surprise.

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