Wednesday, November 9, 2011

2011-12 College Hoops Preview aka North Carolina's Year

This is part one of a two part look at the upcoming college basketball season. has written an excellent look at championship contenders, starting with North Carolina. This is my perspective as a Tar Heels fan who's followed the team pretty closely the last few years.

Yes, the preseason #1 team will win the championship this year. Bold statement, I know. But let me lay it out for you as to why my favorite team is the best in the land.

-Experience. Hall of Fame coach Roy Williams is returning all 5 starters from his young squad that made it to the Elite Eight. If not for a 3 point barrage from Kentucky, North Carolina might have challenged for a championship last year. Being that close to the prize, the Tar Heels' star front line passed on the NBA (and its lockout) to return to Chapel Hill for another season.

-Talent. Had that front line entered the draft, they would've potentially all been lottery picks. Small forward Harrison Barnes, in particular, would have been in contention to be the #1 overall pick. I've written about Barnes' talent before and could go on, but suffice it to say that his return is a major coup. (EDIT: Check out the upcoming feature as the cover of ESPN The Mag)

Furthermore, due to a number of reasons, last year's team's biggest weakness was a lack of depth combined with its youth. That is no longer the case, with a pair of stud recruits, James McAdoo and P.J. Hairston, bolstering the bench. Leslie McDonald's torn ACL certainly hurts, but Reggie Bullock's return from his own knee injury helps soften the blow.

-Team Makeup. This team is well put together despite all the adversity last year, from the Wear twins transferring, to Will Graves being dismissed, to Larry Drew II leaving the team in the middle of the year. The Tar Heels are poised for a long tournament run.

Point guard Kendall Marshall is the straw that stirs the drink. Go back to that Grantland preview and watch his highlights again and be amazed by his passes. They won 17 of their final 20 games once he became the starter thanks in part to they he took care of the ball compared to incumbent starter Larry Drew. He's big, crafty, willing to push the ball ahead, and blessed with amazing court vision. He's not an outstanding athlete or shooter, but he makes great passes in transition and can knock down enough 3's to make defenses pay.

Shooting guard Dexter Strickland, on the other hand, is an amazing athlete but less dangerous as a shooter. He can score well in transition and ignite the crowd with highlight dunks while also serving as a backup ball handler. Most importantly, he is often tasked with defending the opposition's best guard.

Barnes' Game-winner @ Florida St.
Small forward Harrison Barnes, as mentioned, is the type of talent that's taken at the very top of the draft. After struggling with expectations early in the season, he took off in the second half of the year (coinciding with Marshall becoming the starting point guard). He has the prototypical size, shooting ability, and intangibles that scouts crave. His athleticism, ball-handling, and defensive acumen are more than adequate, and he is willing to take, and make, big time shots in the clutch. Just watch the end of the games against Texas, Virginia Tech, Miami, Florida State, and of course, the 40 points in the ACC tournament against Clemson. Heck, The Black Falcon even has t-shirts of his brand.

Power forward John Henson is the reigning ACC Defensive Player of the Year and is a double-double machine. Even after putting on weight his sophomore season, he still needs to add more strength before he's ready for the NBA, but he has the length and athleticism to be an impact player in the Marcus Camby mold. He's still working on his shot, but he has good ball skills and throws down vicious alley-oops, as detailed by NBA Playbook's Sebastian Pruiti.

Center Tyler Zeller provides a steady scoring presence inside when healthy. As described in Pruiti's post, he can score on the block with a nice hook, is an excellent free throw shooter, and outruns his opponent down the floor to score in transition off of great outlet passes from Marshall. He could be a little tougher inside defensively, but with the dearth of legitimate big men, he is extremely valuable.

Off the bench, James McAdoo, relative of former Tar Heel and Hall of Famer Bob McAdoo, might be a better prospect than either big man. He has a throwback game and has been described as a smaller Tim Duncan. The Marvin Williams/Ed Davis role as "star freshman coming off the bench for championship team" appears in good hands.

Sophomore wing Reggie Bullock was a highly touted recruited along with Barnes and Marshall but didn't get to display his talents much before tearing the meniscus in his left knee. Combined with stud freshman P.J. Hairston and senior Justin Watts, depth on the wings will be great. Hairston should star next year in a more expansive role.

Freshmen point guard Stillman White and big man Desmond Hubert provide insurance at key positions in case of injuries and foul trouble.

Overall, this team just makes sense as the best in the nation.
Good guard play running the offense? Check-Marshall is a great floor general.
Defensive stopper on the perimeter? Check-Strickland can check most guards with Barnes providing assistance for bigger wings.
Shot blocker to cover for defensive miscues? Check-Henson is a defensive force that covers a lot of ground.
Inside scoring threat? Check-Zeller in the post, Henson off lobs, and McAdoo off the bench is more than adequate.
Shooters off the bench? Check-Bullock and Hairston can fulfill this role as well or better than McDonald did a year ago.
Closer at the end of games? Check-Black Falcon!

Yes, I bought that shirt last spring and will be wearing it proudly for the season debut Friday.

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