This year's North Carolina Tar Heels squad has one goal and one goal only—win a national title. It is the reason that players like Harrison Barnes, John Henson and Tyler Zeller all returned to school.
Thanks to their collective return and the promise of a full season from point guard Kendall Marshall, the national media made the Tar Heels a near unanimous pick for preseason No. 1 in the country and essentially penciled them in on everybody's bracket as a participant in the tournament finals.
There is no doubt that this has been one of the most hyped teams ever. For many, anything less than a repeat of the fabled 2008-2009 squad—where Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington, Danny Green and Tyler Hansbrough all came back for to avenge an embarrassing Final Four loss to Kansas in the previous season on the way to a championship—would be considered a failure of massive proportions.
So how have the Tar Heels fared this season in compared to the hype? Currently they sit at 26-4 on the season, ranked No. 6 in the country and will be playing for the ACC regular season title against arch-rivals Duke on Saturday. That alone doesn't tell you anything of the story that has been written for the season up to this point. We need to examine things closer.
Front Court—The Hype
Going into the season, the front court of UNC was one of the most hyped ever with three legitimate first-round NBA draft picks starting. Rivals.com had the Tar Heels ranked first in the nation preseason as far as front court play was concerned.
Dick Weiss was so enamored with the Heels front court that he even found it prudent to include incoming freshman James Michael McAdoo in the praise:
The Tar Heels, who return all five starters from last year’s Final Eight team, are the consensus choice to win their third national championship in eight years after their entire front line of Barnes, Henson and Zeller passed on a chance to declare for the NBA draft. Williams has so much talent, Carolina could duplicate Kentucky’s unusual accomplishment of having five players selected in the first round of the NBA draft. Barnes, Henson and freshman forward James McAdoo are all lottery-pick material while the 7-0, now-healthy Zeller and sophomore point guard Kendall Marshall, who was the key to the Heels’ late season turnaround that led to an ACC regular-season title, are likely first-round picks, too.
An even better indicator of the level of hype going into this season is the fact that the preseason watch list for the John R. Wooden Award had all three UNC front court players in its top 50 list.
Front Court—The Verdict
Have the Heels lived up to the hype that was given to the front court before the season? YES. Without question, the front three of the Tar Heels have been one of the most dominant forces in the NCAA.
Harrison Barnes is averaging over 17 points-per-game in only 28 minutes of play—good for second in the ACC. Barnes has increased his scoring average by nearly two a game while playing even fewer minutes than he did last year. The only downside to Harrison's game is that he has the ability to make things look so easy that you start to question if he is really trying out there if he doesn't score 25.
What is great (although sometimes maddening) about Barnes is that he understands that even though he is the most talented offensive player on the court in every single game he plays in, he's also just a single cog in the scoring machine that is UNC. It really isn't hard to imagine Barnes averaging 25 a game had it not been for the fact that he happens to play along side two other All-American quality players.
Barnes was a fashionable pick for preseason player of the year honors in both the ACC and the NCAA. He does not appear to be in the running anymore for the NCAA honors—that race seems to be a two-horse race between big men Anthony Davis of Kentucky and Thomas Robinson of Kansas—but he is still a top three consideration for the ACC's top honor.
His lack of a chance at winning the Wooden and Naismith awards this year says more about the unselfishness and team-first mentality that Barnes plays with (not to mention the outstanding seasons Davis and Robinson are having) than it does him not meeting expectations.
John Henson, like Barnes, has been highly rated ever since coming in as a rail-thin freshman—although Henson has one more year under his belt than his front court teammate. Since that time he has managed to bulk up more than 20 pounds and transform himself into one of the most dominant defensive presences in the NCAA. Going into the season, Henson was a favorite to win every defensive player of the year award.
If it was not for the record-breaking performances that Kentucky's Anthony Davis has been putting on this season, Henson would have been a lock for best defender in Division I. Henson leads the ACC in blocks with just over three a game. This also puts him in the Top 10 nationally, while also snagging 10.6 rebounds a contest.
What can't be measured is the sheer number of shots he alters just from being on the court. There was no better display of this than on the first game of the season aboard the aircraft carrier against Michigan State where Henson was the single most dominant player on the court that game.
The most shocking thing about Henson's game is how he has added a legitimate jump shot to his repertoire to go along with some fancy feet in the post. This has made him a much more versatile scoring threat for the Tar Heels offense, even if it does lead to occasions where he gets too confident in his jump shot and settles for it rather than his much stronger post game.
Tyler Zeller, despite entering the season off a series of monster performances in the NCAA tournament last year, was the least hyped of the vaunted Big Three. As the lone non-walk-on senior on the team, he would be looked upon for leadership and steady, consistent play. There's really only one thing that can be said to describe Zeller so far this year.
Career highs in points (16.2), rebounds (9.3) and blocked shots (1.5). Of all the people to challenge Harrison Barnes for the ACC Player of the Year honors, it is Zeller who is now the most likely to win it. His play during the conference schedule has been nothing short of marvelous, and he has become the most important player in the Tar Heels front court.
Many UNC fans are starting to see the same determination and intensity in Zeller as they did in another famous Tyler—Tyler Hansbrough. Last night's game against Maryland on the road displayed this more than any other game. On Senior Night, Zeller did his best Hansbrough impression by putting down 30 points on the Terrapins while going an amazing 20-for-23 from the free throw line.
In terms of preseason hype, Zeller took the charge on the hype, then sprinted down court for a breakaway dunk on the hype and finished the hype off with a cool free throw.
The other UNC players to feature in the front court are James Michael McAdoo and Desmond Hubert. Both are freshman, yet each had their own level of hype or non-hype. McAdoo came into the year as one of the top players out of high school, but he has had to make do with only 13.7 minutes per game whereas he could be the starter on nearly every other team in the country not called Duke, Kansas or Kentucky. Hubert makes do with even less—five minutes per game typically as the last non-walk-on off the bench.
I don't want to classify McAdoo as a bust or draw too many conclusions from his play this season. The real test for him is going to be next season where he will likely be the starter at center or power forward. But when he is in the game this season, you can't help but get the impression that he is trying to do everything with the little time he has even if it comes back to bite him more times than not. Hubert is quiet, but already reminds me in multiple ways of John Henson as a freshman.
Back Court—The Hype
The back court of the Tar Heels was not as highly regarded as their front court this season, but that didn't stop them from coming into the season with lofty expectations as well. Kendall Marshall was seen undoubtedly as the centerpiece of the Heels offense after wowing the NCAA last year in only half a season of play as a starter.
Dexter Strickland was looked as the best on-ball defender for UNC, and sophomore Reggie Bullock and freshman PJ Hairston were looked at to provide the Tar Heels with the outside shooting they have desperately needed with Leslie McDonald out with injury.
Back Court—The Verdict
Kendall Marshall has been absolutely sensational for the Tar Heels this year and has already broken the single-season team assists record owned by Ed Cota since the 1999-2000 season, and only needs 15 more to surpass Georgia Tech's Craig Neal for the ACC single season record of 303. Marshall has proved this year that he is arguably the best floor general in the country and that it is his performance which much of the Tar Heels success rests.
The downside to his game, however, is his lack of scoring punch. His jump shot is timid and for much of the year, teams have been content with giving him wide open looks which he has been reticent to take.
Dexter Strickland proved to be a more-than-capable perimeter defender and backup point guard when Kendall Marshall went to the bench. However a season-ending ACL injury cut short his junior season.
Reggie Bullock has been tasked with taking over Strickland's role as the team's starting two guard and has filled in amazingly and has proven himself as a lock-down defender. He is regularly assigned with defending the opposing team's best player and more often than not gives them one of the hardest shooting nights of their careers.
Along with Bullock, freshman PJ Hairston was looked at as the savior from behind the three-point line. This hot shooting guard wowed early on this season with his combination of physicality and lightning-fast release.
However his numbers have declined massively since ACC play has started. Now heading into the Duke game the slumping freshman is shooting only 30.5 percent from the field and 28.5 percent from three-point land. Carolina needs him to get out of the doldrums if they want to have continued success in the ACC and NCAA tournaments.
One of the great stories to come out this year has been the play of backup point guard Stilman White, who has had to shoulder a larger load of spelling Kendall Marshall with the injury to Dexter Strickland. While he was first viewed as a big liability, he has proven himself capable and up to the task. He has been a tenacious defender and able to hit an outside shot or make a pretty pass to the delight of Tar Heel fans everywhere.
The glaring indictment this season of the Tar Heels back court has been the continued woes shooting from outside, combined with a glaring weakness at guarding the opposing three-point line.
Often times Tar Heels players are slow to rotate on the perimeter and refuse to fight over the top on screens, leaving wide open shots. This was demonstrated no better than by Florida State's Deividas Dulkys who scored a career high 32 points on 8-for-10 shooting beyond the arc in that infamous drubbing the Seminoles gave the Tar Heels down in Tallahassee.
Have the Tar Heels lived up to the hype? Kendall Marshall YES, the rest of the back court NO.
When determining whether or not the team has lived up to the lofty preseason expectations, one also has to take a look at the performance of those they were put up against.
The season's first loss to UNLV does not seem like nearly as much of a shock now as it did after the final buzzer. UNLV has gone from national unknown to year-long Top 20 team.
The matchup against Kentucky was rightly billed as a clash of the titans the game proved it. If it weren't for the freakishly long arms of Anthony Davis, the outcome may have been different.
Florida State handed UNC one of its worst losses ever in Tallahassee, but have also shown that they have been a legitimate contender for the ACC crown against the annual UNC/Duke hegemony and one of the best defensive teams in the nation yet again.
And Duke? It's Duke, a legitimate contender for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. UNC will be traveling down the road to Durham for Saturday's rematch which will decide who walks away with the ACC regular season crown and might potentially decide who goes into the ACC tourney as favorites to win the conference title and possible No. 1 seed.
I think what is even more important in discussing whether a team has met or exceeded the hype is deciding if the hype itself was realistic to begin with. Was it realistic to expect this team to do what we thought they should do?
Was is realistic to expect UNC to finish the regular season No. 1 in the country and favorites entering the tournament? YES. Have they met that expectation? No. Kentucky has demonstrated that it is most certainly the top team in the country at this point with a full strength Syracuse not far behind. I do think it is realistic to see UNC as in the discussion for top four or five in the nation.
Was it realistic to expect Barnes to be a national player of the year candidate? YES. In comparison to the expectations, Barnes has not matched the hype even though he has been better in every statistical category than he was last year.
Was it realistic to expect UNC to finish the season undefeated? NO. In a field that features Kentucky and Duke at their current levels, it would have been silly to think this team would finish the year without a blemish—even the dominant team of 2008-2009 had three losses going into the NCAA tournament.
Other than the glaring loss to Florida State (and even that is only glaring because of the sheer margin, not the quality of FSU itself), UNC has no genuinely bad losses. The losses they do have are to powerhouses and legit contenders, and although certainly show weaknesses in the team, should not be seen as proof that Carolina can't win a national championship.
If the season were to end right now and no more games were to be played, UNC would not have lived up to the hype and lofty expectations that were set for them at the start of the season. However, most of the expectations are focused on postseason play, and you can't make a legitimate judgment on them yet. An ACC tournament title and NCAA title would prove that UNC met the hype.
Anything less than a Final Four for this squad will be and should be viewed as an underachievement. This 2011-2012 team is not the preseason monster they were thought to be early on, but they still have a team capable of winning the national title and should not be overlooked going into the NCAA tournament.