James Michael McAdoo leads an unproven yet talented core of returning players for North Carolina.
The departure of Harrison Barnes, John Henson, Tyler Zeller, and Kendall Marshall to this summer's NBA draft leaves Carolina entering its third distinct rebuilding season under Roy Williams.
Though the 2012 squad will not leave Chapel Hill with a national championship, it has in common with its 2005 and 2009 predecessors that nearly all of the key players will leave a team that had been building steadily toward success for three seasons. The two seasons that followed those titles offer two extremes for how a rebuilding campaign can proceed.
In 2006, the Tar Heels rode the breakout success of freshman Tyler Hansbrough to an upset of Duke at Cameron, and a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament. In 2010, however, preseason expectations built on the return of Ed Davis and Deon Thompson were shattered when Carolina missed the tournament in one of the program's most frustrating seasons.
College basketball pundits—and Carolina fans—have already taken to wondering and worrying which course the 2013 season will take: 2006 or 2010? As is so often the case with such questions, reality is likely in between.
The 2013 squad will not likely feature a consistently reliable scoring option of the caliber of Hansbrough in 2006, and it will instead rely on a variety of guys to chip in the occasional big night. For that reason, 2013 may fall short of that group's success. But the overall returning talent is stronger next year than in either of the previous rebuilding seasons, and there are five compelling reasons why it is far less likely that 2013 goes the way of 2010.
Fans of college basketball know that Roy Williams has not often constructed teams with a defensive identity, choosing instead to out-run and out-score his opponents with superior athleticism and offensive firepower.
Yet in the past two seasons, both by necessity and design, Carolina established itself as a superior defensive unit, and even though the unit's cornerstone, two-time ACC Defensive Player of the Year John Henson, is departing, pieces remain in place to continue the trend.
Reggie Bullock and Dexter Strickland are two of the best perimeter defenders in the ACC, and having both on the floor together next year represents an improvement over defensive liability Harrison Barnes.
Incoming freshman Brice Johnson is an athletic and long shot blocker, and potential Connecticut transfer Alex Oriakhi would bring the necessary post defense and rebounding to help replace Henson and Zeller. Though the 2010 Heels struggled mostly on offense, its defense was also a weakness, ranking 46th in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted defensive efficiency ratings.
In 2013, Carolina should place in the top fifteen, if not higher.
The root of the 2010 team's severe offensive woes was the complete inability to shoot from the outside. Only Will Graves was a consistent shooter, and Larry Drew, Marcus Ginyard, and Dexter Strickland were decidedly not perimeter scoring options.
It is not yet clear who of the 2013 team will emerge as the outside scoring leader, but there are multiple talented options to make this team more balanced in Leslie McDonald, Reggie Bullock and P.J. Hairston.
Marcus Ginyard and Deon Thompson were among the nation's strongest role players from 2007 to 2009, but there was always a sense that role player might be their ceiling; neither was recruited to be a star at any point during his Carolina career, and they were both unfairly asked to fill that role in 2010.
The same cannot be said for Bullock, Hairston and James Michael McAdoo if he returns, all of whom will be asked to make the transition from role player to key contributor next season, and all of whom were consensus top twenty recruits nationally out of high school who will be future NBA draft picks.
To be as successful as the 2006 team, this squad will need its version of David Noel to make that transition effectively, and fortunately there are multiple options.
It may seem premature to count Marcus Paige as an advantage for next season's team before he ever plays a game at Carolina, but consider this: Roy Williams has had much success turning highly-touted point guards into solid freshman starters, and Paige will not be asked to score.
Given that Carolina entered 2010 with only an unimpressive Larry Drew, it counts at least as a mild advantage, and one that may turn into a significant one.
Finally, at risk of jinxing the season, it is worth mentioning that Carolina is due to survive a year without a significant injury.
The 2010 squad, like every other Carolina team from 2008 to the present, was plagued by bad health when Tyler Zeller suffered a stress fracture and Ed Davis broke his wrist. After enduring three torn ACLs and three broken wrists over the last five seasons, perhaps this season will be the year that curse lifts.