North Carolina Basketball: Breaking Down Tar Heels' Advantages in ACC Race

Rollin YeattsFeatured ColumnistJune 16, 2012

North Carolina Basketball: Breaking Down Tar Heels' Advantages in ACC Race

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    What does it mean when the ACC picks off 20 of the ESPNU Top 100 recruits for 2012?

    It means it's going to be quite a race, and no easy climb for the North Carolina Tar Heels to reach their sixth ACC title in the last seven seasons.

    There is no mercy for the team that lost their top four players to the draft. UNC will be facing a gauntlet of a schedule—and for the first time, it will consist of 18 games.

    I'm not sure anyone has it tougher than the Tar Heels in 2012-13.

    The teams they only face once are all cellar dwellers, in Wake Forest, Virginia Tech, Boston College and Clemson. As for the teams they will see twice, the list includes Duke, NC State, Florida State, Georgia Tech, Maryland, Miami and Virginia.

    Yes, that means Carolina will face the top-seven finishers from 2011-12 twice, while facing the worst of the ACC only once.

    The “official” schedule has yet to be released, but this is what was leaked to Harold Gutman of The Herald-Sun.

    By now you may be questioning how North Carolina could possibly have any advantages in the ACC, considering they lost their top four players and have the toughest schedule in the conference.

    I'm here to tell you they have quite a few, still. But that doesn't mean they will come away with a regular season title.

    It's not that easy.

    It probably hasn't been any harder than it will be in 2012-13. Not only do I see Duke, NC State and Florida State as contenders for the ACC title, but also potential Elite Eight contestants—the conference is that good.

Depth/Versatility

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    Of all the possible advantages I'll be listing, I feel most confident in UNC's depth.

    Duke, NC State and Florida State will all have solid depth between their incoming and returning talent.

    There is one thing about North Carolina's depth that puts them above the rest—versatility.

    With the commitments of Marcus Paige, Brice Johnson, Joel James and J.P. Tokoto, no ACC team has more ESPNU Top 100 recruits than the Tar Heels.

    Here, every position they lost was filled with top 100 talent. They also have Dexter Strickland and Leslie McDonald returning from season-ending injuries, along with Gardner-Webb transfer Luke Davis.

    This is where versatility comes into play.

    Reggie Bullock and P.J. Hairston were both recruited as shooting guards, but the loss of Harrison Barnes and the return of McDonald and Strickland will likely move the pair to small forward. Both have good size and can attack the rim, so they should have no problem adjusting to their new role.

    As all should know, Strickland plays both the point and shooting guard. There is also versatility there—not to mention finally having solid talent to back up the 1 again.

    Brice Johnson will also spit time at the 4 and 5 positions.

    To some, versatility may not mean much. To Roy Williams, it will mean the world.

    If used correctly, Coach Williams can shift his players according to game-by-game and minute-by-minute matchups.

    Need a little more size on the wing? Hairston can take the 2, while Bullock takes the 3, or vice versa.

    If James Michael McAdoo actually develops a jump shot in the offseason, we could see him occasionally move to the 3, while Johnson and James hold down the 4 and 5.

    Need more speed? The obvious move would be to insert Paige, Strickland, Bullock, McAdoo and Johnson.

    Jump shots aren't falling? Look for the hot hand, in the assortment of wing players at Roy's disposal.

    Are you catching my drift?

    The ability to rotate players is uncanny, and is sure to be a clear advantage in the ACC.

Perimeter Shooting

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    North Carolina definitely won't have a clear-cut advantage in perimeter shooting.

    Duke, Florida State, NC State, Miami and Virginia Tech will all start where they left off, shooting very well from beyond the arc.

    But, UNC will be much more competitive from that range than their sixth-place finish in the category last season.

    Last year, they were counting on McDonald coming in and leading the Heels in three-point percentage once again. Then, his offseason knee injury axed that.

    Roy had also picked up P.J. Hairston, who was touted the best sharpshooter in the class. A flop of a season from Hairston axed that.

    What ended up happening was Reggie Bullock taking over as the team's sharpshooter, draining 38.2 percent of his attempts from downtown.

    As we look forward to the 2012-13 season, the perimeter shooting looks like it will be coming together with three players who have the potential to be shooting in the 40 percent range.

    Bullock and McDonald have already been close, both having eclipsed the 38 percent mark.

    Hairston is working hard to get back his perimeter game.

    Considering he has pure form and never had issues shooting before, I have to assume last year was a mere apparition. He may not hit 40 percent, but I wouldn't count him out. I think we can at least rely on him to shoot better than last year's 27.3 percent. 

    Marcus Paige will also be a player to keep a close eye on. Unlike Kendall Marshall, he is coming in as a big scoring threat from anywhere on the court. In his senior season at Linn-Marr, Paige attempted 6.5 three-pointers per game, burying them at a 44 percent clip.

    Did I fail to mention that UNC's all-time leading three-point specialist is now the assistant coach? Don't tell me Hubert Davis can't coach these guys up.

    Like I said, the team may not lead the ACC in three-point percentage, but they will make the race much more competitive. Their improved shooting will also help balance the loss of their dominant post men.

Aggression

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    Carolina did lose their best post players in John Henson and Tyler Zeller.

    McAdoo hasn't shown many signs of dominance in the post, and freshmen Johnson and James have yet to prove themselves on the college hardwood.

    This is a big area of concern for Roy Williams' double post system. He likes to work inside out, but he may have to make a shift in his strategy.

    How do you make up for the potential loss of an inside game?

    Attack, attack, attack!

    The Tar Heels have the right players to make this strategy work, too.

    I harped on Marshall all season for not being aggressive enough. We all saw what happened when he started attacking the basket—Carolina started dominating.

    When they gave him space on the perimeter, he started making them pay with threes. When they defended him close, he took it to the paint.

    Marcus Paige already plays that game—he can light it up from anywhere, and defenses will have to play him honest.

    He is much faster than Marshall and will be able to attack the paint with ease. That aggression will open looks on the outside, without having to feed the post.

    Then there is Dexter Strickland, who will attack the basket with lightning speed whether he is playing the 1 or 2. Leslie McDonald improved his dribbles and was getting in the paint at the NC Pro-Am before tearing his ACL.

    Reggie Bullock and P.J. Hairston are both aggressive—and will be even more aggressive at their new position.

    Then there is J.P. Tokoto coming off the bench. He doesn't have much of an outside game yet, but he is a slasher who plays above the rim—with dunks reminiscent of Vince Carter.

    Without a proven inside threat, the aggression of these Tar Heels will be key to opening up shots for others and getting points in the paint. Teams will have to play them honest.

    I only see NC State playing with a similar killer instinct.

Defense

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    Perimeter defense was a huge issue for the Heels in 2011-12. They lost their big men to draft.

    How could their defense possibly be an advantage?

    Though North Carolina lost John Henson's 2.9 blocks per game, they gained Joel James and Brice Johnson—both capable of being big-time shot blockers.

    James averaged 2.3 and Brice Johnson averaged four blocks per game in their senior seasons. Desmond Hubert also has a reputation for being a great shot blocker.

    They aren't proven yet, though, so I'm not banking on that.

    What I am banking on is a better perimeter defense and a well-oiled turnover machine.

    Hands down, Strickland was easily the best perimeter defender on the team, keeping the team's head above water until he tore his ACL. In his absence, we saw Bullock step up his defense and become the top perimeter defender.

    When John Henson went down, we saw McAdoo pick off pass after pass—which was easily the most dominant aspect of his game.

    Though also unproven at the college level, Marcus Paige also has a knack for picking pockets. He averaged 3.1 steals per game during his senior season of high school.

    Leslie McDonald's defense has been mostly forgotten, but he was also a solid defender—not dominant, but solid. He did average 0.5 steals per game, over 15.7 minutes in 2010-11.

    Hairston was about the same in 2011-12, averaging 0.4 steals per game, over 13 minutes.

    Turnovers are great for any team, but few teams does it mean more to than the North Carolina Tar Heels. Roy Williams likes his teams to run, and his teams that did that the best are the ones that dominated the competition.

    I have another bold prediction for you.

    The Tar Heels will not only lead the ACC, but they will also lead the NCAA in steals.

    With the athleticism and speed of this team, we will see a transition game reminiscent of the 2009 champions.

    At this point, it's tough to say who will win the ACC. It's certainly going to be exciting to watch it unfold.

    The ACC is ready to dominate once again—and North Carolina is set to play a big part in the conference's dominance.