North Carolina Basketball: 5 Things the Tar Heels Will Rely on in 2012-13
Naturally, those who don't follow the North Carolina Tar Heels see four superb starters leave for the NBA and decide there is no hope for the folks in Chapel Hill. That is understandable, however inaccurate it may be.
What one must understand is the constant influx of talent at UNC—as much as any program in the country from year to year. That didn't even stop during the lull between Dean Smith's retirement and Roy Williams' hiring.
And it's not stopping now.
That isn't to say that they are instantly contenders every season. The Heels are only a couple of years removed from losing the NIT championship to Dayton (2010). But that was just a minor blip in the prestigious career of Roy Williams.
As a matter of fact, that was his first and only NIT as a head coach.
During his nine-year reign at Carolina, Williams has tallied six Elite Eight appearances, three Final Fours and two championships—both, of course, ending with the Heels cutting down the net.
Not too shabby for a man I feel doesn't get his due respect.
So what is Carolina left with after the departure of Tyler Zeller, Harrison Barnes, John Henson and Kendall Marshall? Just five McDonald's All-Americans and four four-stars (Scout.com).
It would be irresponsible of me not to mention the obvious loss of a strong inside game; Henson and Zeller were monsters of the double post.
James Michael McAdoo, Desmond Hubert, Jackson Simmons, Brice Johnson (freshman) and Joel James (freshman) haven't proven themselves as a true presence in the post at the collegiate level.
That doesn't mean they won't—it just can't be relied upon.
While the Tar Heels lost post presence, they gained athleticism, positional versatility and range. These are the attributes that could actually make this squad as good or better than the last.
I've listed five areas of the game those particular attributes will affect. And Carolina's success in 2012-13 will be reliant upon their improvement in these areas.
Last season the Tar Heels shot 33.8 percent beyond the arc. While that isn't the worst three-point percentage—they shot 32.8 in '09-10 and '10-11—it still wasn't up to Carolina standards.
With the stable of pure shooters in 2012-13, you can bet that percentage will be closer to the 38.7 percent they shot in the 2009 championship run. And without a strong inside presence on the offensive end, they almost have to.
Reggie Bullock led the team in 2011-12, knocking down 38.2 percent of his shots from downtown. In 2010-11 it was Leslie McDonald shooting 38.1 percent.
McDonald was out last season after tearing his ACL in the 2011 NC Pro-Am. He will be back this season and is looking better than when he went down. I believe it will be between McDonald and Bullock for top sharpshooter.
P.J. Hairston may have something to say about that, though. He has been working on his outside shot with new assistant coach Hubert Davis.
He can't go wrong getting tips from the man that holds the Carolina record for three-point percentage.
It's tough to say how Hairston will perform this season, but it won't take much to improve upon his 27.3 percent from last year. I expect him to at least shoot 35 percent. But he could just end up blowing everyone out of the water.
Finally, there is Marcus Paige. Unlike Kendall Marshall, Paige enjoys putting up threes—and was very consistent in high school. And though I don't put too much value in prep three-pointers, it's hard to overlook his 44 percent shooting from that range.
James Michael McAdoo and Dexter Strickland could come out with some range, but I don't know if I'd bet the lint in my pocket on that. Let's just say them showing range would be a welcome surprise.
Either way, there are four Tar Heels perfectly capable of shooting around 38 percent.
Without Henson and Zeller to feed in the post, the inside-out game may come in the form of penetration. It's a good thing this is another area in which Carolina seems to have improved.
Barnes' lack of explosion and fine-tuned handles hindered his ability to penetrate. Those are two areas in which his replacement, Reggie Bullock, shines.
That may sound crazy to some, as he wasn't used that way very often over his two seasons in Chapel Hill. His duty was to jack up threes. Now that he will be covering small forward, his duties have changed.
This isn't a shot in the dark, either.
That was his game in high school, when he was the 2010 Gatorade Player of the Year in North Carolina and the second-ranked shooting guard according to Scout.com. He has occasionally done the same on the college hardwood, but little enough to be overlooked by the average viewer.
It wasn't lack of talent or ability. It just wasn't his role. Now it has to be.
The same can be said of P.J. Hairston, who will likely back up Bullock at small forward and play some shooting guard. At 13 minutes per game in 2011-12, he didn't have time to do much of anything anyway.
Admittedly, he was a little timid about getting in the paint—something that shouldn't be an issue with his 220-pound frame.
Though one shouldn't put too much value on NC Pro-Am performances, you can tell what a player has worked on in the offseason. For Hairston and McDonald, dribble penetration was obviously a main area of concentration.
Expect marked improvement from both returners.
Then there is Dexter Strickland, who is probably one of the best slashers on the squad. At 6'3” and 180 pounds, he may not be large but he is quick. His defense wasn't the only thing Carolina missed after he went down with the ACL tear.
Finally, we have Marcus Paige, who is much faster than his predecessor—nobody will accuse Marshall of being the next Usain Bolt. While Marshall used change of pace, Paige has the ability to use that and speed to get to the bucket.
The Tar Heels were never more efficient than when Marshall started penetrating. That will be a big focus for Roy's squad in 2012-13.
The charity stripe wasn't very giving last season. As a team, UNC managed to convert only 67.7 percent of their freebies—placing them eighth in the ACC and 226th in the NCAA.
It's hard to say things are looking up when they lost their second-best free-throw shooter in Tyler Zeller. I don't think Joel James will be taking his place in that area. Fortunately, they held on to the leader P.J. Hairston.
He didn't spend as much time on the line as Zeller—nobody did—but he converted 83.9 percent of his attempts. Perhaps that is just a small beacon of light in a vast ocean of darkness.
Bullock shot slightly better than Barnes, at 72.7 percent. Paige shot 86 percent in prep, so I imagine he will be much better than Marshall's 69.6.
McAdoo is, by no means, a great free-throw shooter. But his 63.8 percent shooting last season is much more promising than Henson's 51.1.
Leslie McDonald shot 74.4 percent in 2010-11, so he should be able to provide some assistance on the line, too.
I don't expect this squad to own the charity stripe, but I think it's safe to say UNC will be better than last year. Somewhere around 72-75 percent is where I see them hovering.
Defense wasn't exactly Carolina's strong point last season, either—especially after Dex went down. Marshall had to avoid fouls with no backup. One-on-one defense was good, but guys were late on switches and caught up on screens.
It was just ugly along the perimeter.
I can't say I have great confidence in switches and screens this season, but this squad is athletic enough to man up and dominate. They also have a greater knack for turnovers.
McAdoo had 13 steals in his last five games, which included two four-steal performances. Wait until we see him get full-time work.
Strickland led the team with 1.3 steals per game last season, and I don't see that number dipping.
Paige averaged 3.1 in his senior year of prep, so I imagine he will fall somewhere in the area of 1.5 per game. He has very quick hands and feet.
And though the Tar Heels lose 4.4 blocks per game with the absence of Zeller and Henson, they will still get their fair share.
Joel James will get his blocks with good positioning, and most of the others will be using their athleticism to come from behind—a la LeBron James. There is also a lot of length between Desmond Hubert and Brice Johnson, so you can expect a good chunk of blocks from them, too.
Overall, this defense will be much more impressive than last year. That will factor into what may be their greatest asset in 2012-13.
I can't help being reminded of the 2008-09 squad when I think about the defensive prowess and athleticism of this team.
What made that squad so dominant wasn't just its outside shooting and the inside game of Tyler Hansbrough. The Tar Heels were terrors in transition, leading to lopsided victories throughout the tournament.
It's hard to say any team can run with the current Tar Heels. There is usually a slow big man or a not-so-athletic shooter on most squads. Good luck finding one on the 2012-13 Tar Heels.
Those players just don't exist.
There was no area of the court McAdoo proved himself more than in transition. He will probably take Zeller's place as the guy that slips out for the long bomb.
Bullock was impressive on fast breaks when Z wasn't stealing the show. Then there is Strickland, who is just a beast on the break.
McDonald, Hairston and, most importantly, Paige are all solid, too. Johnson and Tokoto will be coming off the bench, but they will shine on breaks during their limited play.
The best part is that all of the players I mentioned can take it coast to coast by themselves.
Penetration, free throws and perimeter shooting could be hit or miss for the 2012-13 Tar Heels. I have no doubts about their defense or transition game, however. That will be what keeps them competitive in ACC play and beyond.
But if everything else comes together as I see happening, this could be a very scary squad for any team to deal with. And that's without mention of a post game.
What if McAdoo and James show up with some post moves, too? We could see 2009 all over again. Although that may be a stretch, they will be competitive and very entertaining to watch.
Reserve your spot on the couch now. You don't want to miss this show.