UNC Basketball: Role Players Who Must Have a Big Season to Win ACC Title

Rollin YeattsFeatured ColumnistOctober 10, 2012

UNC Basketball: Role Players Who Must Have a Big Season to Win ACC Title

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    Never count out Roy Williams. He'll soon be ready to get back on the grind. And if you can't count him out, you certainly can't count out the North Carolina Tar Heels for a 2012 ACC title.

    While the team isn't laden with proven "stars," I truly believe there are a few in the making. But UNC's potential success in their ACC run doesn't just rest on their shoulders. In order to compete with the likes of Duke, Florida State and the revived NC State program, role players must make significant contributions to the team.

    What defines a role player?

    I consider a role player to be someone that doesn't provide the largest chunk of scoring or passing. This can be a player off the bench or even a starter. While they don't top the stat sheets or consistently land a spot on SportsCenter's Top 10, the contributions they make are invaluable and help to mold a true team.

    A couple of stars simply don't make a team. Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen—as good as they were—would have never won six titles without the help of John Paxson, B.J. Armstrong, Steve Kerr, Bill Wennington, Bill Cartwright or even Luc Longley (among others).

    Those aren't exactly household names, and anyone that wasn't watching the NBA in the '90s would probably have no clue who they are. Just ask Jordan, Pippen or Phil Jackson—they'll tell you with a smile and six rings.

    However, in this situation, it doesn't necessarily mean this year's role players won't be stars in the future.

    This is college basketball. Sometimes the potential stars have to sit behind the more developed and experienced players. So don't take anyone I label as a "role player" on this squad to be a below-par player with little or no future.

    That said, let me tell you who you won't find on these slides.

    Though there are many question marks over the head of James Michael McAdoo, he has been pre-labeled a star by the media and fans alike. I firmly believe Reggie Bullock will be the leading scorer, coming off a solid 2011-12 campaign and emerging from the shadow of Harrison Barnes.

    I also feel Marcus Paige will be the starting point guard. With the exception of Stilman White, one can never consider a Roy Williams point guard to be just a role player. I also feel he will provide a significant portion of the offense to go along with his dishing of the rock.

    On to the role players.

Dexter Strickland

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    Aside from Bullock, McAdoo and Paige, nobody has a more significant role than Dexter Strickland.

    The 2011-12 season could have ended on a much happier note, had Dex been there to fill in for the injured Kendall Marshall during the tourney. Instead, the only other scholarship player with experience at the point went down with a season-ending ACL tear.

    Strickland is back now, and will be a full participant in practice staring this weekend.

    Some still believe he will be the starting point guard, but I don't think that is the case. And it would appear that Roy Williams is on the same page.

    In the October issue of Inside Carolina, Greg Barnes asked Roy if he "plans to keep Dexter at point guard full-time." Here is his answer:

    No. That plan has never been in my mind because Dexter is not a point guard. My thing is to try to get Dexter to be a more efficient point guard, but he's not a point guard. Never has been.

    Strickland is more of a combo guard, and Paige was recruited to run point. Dex will likely just serve as his backup, with a near-even split in minutes at the position. He will also get additional minutes at the 2, whether it be starting or filling in for Leslie McDonald.

    No matter how they come, minutes will be needed from Dexter Strickland.

    Though Bullock is making a name for himself on defense, Strickland's perimeter defense was greatly missed last season. Opponents just had too many open looks beyond the arc.

    According to TeamRankings.com, Carolina ranked 335th in the country, allowing 22.7 three-point attempts per game. Opposing teams shot 31.9 percent from that range, too.

    Dexter Strickland will be counted on to get in the paint on offense and defend the perimeter on defense—all while playing two different positions. He is an invaluable piece to Carolina's title puzzle.

Leslie McDonald

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    It will be tough decisions all around for Roy Williams at the guard positions. Again, it's hard to say whether Strickland or Leslie McDonald will start at the 2.

    Will he be the offensive weapon we witnessed in the 2011 and 2012 NC Pro-Am? Or will he just be the spot-up sharpshooter of old? Due to an ACL tear during the 2011 summer competition, we haven't seen him play in a real game since the 2010-11 season.

    Either way, his range is something last year's squad missed, and I'm sure Coach Williams intends to make full use of his returning perimeter weapon. McDonald led the Tar Heels in his last season, shooting 38.1 percent from downtown.

    In his absence last season, Bullock became the leading sharpshooter at 38.2 percent.

    Having McDonald and Bullock on the court together (not to mention Paige), could help turn around the team's performance from last season.

    Carolina ranked 277th in the NCAA with only 5.1 three-pointers per game, shooting 33.4 percent (207th) from that range.

    McDonald is also underrated as a defender. At 6'5" and 215 pounds, he is a long and physical player that is capable of altering shots from the perimeter to the paint. If he can hang with Strickland in that area, it could be enough to earn the starting nod.

    Much of Leslie McDonald's hype is off pure speculation from his NC Pro-Am performances. It remains to be seen how effective he can be beyond shooting threes. But that role is very important to this Tar Heels squad.

    There's nothing wrong with having another Donald Williams.

P.J. Hairston

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    Thanks in part to his MVP performance in the 2012 NC Pro-Am, P.J. Hairston had another summer full of hype to live up to. He will have to do a better job living up to those expectations this year.

    With the loss of McDonald, Hairston was supposed to step in and become the three-point specialist off the bench. I don't think it's too strong to say he epically failed by shooting 27.3 percent from bonus land.

    That's just bad.

    That isn't the only area he needs to improve, either. Because of the guard overload this season, he appears to be slated behind Reggie Bullock at the 3. At 6'6" and 220 pounds, he is the most obvious choice to back Bullock.

    Otherwise, it would be three experienced players splitting too much time at the 2. Meanwhile, a freshman J.P. Tokoto would have to be counted on as the next man up at the 3.

    Obviously, P.J. Hairston will have to improve upon his three-point percentage to complete Roy Williams' three-point brigade—something that will be needed with the lack of experience at the 4 and 5. What he will also need to do is drive in the paint and finish strong.

    I haven't seen too many back-to-the-basket moves from Hairston, but he does have a decent face-up game. He will be expected to bully his defender all the way to the rim.

    It will be a must for P.J. Hairston to improve himself on the offensive end of the floor.

Joel James

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    I firmly believe Joel James will be much more than a role player in years to come. But for this season, the 6'10" and 260-pound freshman will be limited in what he can do offensively.

    Defensively, however, he may play one of the biggest roles—taking up space in the middle.

    With the loss of John Henson, Tyler Zeller and the great post game that comes with them, Joel James must be the physical presence on both sides of the ball. He also stands two inches shorter than Zeller, making James' physicality even more imperative.

    Considering Joel James "hit [Zeller] as hard as anybody had ever hit him in his four years," I don't think that will be an issue. But he will also need to pick up some blocks and a heavy dose of rebounds to help along this major transition in the post.

    I don't think Carolina can count on the same production from McAdoo in those areas as Henson. Where McAdoo is weak, James must be strong. If they can balance each other out, they may turn out a better post duo than anticipated.

    Roy Williams had the team feeding Joel James the ball and put him on the run in the early practices. That's something we can full expect to continue through the coming practices and into the season.

    I doubt too much offensive weight will be put on James' broad shoulders this season, so consider anything he gets to be a big bonus with the scoring threats Roy has in place.

The Remaining Bench

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    The following players will likely see significantly fewer minutes than the seven I already mentioned. But having a deep bench is a necessity, as Carolina found out with last season's crushing injuries.

    Though Desmond Hubert added a solid 30 pounds to 6'10" frame and dedicated the offseason to improving his offensive game, he will still probably max out at 15 minutes per contest. Those will be important minutes though, and he must show he can be more efficient on both ends than last season.

    Otherwise, Brice Johnson may see even more minutes by backing up the 4 and the 5.

    Johnson has his own issues with disappearing acts he needs to work out, too. Anyone that watched the Jordan Brand All-American Game witnessed this, and Roy Williams voiced his concern in the October issue of Inside Carolina.

    He said, "So the thing we're talking to [Johnson] about is that it's got to be a consistency of that intense effort, not just a consistency of running up and down the court, but a consistency of intense effort when he's playing."

    The athleticism and skill is there for Brice Johnson, but I believe Roy's overall message was on "consistency"—if I picked that up correctly.

    Roy may be able to shuffle positions enough throughout the games to get freshman small forward J.P. Tokoto a consistent five or 10 minutes per game. I wouldn't expect too much other than that, unless Hairston bombs again. His role will simply be to ignite the crowd with his aerobatics.

    But I truly believe he will be seen in every game, and bench guys can rock a crowd even harder than starters. That trickles to the other players, possibly igniting a turning point in the game.

    Jackson Simmons and Luke Davis are solid, but not great, players that will probably get buried in the depth of this squad. If Davis sees minutes at the point, he needs to sure up the mistakes he has been prone to in the passing game. Simmons will be expected to motivate his teammates with his intense effort and overall hustle on the floor.

    There will inevitably be someone that doesn't live up to their potential or another that gets injured—whether it's for a couple games or the entire season. Those two things are nearly impossible to avoid.

    As insignificant a role some may seem to have, you never know what lurks around the next corner. Everyone will have to be prepared to do their part to make this team an ACC title contender.