The countdown to the North Carolina Tar Heels' 2013-14 season can finally be measured in hours. What felt like the longest offseason in the history of the program will finally be in the rear view.
But before UNC takes on Oakland this Friday night, there are five storylines in particular Tar Heel fans should be monitoring throughout the season. These will be Roy Williams' greatest concerns, and it may take some experimentation before these areas are perfected.
The questions surrounding the center position may be the most important of all. Last season, Coach Williams thumbed through centers like a Rolodex in search of the next star big man.
He never found that number to call.
Joel James, Desmond Hubert, Brice Johnson and Jackson Simmons all had stints at the 5 with very little success. Simmons and Johnson were both undersized, Hubert lacked offense and James looked like he was in his fourth season of organized basketball.
In fact, he was.
But for most of this offseason, teammates were raving about James' development, and we were led to believe the starting center job was his to lose. But once real practices fired up, freshman Kennedy Meeks added his name to the bucket.
Slimmed down by more than 30 pounds since arriving in Chapel Hill, Meeks has been proving he can run the floor with the rest of the Tar Heels, clean the boards and score in the post with efficiency. He also showed off that outlet pass folks have been raving about for the last couple years in prep.
So far, Meeks and Hubert have both outperformed James in the Blue-White scrimmage and in the exhibition against UNC-Pembroke last week. That doesn't mean James has lost the job just yet.
Coach Williams will probably favor James for the reasons I have listed throughout the offseason. Though it hasn't shown in the two preliminary games, he has a year of experience over Meeks, which Williams values. He is also a much better scorer than Hubert in the post and has more lift than Meeks.
Simply put, James is a prototypical center if he can ever get it together on the court and live up to his potential.
But I have a hunch that Williams will start a different center for each of the first three games to give someone a chance to win the job. Unless, of course, the first one dominates.
Let's just hope the cycle doesn't go past the first three games. He needs to feel good about someone before the Tar Heels face Richmond.
The Tar Heels started out the 2012-13 season fairly strong on the boards, but their dominance quickly diminished as the competition was dialed up.
For the first time since the 2005-06 season, the Tar Heels found themselves outside of the top three in rebounds at the end of the year. They ranked 14th in the nation, averaging just 39.2 rebounds per contest.
This was also the first time a Roy Williams-led UNC team was held under 40 rebounds. Prior to the 2012-13 season, his Carolina teams averaged 41.9 rebounds and finished with an average ranking of 4.55 in that category.
Coach Williams knows how important those rebounds are to his offense and the transition game. Putting rebounders on the floor will be a priority for the Hall of Famer.
If the center situation is finally resolved—and James Michael McAdoo stays healthy—we should see a much better rebounding team. As soon as he started having back issues, his rebounds plummeted.
Having to play out of position at center, when Williams gave up on the project, didn't help either.
With a lack of depth on the wing, rebounds will be at a premium.
With Dexter Strickland in the game and P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald on the bench, the Tar Heels failed to spread the floor in 2012-13. Marcus Paige was the only three-point threat, and he struggled mightily through most of his freshman season.
Finishing the season 20-of-46 from downtown, Paige should be a much more effective weapon on the perimeter. While that is encouraging, not knowing how long Hairston and McDonald will be out is quite discouraging.
Nate Britt isn't known for his outside shooting and neither is J.P. Tokoto. Johnson, McAdoo and Meeks can all drain the three-ball but not efficiently enough for defenses to care until proven otherwise.
If and when the top two three-point shooters return, this shouldn't be as much of a concern, as Coach Williams will be able to keep at least two marksmen on the floor at all times. For now, we have no idea how those suspensions will pan out, and that unknown is pretty intimidating.
Even if Williams finally finds his answer at center, his dual-post scheme will only be so effective without outside shooters. Defenders will be able to crash the paint with little concern for the Tar Heels spotting up on the perimeter.
Just like when the defenses were able to swarm McAdoo without a weapon at center to take the heat off.
If the Tar Heels can't find a way to bury treys, this season could get ugly really fast.
For a moment, let's assume Hairston and McDonald will be available. The amount of lineups Williams could throw at opposing defenses would be mind boggling.
The starting lineup would probably be Paige, McDonald, Hairston, McAdoo and whoever claims the center position. That would give three excellent weapons on the perimeter that can also put the ball on the floor along with two strong post players.
If he wants to step up the defense, Williams can insert Tokoto for McDonald and Hubert for James or Meeks. This would also make the Tar Heels explosive in the transition game.
Also, if the defense is causing turnovers and scoring on fast breaks, it really doesn't matter how effective they are in the half court.
Another defense that could cause some serious chaos for its opponent would be a small lineup featuring Britt, Paige, Hairston or Tokoto, McAdoo and Hubert. That's a lot of speed and active hands on the court. There is no doubt that group would frustrate opponents.
Then there are the big lineups.
Williams has a lot of quality post players to choose from that could still spread the floor with their mid-range shots and occasional three-pointers. We could see Meeks and James cover the posts with McAdoo and Hairston on the wings and Paige at the point. Or, better yet, we could see Johnson take the 4-spot.
The issue here will be defense since Williams doesn't run the zone. It will be much harder for the bigs to stick to the smaller, more agile opponents. But the length would be great for the 2-3—just ask Jim Boeheim.
From the outside, it's fun to think about all the possible lineups Coach Williams could throw at his opponents. However, it will probably be pretty frustrating until he finds the winning combinations he can stick with.
Losing two premier defenders like Strickland and Reggie Bullock could prove to be extremely difficult to overcome. The Tar Heels didn't play that well defensively last season with them, so it's hard to believe they could possible be better this season without them.
Well, maybe not.
Strickland never really was the defender we were used to after his ACL tear, so even he didn't play that well last season. Paige struggled all over the court but when it finally clicked for the then-freshman, he became arguably the best defender on the squad.
He won the team award for it.
Undersized at 157 pounds, he had his share of troubles on the ball, but he was extremely sneaky and quick. Nobody poked more balls out from behind than Paige, and he was always making hustle plays defensively in transition.
Now, Paige is up to 175 pounds and spent the majority of the summer going up against Cousy Award winners Kendall Marshall, Ty Lawson and Raymond Felton. He should be much better in year two.
And as good as Bullock was, I would submit that Tokoto was the best on-ball defender and should only get better this season. He struggled a bit with team defense in his limited minutes as a freshman, but that shouldn't be an issue after a year to learn the system and develop chemistry with his teammates.
That goes for the entire team, too. With all the freshmen and sophomores on the court, there was very little chemistry—and that just doesn't cut it in a hedge-and-recover scheme.
Hairston probably isn't the best pure defender, but he has a way of making a huge play just when the Tar Heels need it the most, whether it's a steal, a block or a charge. He just appears with the ball sometimes.
With the new rules this season, officials will be less likely to blow the whistle on charges, which should force McAdoo to contest shots the way he should. He is a good defender, but he was found sprawled on the floor without a whistle way too often last year.
If Coach Williams can find a true center to eat up space with McAdoo, the team defense should be much stronger. There won't be as much need for help from the wings, so they shouldn't lose the opposing shooters as often as they did last season.
Opponents will sneak in some frustrating threes that will make everyone think the defense is sucking it up, but that's going to happen on a hedge. It seems fans complain about the defense every year, but UNC has been a top defense for most of Coach Williams' time in Chapel Hill.
Perception is not always reality. Pay attention to turnovers and transition points.
The Tar Heels' struggles last season had more to do with the lack of a center, poor half-court offense and chemistry issues than the actual personnel.
Will Coach Williams be able to find the right combinations to put all of these concerns to rest? It won't be long before we find out.