The hooting and hollering that took place in Durham earlier this month wasn’t audible in Chapel Hill. Even Coach K and his brood are bound by the laws of physics.
But make no mistake—when the Duke Blue Devils returned to campus met by a hero’s welcome, the reverberation was not only felt up and down Tobacco Road, but throughout the entire ACC.
2009 was supposed to be a stepping-stone year for a realistic championship run in 2010 by the Dukies. Instead, Coach K went mad scientist and hit the fast-forward button, much to the chagrin of the Atlantic Coast Conference and rival North Carolina.
The Tar Heels know the battle for conference supremacy doesn’t get any easier because the Blue Devils aren’t reloading. They’re stockpiling.
So what does North Carolina need to do to challenge a Duke juggernaut that’s suddenly flipped the switch from competing for championships to competing for dynasties?
The answers to the following five questions will go a long way in determining if there’s light at the end of the tunnel for the Tar Heels—and whether or not that light is a Blue Devil train engineered by the game’s best coach pulling along the game’s best players.
1) Can Harrison Barnes be UNC’s leading man?
Gone are bellcows Deon Thompson and Ed Davis, who’s taking his southpaw skills to the NBA. Enter arguably college basketball’s best incoming freshman, 6′8″ silky-smooth wing Harrison Barnes. Barnes can get his shot against virtually any player whenever he wants.
The problem for North Carolina is that they need Harrison Barnes to be Harrison Ford. In other words, the Tar Heels need Barnes to carry the proverbial water night in and night out.
But can he? Our guess is yes, he can.
Barnes is a terrific shooter, scorer, and finisher, but he has a tendency to defer a bit too much for a superstar, and at Carolina he’ll be asked to be THE guy. If he can channel his inner Carmelo Anthony and be as greedy as Goldman Sachs, the Tar Heels can compete with Duke.
2) Will John Henson eat something?
At 6′10″, 190 pounds soaking wet, Henson is the envy of waifish runway models and Iggy Pop lookalikes. It’s an understatement to say he needs to get bigger and stronger, because he’ll be asked to play more than 15 minutes per game he played last season. Henson will probably need to play twice as much in 2010-2011.
More eating, less cardio. Now I envy you, John.
3) Can the law firm of Zeller, Wear, and Wear rebound?
Two choices for the three-headed monster here: Get John Edwards to help sue the ACC for rebounds—or box someone out.
Since one post spot is reserved for the aforementioned super-talented forward Henson, who happens to be built like a rake, the boarding muscle has to come from a combination of the three players above.
Tyler Zeller needs to stay healthy and tap into his huge reservoir of potential, while the Wear twins try to develop their skills at faster pace than the Plumlee brothers. The dynamic between the two sets of brothers strikes me as a peculiar Tobacco Road competition that is reminiscent of a three-legged man race at company picnics.
4) Who’s going to shoot the ball?
Barnes is a capable perimeter scorer, but the Tar Heels need to find two more automatics beyond the arc, or they risk being zoned to death by the ACC or pack-lined to death when facing Virginia.
Will Graves is terrific from distance, but his inability to handle puts a lot of pressure on Larry Drew and Barnes to handle the rock in that alignment.
It would be nice if Drew and Dexter Strickland suddenly found religion or at least a gym in the offseason to hoist a thousand jumpers a day. Obsessive-compulsive disorder worked for Chris Jackson, but I don’t take the Duke-UNC rivalry seriously enough to wish Tourette's on anyone.
5) Will Roy Williams take a page out of Coach K’s book and adjust his style to fit his personnel?
Coach K’s experiment with softened wing pressure on defense and a Bob Knight-styled motion offense last season was a mild success, no? Roy Williams trying to fast-break like he had Paul Pierce, Ty Lawson, Marvin Williams, and Sean Mays? Not so much.
Coach Williams needs to realize that he doesn’t have the talent up and down the roster or the depth to win games by trading good shots and defense for increased pace and possessions. This type of coaching hubris landed his team in the NIT last season, and it’ll happen again this season if he’s not willing to adjust.
The Tar Heels don’t have the hosses inside to rebound and run like Williams’ Kansas and UNC teams of the past. They need to defend, play sound positionally on the glass, and then find good shots on the other end for Barnes, Strickland, and Henson.
Do this, and the Heels will be able to compete in every game they play, including the one played in Durham.
Fail to do this, and that hooting and hollering you hear from the up the road Carolina fan will be drowned out by a train coming down the tracks and a chorus of boos from the Powder Blue faithful.
Kevin Berger writes the leading college hoops blog March To March
Follow him on Twitter: @MarchToMarch