The North Carolina men's basketball team came into this season with some uncertainty. After winning the title in 2009, their 2010 season was full of inconsistency and disappointment. They failed to make the NCAA tournament, settling for an NIT bid.
In the tournament of NCAA tournament "wannabes," they navigated their way to the final, only to lose to the Dayton Flyers.
The 2010-2011 season marked a new beginning for Roy Williams and his Tar Heel faithful, as they brought in the highly-touted No. 1 high school recruit Harrison Barnes. Even with this top recruit, UNC wasn't expected to make all that much noise, and as we've seen over the course of the season, they've adapted, matured and grown into a Final Four caliber team.
After their game against Long Island University, here are five reasons why they will make the Final Four.
The Tar Heels were tops in the nation in terms of rebounding. They averaged 42.5 rebounds per game. That's how you get it done. Limiting your opponents on the defensive end to one-and-done situations and then also attacking the offensive glass on the other end; that'll put you in a good position to win every game.
Sophomore John Henson (10.1 rpg), junior Tyler Zeller (7.1 rpg) and freshman Harrison Barnes (5.9 rpg) contributed to most of the rebounding totals throughout the season. In their opening round game against LIU, Henson grabbed 11 boards, Zeller had nine and Barnes collected a career-high (and season-high) 16 rebounds.
Henson stands at 6'10" with an enormous wingspan. Like, a ridiculously insane wingspan. There are few who can reach his level when he goes up for a rebound. Meanwhile, Zeller is the only seven footer on the roster and Barnes is measured at 6'8".
With all that height, it is no wonder that Carolina leads the nation in rebounding. It has helped keep them in a lot of games as well as win a lot of games. In games they have lost, those were their sub-par rebounding games, such as the ACC tournament final loss to Duke, where the Dukies were animals on the boards and were just more physical and aggressive on the glass.
If they grab rebounds at the pace they did against LIU, they'll be sticking around for awhile.
North Carolina has had a plethora of outstanding guards go through the program. They have always been a pretty guard-heavy team in their high-octane, up-tempo system. But this year has been a little different.
Henson, Zeller and Barnes have been the go-to guys all season long. Henson averages 11.9 ppg, while Zeller puts in 15.0 ppg and Barnes contributes 15.3 ppg. Henson and Zeller are both shooting over 50 percent from the field, while Barnes manages a respectable 42.3 percent from the floor.
When the Carolina frontcourt is receiving the ball in the post on a consistent basis, this is when they can be most dangerous (outside of their transition ability). Zeller has a lethal jump hook from about 8-10 feet out from the rim. He can step out to about 15 feet or so and sink the jumper.
Anything beyond that is a little suspect, but he generally doesn't step out that far with the intention of shooting. He's a very knowledgeable big man with a soft touch and an uncanny knack for taking the charge on the defensive end. He set a new career-high in points with 32 against second-round opponent LIU.
Henson has incredible length, as has already been mentioned. Put the ball up within two or three feet of the rim, and Henson will go and get it. Not to mention his shot-blocking ability, averaging a ridiculous 3.2 blocks per game. Add on the fact that even if he doesn't get the actual block, he alters so many shots and makes them 100 times more difficult, which generally ends up in a missed shot and rebound opportunity. Johnny-boy not only scored a career-high in points against LIU, but accomplished that feat in the first half alone by putting up 20 points.
Barnes can go inside and outside. His college career started rather slowly, as he was laden with high expectations from the very beginning, and it looked like the pressure had been getting to him early on. Once he settled in, though, the entire nation began to witness just what all the hype was about surrounding this kid. It began when he sunk the game-winning three-pointer at Miami.
He finally looked confident in the shots he was taking and his overall game began to improve. The body language was that of a kid who knew he could now take over any game he was playing. There was no better example of that then the ACC semi-final game versus Clemson when he went off for 40 points on 12-17 shooting, 10-11 FT and 6-8 3PT.
With these three executing at a high level on both ends of the court, UNC is going to be extremely dangerous. Plus, they all love to get out on the break and can all finish at the rim.
No offense to Larry Drew II, but his departure from the team may have been the best thing that could happen. He was too inconsistent, too turnover-prone. His shot selection was poor, as was his resulting shot percentage. He was hurting the team more than helping. Insert Kendall Marshall.
Freshman Kendall Marshall took the reigns of the Tar Heel team, and instantly, there was a resurgence. The offense was more fluid and more consistent. The ball was being worked around, every player seemingly getting their touches before taking better, more high-quality shots.
Despite being a freshman thrust into the starting lineup to play big minutes for a big-time school in a big-time conference, Marshall played like a veteran. In 13 games as the full-time starter, he accumulated a whopping 107 assists. In that same span, he only committed 44 turnovers.
Those average out to be 8.23 assists per game to 3.38 turnovers per game. He had 10 games with 10-plus assists, and in those games, he committed no higher than five turnovers. Considering his uptick in minutes, that's a solid job done by a young kid.
No matter what point in the game, Marshall always looks calm, cool and composed. He is a great passer with excellent court vision. He rarely forces a pass into tight spaces and is a great overall decision-maker with the ball. He is the engine that runs the UNC fast break. He's always looking for outlet off the rebound and getting his guys out on the break. He's almost a smart defender, rarely putting himself in foul trouble.
Even though he lacks the tournament experience, Marshall is a big reason why Carolina can find itself in a Final Four position.
So, I've mentioned Barnes already. But as an individual player, as opposed to his role as a frontcourt player, he is vital to UNC's run at a Final Four appearance. If he isn't on his game, the Tar Heels struggle. However, if he is confident in his shot, there is no limit to how far he can take them in this tournament.
Even as a freshman, he wants the ball in his hands as the clock is winding down. He's hit some very clutch shots over the course of the second half of the season, including the game-winner at Miami. His 40-point outburst against Clemson solidified his spot as one of the nation's top freshmen and even one of the top players.
He now exudes confidence that you'd expect in a team's top scorer and top player. He lets his play on the court do the talking for him. You don't see him getting into any verbal altercations on the court with other players.
He's a team leader, and next to Jimmer Fredette and Kemba Walker, he's a player who is incredibly vital and important to his team's tournament run to a title.
He's a Hall-of-Fame coach. He's already won two titles with North Carolina; in 2005 with Felton, McCants and May, and in 2009 with Lawson, Ellington and Hansbrough.
He suffered through a tough season last year with an NIT championship loss to his name. UNC finished 5-11 in ACC regular season play. During the offseason, he kicked Will Graves off the team and saw the Wear brothers transfer out.
To his credit, he was able to land the nation's top recruit in Harrison Barnes. Though it was uncertain just what to expect from this Carolina squad, they began to show signs of life over the course of the second half of the season. They showed their tenacity on the boards, and Harrison Barnes stepped up his game and rose to another level.
They finished the regular season in the ACC with a 14-2 mark, earning the regular season title and the best turnaround in ACC conference play ever, from 5-11 to 14-2, a nine-game swing. That's quite remarkable.
Don't forget how intense he can get. If his starters aren't playing up to standard, he's not afraid to yank them out. You may remember the game against Miami when he pulled all five starters in favor of five walk-ons. Yeah, five walk-ons. That was a Williams first. But it had to be done. Message received.
He's a battle-tested coach who has been in great positions to make deep runs into the tournament. This year is no different. Expect nothing less. He's got very good talent on the floor, and he's utilized it to perfection.