Ever since Harrison Barnes and company declared their intentions to return to Chapel Hill this season, I've read copious amounts of articles that have raved about just how good UNC will be and how this team is clearly the perennial favorite to cut down the nets come April.
With college basketball less than a month away, I again looked through UNC's current roster and incoming recruiting class and am amazed by just how deep they'll really be.
They have stars at every starting five position and the necessary depth to back them up. The returning players are battle-tested, well-coached, hungry and have a team-first mentality. On paper, they have the indisputable makeup of a championship-caliber team.
But then I got to thinking: What could actually keep UNC from its third championship in seven years? Will anyone stand in the way of UNC washing the bitter taste out of its mouth left from last year's Elite Eight exit? And who—or what—could bring this team down from the euphoric high it's been riding since all five starters said they were coming back?
The reasons are few and far between to be honest—UNC, aside from Kentucky, is simply heads above the rest looking ahead to the 2011-2012 season, with UConn and Ohio State making Honorable Mentions—but that doesn't mean the following dilemmas wouldn't drastically reduce UNC's chances of winning a championship.
Yes, injuries are always a factor in every sport and with every team. Injuries have no bias; they're impartial and will strike at the drop of a hat—or a buckled knee.
That's what happened to junior shooting guard Leslie McDonald this offseason on July 14, when he went down with a season-altering torn ACL. He's expected to be out until at least the ACC tournament, if not the NCAA tournament, if he's able to return at all.
Now, granted, McDonald isn't necessarily going to keep UNC from a championship, especially if he is able to return come tourney time, but the loss still stings nonetheless. McDonald was one of the few reliable shooters on this year's squad and would have been a great asset to have coming off the bench as a 3-point threat.
If you need another example of how much injuries can disrupt a team, look no further than the 2009-2010 season, when UNC amassed an all-but-forgotten 20-17 record. In over 30 of those 37 games, at least one UNC player was out for at least one game.
The most notable loss to injury that season was Ed Davis, who broke his wrist in February and was out for the rest of the season. Some of the others included David and Travis Wear, both of whom missed multiple games from an injured hip and a sprained ankle respectively. In total, eight different Tar Heels missed at least one game that season.
Tie that into playing the second-most difficult schedule that year (UConn), and that 20-17 record becomes easier to swallow—slightly. Of course, Carolina wasn't exactly a title contender that year, but had they not been so limited from injuries, they definitely would have garnered a more respectable record.
All that considered, it's no doubt that any time a player goes down this season, Tar Heel Faithful will hold their collective breaths. The loss of McDonald is manageable, but a higher caliber player, such as Harrison Barnes, Tyler Zeller or John Henson—or any big man for that matter—would be a much bigger blow.
And you don't have to delve too far back into the Carolina archives to find an example of this, either.
Last season, Harrison Barnes came in as the heralded life saver who was going to single-handedly turn around North Carolina's program. Blame the overzealous media, unrealistic fans, what have you, but if there was anyone last season who proved that overhype is absolutely a real thing, it was Barnes.
Of course, Barnes came into his own in due time and abruptly shut up the critics. And, no, none of UNC's incoming freshmen are touted quite like Barnes was, but if it can happen to Barnes, it can happen to them, too.
What if James Michael McAdoo doesn't run as well at the collegiate level as he did in high school? What if he struggles to have an effective post-up, half-court offense game?
And then there's P.J. Hairston. He was regarded as one of the best shooters in his class. But you know who else was regarded as the top shooter in his class? Reggie Bullock—yet he shot only 30 percent from behind the arc last season.
Yes, Bullock was battling a bad knee that would eventually sideline him for the season after he tore his lateral meniscus (those damn injuries rearing their ugly head again), and a shooter's legs are arguably the most important part of his shot—I know. But still, when you're said to be the best shooter in the class, you should maintain a little better number than 30 percent.
Hopefully Hairston doesn't share the same shooting woes from three-point range that Bullock experienced in his first year. If he does, and with McDonald already out, UNC could struggle yet again to be a legitimate three-point threat, something they can ill afford.
Desmond Hubert, along with McAdoo, will be relied upon to give breathers to Henson and Zeller. He has great length and was one of the best shot-blockers in the 2011 class, but he is still very undersized for collegiate ball.
He's similar to Henson was his freshman year, but he's not necessarily the offensive threat that Henson was (if you could've even called Henson that his freshman year). It will be interesting to see how Hubert adjusts and develops—and more importantly, how quickly.
The last newcomer I'll mention is Stillman White, the 6'1" point guard from Hoggard High School in Wilmington, N.C. Unless Dexter Strickland learns how to run the point effectively, White will likely be the primary backup to Kendall Marshall.
White averaged 20 points a game in high school, but will that translate to the collegiate level? Obviously, he won't be relied on for scoring like he was at Hoggard, but if he can come in, run the offense and knock down open shots, well, no one will be complaining.
It was rumored that Ed Davis and Larry Drew II never really bought into Coach Williams' system during the '09-'10 season, another possible reason for the 20-17 finish.
Whether that's accurate or just speculation, if your coach has the pedigree that Williams does, you're better off listening to what he has to say.
Fortunately, none of the incoming, or current, players have a history of bad attitudes or things of that nature.
However, Coach Williams knows what it takes to win, and he'll play the players who make that happen. Whether he steps on some toes, sits players a little longer than they would like or adjusts the roles of certain players to cater to his strategy, well, that's just something the team will have to accept—and take in stride.
All it takes is one player to disrupt a team's chemistry, and the last thing a team that's on the prowl for a championship needs is someone who isn't all the way on board.
"You don't live by the threes, you die by threes." - Charles Barkley
If you need an example of just how important 3-point shooting is to winning a championship, think back to the '09-'10 Kentucky Wildcats.
No, they didn't win the championship that year. Biggest reason why? Their 12.5 percent shooting from behind the arc in their Elite Eight game against West Virginia. UK had ear-to-ear talent across the board, but they couldn't hit shots when it counted, and that was their ultimate downfall.
UK was undeniably the most talented team left in the tournament when that game happened. Even with that poor shooting, not to mention their 55 percent effort from the free-throw line, they still only lost by seven. Had just a few more shots fallen, it likely would have ended in UK's favor.
That's how good that UK team was. And that's how good this UNC team could be.
Granted, 12 percent from three is just terrible for any game, but is UK still winning that game even if they shoot 20 to 25 percent? You betcha. What players often forget is that the easiest way to increase your three-point percentage is by taking good 3-pointers—an all too uncommon feat these days.
This year's UNC team has shooters, but those shooters can't get caught up into thinking that's the only way to score. Too many times last year did players, *cough cough Barnes and Bullock cough*, settle for jump shots. Only later on in the season did Barnes really start aggressively attacking the basket—something he and the rest of the guards on Carolina's team can't be tentative about.
Fortunately, Williams' offense allows for plenty of open-look threes. The biggest concern with that is having the players know when and when not to take them. They can't get trigger happy; they can't try to simply shoot themselves out of a slump or into a streak. They have to be disciplined.
Last year's team shot 32.5 percent from three. Not very good. In 2005, the team shot 40 percent from three, and in 2009, the team shot almost 39 percent from three. We all know what happened those years. And if this team wants to be in the elite class of those two, they have to increase their 3-point shooting percentage significantly this season.
I can't stress enough just how talented this year's team is. You're looking at, if Barnes, McAdoo and Henson declare early, three potential lottery picks and a mid first rounder in Tyler Zeller.
That's not too shabby, especially since one of those players isn't even a starter.
However, as the Miami Heat so elegantly proved in this year's NBA Finals, talent isn't always enough. You have to want it more than the other side. You have to believe in what you're after. You have to sacrifice more, work harder and push further.
That's why I truly believe the biggest thing that will keep the North Carolina Tar Heels from their third championship in eight years is themselves.
Whether it's one of the factors I mentioned in the previous slides or something else, such as a complete lapse defensively, the 2012 championship trophy is simply UNC's to lose. Previous years' trophies have been other teams to lose, too, such as the 2006 UConn Huskies (talented), and they did.
It can happen. And it tends to happen when a sense of entitlement comes along. But all entitlement gets you is a long flight home with nothing to show for what you thought you already earned.
So, UNC needs to keep everything in perspective this season. But there isn't a better man in the business of keeping things in perspective than Roy Williams. So I worry little there.
Not to take anything away from the teams that beat out their more talented counterparts, those teams obviously wanted it more than the other side, believed in what they were after, they sacrificed more, worked harder and pushed further. My point is that if North Carolina remembers those principles, in conjunction with being the most talented team in the country, then I just don't see anyone stopping them this season.