As the 2011-12 men's college basketball season continues to build steam, the University of North Carolina Tar Heels have backed up their preseason No. 1 ranking by starting out with a 2-0 record, one game on the road and one at a neutral site.
Now the team comes home for two games as it continues its drive to excellence with the goal of playing in New Orleans in early April.
The Tar Heels are a storied and prestigious program and are tied with the UCLA Bruins for the most visits to the Final Four—both have 18 appearances. Here is a list of keys that the Heels need to capitalize on to break that tie with the Bruins and reach that 19th appearance.
The Tar Heels have built a reputation under Coach Roy Williams as a team that runs the floor repeatedly in practice and in games. The constant running of the floor does a couple things for the Heels:
1. Running the floor hard and often gives the Tar Heels more possessions for all the offensive weapons to capitalize on a play. Carolina is loaded with scorers, and the more the possessions, the more chance each player has at making a play on offense.
2. A constant open floor fast-paced game wears the other team out and pays off by games end. Carolina is a team considered nine-deep, and using that depth can really wear down opponents, especially those teams that are not considered deep.
After a defensive rebound or turnover by the opposing team, the team should be looking to run the floor for a quick basket.
UNC has athletic players who know how to get to the rim often throughout its roster. The Heels should take full advantage of these talents and explode to the basket repeatedly.
Harrison Barnes is a perfect example. Barnes has one of the sweetest outside shots in the game today. Teams know this and will blanket him, preventing him from taking the wide-open jumpers. That is when he should explode to the basket, finishing with authority.
Tyler Zeller is another example. Zeller gets inside position quite often around the rim. This year we hope to see him throw the ball down more instead of laying the basket off the glass.
College basketball is an offensive game—you cannot win without scoring the basketball...we pretty much know that. You need offensive talent to succeed at this level.
However, when you have such athletic kids as UNC has, they should be taught to use 40 percent of their energy on offense and 60 percent of their energy on defense.
The flow of the game is followed by who has the basketball, but the key to great defense is for the other four players to deny their man the chance to get his hands on the ball.
Great man-to-man defense for 40 minutes each game is a huge key to this team booking the trip to New Orleans.
North Carolina is big inside; we all know this. Carolina should use its big men often, feeding Tyler Zeller, John Henson and James McAdoo the ball early into the post for quick baskets and fouls against opposing teams.
A flurry of inside moves by the big guys can quickly get opposing teams in foul trouble and disrupt the flow of the game.
Every game, the first look should be to attack inside. Against UNC-Asheville, the Tar Heels exploited the lack of size, and Zeller and Henson had huge games for the Heels.
Yes, that's right. Dexter Strickland rising up for a three-point attempt is a win for the opposing team. The green light for Strickland at best should be yellow.
If Carolina needs a three-point basket, Strickland should not be mentioned in the conversation, not until proven otherwise.
In 2009-10, Strickland finished the season making just under 24 percent of his three point attempts. The following year Strickland improved to 25 percent. Strickland was rumored to be working hard at improving his delivery in the offseason, but it is yet to be determined if he has actually made progress. Through the first two games this season, Strickland has yet to shoot from outside the arc.
North Carolina added five quality players to its depth chart with the additions of freshmen James McAdoo, P.J. Hairston, Stillman White, Desmond Hubert and Jackson Simmons. These are high quality players added to an already overwhelming, talented and experienced Tar Heel squad.
It is essential to get these guys playing time before conference play begins. McAdoo and Hairston are in the regular rotation and are already impact players.
Getting these freshmen a flow going early could become beneficial to late season success, especially if starters get injured.
Coach Roy Williams, we all know you look good in that suit. You represent everything positive about this prestigious program.
That being said, this team will not succeed without your absolute best. Everybody has to do their part including you. Don't miss a play, run your drills harder than ever before and game-plan strategically as we know you can. The ball is in your court, Coach Williams.
These players were recruited by one of the most prestigious college basketball programs in the land. Every trip out on the floor, no matter where you are playing or who the opponent is, you should give everything you've got and then some to continue adding to the Carolina legacy. Take no days off, and the rewards will be priceless.
Yes, we have a job to do as well. From fans to alumni alike, the North Carolina Tar Heels can feed off of the energy we all bring to the table. It is essential that the Dean Smith Center rocks like it has never rocked before. The energy should be at an all-time high, and this in turn will add a positive emotion to the players as they play for each win.
Alumni and fans, bring your "A" game.
With all the size in the post for the Tar Heels, they will likely see quite a bit of zone defense from opposing teams. One of the best counters to that is hitting perimeter shots on a consistent basis.
UNC has lost one of its finest three-point shooters for the year. In the offseason, three-point specialist Leslie McDonald was lost for what could be the entire season with an ACL tear. The surgically repaired knee is healing, but odds are McDonald may be looking at redshirting this year and saving his eligibility.
That removes a viable weapon from Carolina's perimeter game. The team must now find that sharpshooter who can spark the offense when the inside game is bogging down.
Reggie Bullock and P.J. Hairston could be those key players. Both have sweet strokes, and the absence of McDonald means one of these, if not both, need to step into that role of knocking down the big outside shot, softening up the defense.
Sophomore forward/guard Harrison Barnes was not the most consistent player in the country his freshman year, but he is classified by many as the most clutch player of the 2010-11 season.
Barnes hit big shot game after game as the ACC regular season played through. When called upon it seemed as if Barnes had ice water in his veins, and he never wavered when the opportunity came his way.
UNC will have some close games for the simple fact it will get everything opponents have to give. When the situation is critical enough, allow Barnes to take over. The man is clutch.
One word can be used to describe a team that displays teamwork and the will to play and win together. That word is unselfishness.
To be unselfish you must give without ever expecting to receive the same. The reward of unselfish play is a powerhouse team.
A powerhouse team has much more chance of achieving long term goals that five individuals trying to do to much themselves.
One of the ultimate compliments individual athletes can receive is the acknowledgment of their unselfishness. The art of unselfishness could be one of the keys in how far the North Carolina Tar Heels can go as a team.
When a man has no woman to cook for him, he often reverts to one of the finest man meals of all time. Plus, it is real easy to cook them. Yes, I am referring to Sloppy Joes.
Sloppy needs to stay with Joe. It does not need to be a part of the game of basketball.
UNC needs to take care of the basketball and leave the sloppiness off the court. Turnovers have to be considered the easiest way to allow teams to hang around, or even beat you.
Turnovers and sloppy play take away points from your team, then creates easy drives to the basket for opposing teams because your defense has no time to react and get set once the ball is turned over.
The Tar Heels need to eliminate, or at least minimize, sloppy plays in each and every game.
The easiest way to New Orleans is to earn a No. 1 seed for the NCAA tournament. If UNC can find a way to go 18-0 at home this season, it will likely be on its way to at worst a top-two finish in the conference. Winning the ACC is required for Carolina to earn a No. 1 seed, at least it should think in those terms.
To lose a home game when you are the No. 1 team in the nation could be brutal for Carolina. Yes, I know that every game on the schedule should be as important as the next, but winning all your home games means you are on track to proving your place as the best in basketball.
Plus, it is an expectation.
UNC has enough on the front line to own the boards and win the rebounding margin considerably as the season goes on, but to do it each and every night you play takes an incredible amount of work and hustle. The Tar Heels need that effort in every game to be considered a truly dominant team.
It is one thing to have the size and power to dominate the boards every game. It is another to have the heart and work ethic to actually go out and do it.
The North Carolina Tar Heels should have the goal at the start of every game to have a double-digit lead at the half-time mark. Yes, that is every game.
At tip-off, Carolina must will itself away from complacency and play the first 20 minutes of basketball with reckless abandon and the mindset that the game is won in the first half.
One of the biggest diseases in sports is complacency. Sometimes players and teams get complacent in the first half with the knowledge that there is a second half to improve. This is a gamble which often comes back to kick you. There is no time during a 40-minute game that complacency should exist.
The ACC conference tournament has been called a "great cocktail party" by Roy Williams. But I assure you, it has its importance when it comes to March Madness and postseason play.
Yes, sometimes winning the ACC tournament does not guarantee much, and losing it does not mean you won't see the Final Four. The 2009 Tar Heels lost the ACC tournament yet won the NCAA Championship.
But the importance is there. If the Tar Heels can win the ACC tournament, they all but guarantee themselves a really good chance at a No. 1 seed and playing the first two games of the NCAA tournament in Charlotte. That is a stepping-stone to New Orleans. This slide gets us to the next slide as well.
Earning the No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament is no small task. It takes many months of building credibility from a committee to be named the team deserved on the overall No. 1 seed.
Team goals are always a topic of discussion for teams in the offseason. It is my belief that UNC has a team goal of obtaining this.
Of course, being the overall No. 1 seed means very little physically, but psychologically it should be rewarding enough.
To obtain this it is my opinion that UNC should lose no more than four games, finish in the top two in the ACC regular season and win the ACC tournament. That should be enough body of work to be considered for the top seed.
I saved this topic for one of the last slides because I really believe having a healthy Kendall Marshall start every game for the Tar Heels in 2011-12 is essential and probably the most important key to UNC advancing to the 2012 Final Four in New Orleans.
In my opinion Kendall Marshall is the one player on the Tar Heels' roster who absolutely cannot be replaced. Dexter Strickland is second on the depth chart at point guard for Carolina. It is my opinion that if Marshall were to go down, the Tar Heels offense will go from elite to just above average, and I don't think UNC plays good enough defense to win games with an above average offense. They need to be elite.
Kendall Marshall is just as important to Carolina's 2011-12 team as Ty Lawson was for the 2008-09 national championship team. No, Marshall is not as good as Lawson, but he is just as important.
Marshall is the spark plug that gets the motor running and quite possibly could be a top-three point guard in college basketball today.
Any college basketball fan knows and understands the importance of prestige as programs move forward. Player recruiting is usually carried by how prestigious a program is.
When each player on the current North Carolina roster suits up for every game, they should take a moment to reflect on the name that is instilled on the front of their jersey and what that name means to many people.
The North Carolina men's basketball program has a tradition unlike any other, dating back to 1910 when the Tar Heels won their first-ever game played, defeating Virginia Christian by a score of 42-41.
In 1924 the Tar Heels finished an undefeated season of 26-0, but weren't awarded the national championship for that season until 1936.
The name on that jersey is enriched with a history of five NCAA Tournament Championships, 18 Final Four appearances, 31 Sweet 16 appearances, 35 regular season conference crowns and 25 conference tournament championships.
The legacy this current team has the chance to achieve will only add to what is already a tradition enriched with glory and tradition. Each player should bring forth the passion and will to carry on that tradition by reaching each and every goal set forth.
Know your place in that legacy, earn that rip to New Orleans and break that tie with UCLA.