Dexter Strickland #1, Kendall Marshall #5, John Henson #31 and Harrison Barnes #40 of the North Carolina Tar Heels walk on the court after a play against the Marquette Golden Eagles during the east regional semifinal of the 2011 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at the Prudential Center on March 25, 2011 in Newark, New Jersey. (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)
It's rather difficult to write a preview about Carolina basketball this season. Opinions about the team are ubiquitous, and they all boil down to one thing – they're expected to win the national championship. Anything less will be judged a disappointment. The expectations may be higher than that of the 2009 team, who were unanimous preseason picks in both polls. That team was a known quantity, all juniors and seniors with a freshman class of Ed Davis and Larry Drew only expected to do spot work off the bench. This year's squad has an incoming class any school would salivate over, and two sophomore starters expected to make significant leaps from already impressive freshman performances.
The potential is, quite frankly, insane.
I'm caught between trying to grasp how good this team can be, and tempering my own expectations, which in many years have a tendency to drift towards "repeats of 1957" and "beginnings of a dynasty." And I've found it helpful to not break things down by position, but by class. UNC's up-tempo style is such that they can run some pretty unconventional lineups to begin with – recall Justin Watts playing power forward last season – so this may be the better way of looking at things, anyway.
Begin with Tyler Zeller and John Henson. They are the known quantities, Henson with his incredible shot-blocking and rebounding abilities, and Zeller the lone senior, better than anyone in getting the ball in the basket. There are areas where they could improve (Henson's free throw shooting comes to mind) but it's expected to be incremental. They'll have more depth behind them in the paint should they get tired, and with the outside shooting expected to emerge they might find that defenses can't collapse on them as often as in the past, but you can expect them to put up numbers similar to last season. And those numbers were very good.
Next, the sophomores: Harrison Barnes, Kendall Marshall, and Reggie Bullock. More ink and pixels have been devoted to the first two over the summer to drown a Carolina fan, or at least fill a blog. Barnes' return, despite being guaranteed lottery pick was in part the impetus for both of UNC's frontcourt upperclassmen to stay, and Marshall's midseason thrust into the starter's role (and his success once there) gave sportswriters free reign to wax about his maturity at the point guard position.
All of this focus on the pair isn't accidental. The biggest improvement in performance in college basketball typically comes between the freshman and sophomore seasons. And while Barnes took a good portion of his freshman year to settle into a rhythm, by tournament time he was doing everything, leading the team, outscoring everyone else and invariably finding the ball in his hands down the stretch. And everywhere you looked this summer there was another report on how Marshall was working in the offseason, studying film, building muscle, and improving the weak points in his game. First among those would be turnovers, as the point guard's tendency to try for (and often succeed with) the impossible assist also resulted in the ball ending up in opponents hand almost 30% of the trips down the floor. His shooting could also use a little bolstering. While the pass-first philosophy is only natural given the huge number of scoring threats he shares the court with, being dangerous enough to keep defenders honest is important. By all accounts he's been working on both things, and these are exactly the types of skills that typically get improved after the first year in the NCAA. Just the standard improvement most players make coming into their second season would turn these two into absolute nightmares for opponents.
But the real spot where the freshman-to-sophomore transition can help the Tar Heels is with Reggie Bullock. Despite rarely playing more than 15 minutes a game, Bullock showed a lot of promise as a shooter early. Knee problems from high school continued to plague him, however, and he was lost for the season during the Maryland game. The knee is supposedly at 100% now, and the loss of Leslie McDonald to an ACL tear makes him all the more important this season. Obviously, his work this summer was of a more limited fashion, as the knee continued to heal, so it can be argued that he won't improve to the same extent Barnes and Marshall are expected to. On the other hand, there were already flashes of brilliance evident in his play last season – he was remarkable good at not turning the ball over, for instance – and his shooting ability was one of the primary factors in his recruitment. As the player most likely to excel at the shooting guard position this season, he could be the necessary weapon to force defense to spread much further out, opening up scoring opportunities for Carolina's big three offensive threats.
Those five alone would form a team that could make a pretty convincing case for the national title. There's a good deal more to discuss, however, including the freshmen and the one player that doesn't really fit this type of analysis. I'll get to them later tonight or tomorrow.