The basketball season begins tomorrow night. What will the season be like for the Heels? What can we expect? Who will step up? We deal with those questions and more in the preseason roundtable.
Brian: This team strikes me as extremely hard to read. Is it 2010? 2006? 2004? A little of each?
Chris: I absolutely agree that this team is difficult to read, but I have a hard time comparing it to any of those teams. I am going to ignore 2004 for now, because that was Roy's first year and the team was still trying to learn a new system and get beyond the previous two years. As for the 2006/2010 comparisons, I think we will hear a lot about that this season, but I think that is just media laziness because this team has more talent, and the potential to be MUCH better on the perimeter. Neither the 2006 or the 2010 teams had a trio of shooters with the reputations of Bullock, Hairston, and McDonald. Yes, they still have to prove it, but it is better to have unproven talent, then no talent at all.
In my opinion, the better comparison could end up being last year's Kansas team; a team that lost 4 of its 5 starters (plus its top reserve). Little was expected of them starting the season, but thanks in large part to Tyshawn Taylor and, most notably, Thomas Robinson, improving their play to match their talent, Kansas was able to produce a 32-win season that ended in the Final 4. Is it a lock that UNC will be able to have a similar season? No, but it certainly wouldn't be a shock if James Michael McAdoo and either Bullock or Hairston, produced similar breakout seasons to Robinson and Taylor.
T.H.: Keep in mind, we didn't really know what the 2006 and 2010 teams we're going to be like in the preseason either. UNC was completely discounted by sportswriters in the fall of 2005, because really, how good could a team led by David Noel and some goofy-looking freshman named Hansbrough be anyway? Four years later, they were a top-5 preseason team despite every rational Carolina fan practically screaming from the rooftops that those expectations were too high, and sure enough, that season's team was as close to a train wreck as any Roy Williams has ever helmed.
I think the national expectations are a little high this time around, but nothing like the 2010 team suffered under. In part, that's because the landscape has changed a bit since 2005. People now look at teams like last year's Kansas squad or Calipari's one-and-done factory and assume the top teams with good recruits will continue to succeed year after year. I'm going to take the pessimist's route, though. Point guard duties are split between a freshman and a guy coming off an ACL injury. The team is very thin in the paint, even though I expect big things from Joel James. And for all the talk about the three-point shooting this team has, capable, defenses have spent the past three seasons ignoring the perimeter shot and collapsing on Carolina's interior game, and the Tar Heels haven't really been able to punish them for that. Now that they're free to pressure UNC's outside shot more, how are these guys going to hold up?
Overall, I expect a performance on the level of the 2006 team - there shouldn't be any of the personality problems that plagued the 2010 squad. The end results will be a little worse, however, as the ACC in 2006 was particularly weak. 22 wins overall sounds about right.
Chris: Oh, in terms of overall performance, then yes, I would say what we saw in 2006 is probably the most likely outcome; I just don't think they are particularly similar teams and I do think that this team has a higher ceiling.
Doc: I'm going to assume the pessimist role and say that I fear this team is far more 2010 than 2006. Losing four starters. An unproven point guard, a combo guard coming off a serious injury, and a talented NBA-caliber sophomore post player who had the luxury of playing behind two experienced post players (one named Tyler). Granted, this team theoretically has more outside firepower, but is terribly young and thin inside. So you'll forgive me if I am shell-shocked after 2010.
There are just so many unanswered questions for me. 2006 spoiled UNC fans but that was a special team with Noel, Frasor, and Hansbrough. 2010 was a rotten team with the Wears and SOK[Editor: Some Other Kid aka Larry Drew.] This group will likely fall in the middle, I would think.
Brian: Ken Pomeroy has UNC at 21-8 and 13-5 in the ACC. That is absent two games in Maui which are unknown at this stage. That sounds about right with the understanding that most of those losses could come Nov-Jan. Roy Williams teams, regardless of talent level, all struggle early then find a nice stride in February. I think that applies even more when you are talking about a freshman point guard running the show, though it remains to be seen if Dexter Strickland is not as or more effective at point than we have been led to believe. That leads to the next question. Besides James Michael McAdoo what other player or players make or break the season for UNC and if so who?
Doc: I'm going to say that player is likely Marcus Paige. UNC's offense is so point guard-driven and his ability to distribute the ball and run the team is going to be vitally important. JMM could be the second coming of James Worthy or Antawn Jamison and if Paige can't get him the ball, it won't matter. We have seen the difference a PG makes (I'm looking at you, SOK).
The make-or-break position for this team will be the wing. UNC must both effectively score from the wing and defend from there as well. Stickland, Bullock, Hairston, and McDonald make a talented foursome on the wing, but they have to be consistent shooting from outside. If UNC can't make shots, then teams will pack it in, making it harder for Paige to penetrate and JMM to work inside.
Chris: I am not actually sure that UNC has one make or break player after McAdoo because they appear to have a fair bit of redundancy (albeit unproven) at each position. Sure, if Paige flops, UNC could be in trouble, but maybe not if Strickland can fill the role. I have to assume he can be at least as good as Frasor was as a freshman. And the same goes for the wings; to have a decent season, UNC really only needs one of Hairston or Bullock to step up and be that classic UNC scoring threat from the wing. So while UNC still has as many questions as they did heading into 2010, I think they have more legitimate, potential, answers.
Brian: And ultimately it might not come down to one player but multiple players making the transition from being a complimentary piece to a crucial cog in the offense. Or a better way to look at it is who on the roster besides McAdoo do you think can post consistent double figure scoring? In 2010, UNC only had two and then a bunch of players in the 7-9 ppg range. In 2006 they had three but no one over 8 ppg. I think this is where the real mystery with this team lies in that there are a lot of good players on this team but no one really sticks out as a consistent 2nd and 3rd offensive option behind McAdoo.
Chris: The number of players scoring in double figures is actually a huge factor in trying to predict a team's (post-season) success. In fact, Roy Williams has never had a team make the Final 4 with less than four players averaging 10+ ppg. Given the one and done nature of the tournament, it certainly makes a lot of sense as to why having a team with multiple scoring threats is much preferable to one that is dominated by 1-2 scorers, with last year's team being a perfect example of why: one bad night, or one injury, can completely derail an otherwise successful season.
Looking at this team, I can list 4 players, who wouldn't be a surprise if they ended the season at 10 ppg: McAdoo, Hairston, Bullock, and McDonald. However, given that there are only 80 mpg at the wing, I would be quite surprised if all three of Hairston, Bullock, and McDonald ended the season there. So the question becomes, who of Joel James, Marcus Paige, and Dexter Strickland can be that fourth 10 ppg-scorer? Paige may be the obvious choice, but I think James has the potential to sneak 10 ppg just off of put backs and running the court (a la Deon Thompson in 2009).
Brian: And therein lies the argument for going small and running Bullock at PF. It won't happen, at least not in heavy doses nor should it if James can be effective. However there will be teams where a smaller lineup will work and if it means putting the best five players on the floor at crucial moments, that is probably what should happen.
Chris: And it also helps that Bullock (for a guard, at least) is an exceptional rebounder. How he would do at blocking out an opposing PF is certainly a legitimate question, but in terms of having a "nose for the ball," he may be the best on the team.
T.H.: I keep trying to picture the lineups we'll be seeing the most of this season, and getting lost. Assume the starting lineup remains similar to what it was for the Shaw game, with Paige, Strickland, Bullock, McAdoo, and another big man who we'll assume is Hubert at this point. McDonald is probably the first guy in off the bench, but I think Strickland runs the point in that case. Next you want minutes for Hairston, but Bullock is one of the best defenders and my best guess to be the David Noel of this team. And yet I agree with Brian that we won't see him at power forward much, which really limits the rotation Roy can run.
Which brings up one other thing. Is it just me, or did we hear a lot more about J.P. Tokoto as a recruit than we have since he came to Carolina? I know, he's fighting for playing time on a ridiculously crowded perimeter. Although I remember chatting with an usher in the Dean Dome in December of 2009 who expressed a common opinion about McDonald at the time - he might as well transfer because he's never getting playing time on this team. Now he's likely to get starter-level miutes, even if he's not on the court at tip-off. So we may see more of Tokoto than people are thinking, although I have no idea how Roy will juggle it. Hopefully he's had a lot of time in the offseason to figure out how these pieces fit together.
Brian: Tokoto is interesting because he is insanely athletic but is still probably too raw offensively to make a huge difference. Not that UNC would need him for that which means he is going to slide into the role Justin Watts held for the past two years. He needs to play defense and rebound. In fact, given the lack of depth in the frontcourt, it would not surprise me to see Tokoto play some at PF the way Watts did because of his athleticism. Granted he can't bang with bigger PFs but if we are talking about a Ryan Kelly or even C.J. Leslie, he can give it a go on the defensive end. Right now there doesn't appear to be a fit for him on the offense save for jaw-dropping dunks if he gets in the open court.
Chris: I think the same thing can be said about Brice Johnson; insanely athletic, but perhaps too raw to contribute immediately. Looking beyond this year, watching this group of freshmen develop has the potential to be really interesting/fun.
Brian: Predictions anyone?
Chris: I think 22 to 24 wins in the regular season seems like a reasonable range, so I will go with 23-8. I suspect they will lose once in Maui (though they and Texas are the only teams in that field ranked in KenPom's Top-30, so winning that tourney would not be a shock), at Indiana (possibly badly) and at Texas (I really hope Texas does not beat UNC twice before January), and then go 13-5 in the ACC. And yes, I suspect one of those ACC losses to be at Georgia Tech, because that is what happens when UNC goes to Georgia Tech.
Come March, I would guess that the Heels are the 2-seed in the ACCT, where they will win 2 games to lock up a 3-seed in the NCAAT. Beyond that, a 7th trip in 8 years to the Elite 8 wouldn't shock me, but unless Bullock and Hairston become stars (to go along with AA-level play from McAdoo) a trip to the Final 4 seem highly unlikely.
Brian: That sounds about right. 22-24 wins in the regular season, a 2-3 more in postseason play and something on the order of 7-10 losses.
Doc: Again, I hate to be the resident curmudgeon, but I can see this team taking a while to come together. I think this could be a 1989-90 type season with some early struggles (team was 4-4 at one point and only 8-6 in the ACC) before coming together and being strong at NCAA tournament time (as in Rick Fox beating Oklahoma). I'm going to say 21-10 in the regular season and 12-6 in the ACC, which will be good for 3rd-4th place. They will make the ACC finals and win two games in the NCAA tourney but not much more.
T.H.: Well, I'm going to try to out-pessimize Doc; UNC will win in Maui, lose two or three non-conference games, and go 11-7 in the ACC, with some early struggles. They'll exit the NCAAs on the first weekend, but look really strong for next year.
Also, State will out-State themselves and not win the ACC.
Brian: Thanks guys.
Note: Edited for formatting and added predictions for Doc and T.H.