In what has become a routine, UNC enters a season having lost multiple players to the NBA and wondering how it will all fit together.
This is getting to be old hat for Roy Williams. He puts together an incredible team that in two seasons won a national title and in a third had an NCAA title run cut short by injury. Afterwards, most of the roster is gutted either by graduation or the NBA Draft leaving a handful of complimentary pieces and unproven freshman to carry the load. In 2006, it was an unproven freshman(Tyler Hansbrough) and two little used reserves(David Noel and Reyshawn Terry) that keep the ship afloat. UNC finished with 23 wins that season and Hansbrough went onto to become a legend in UNC basketball history. Having established lofty expectations with the 2006 team, 2010 came along with a team again decimated by graduation and the NBA. There was a little "fool me once" attitude in the media so UNC was touted as a top ten team and picked to tie for the ACC regular season. It didn't quite work out that was as the complimentary players like Marcus Ginyard and Deon Thompson were average. Ed Davis dealt with injuries and never quite live up to the hype surrounding him. Larry Drew was abysmal at point guard and none of the freshman stepped up. Everything that went right in 2006 went wrong in 2010.
So having experienced both ends of the spectrum in "rebuilding" years, it is probably not reasonable to expect either 2006 or 2010 but something entirely different.
A simple glance down the roster reveals UNC to still be endowed with plenty of talent. James Michael McAdoo, Reggie Bullock and P.J. Hairston were all in the RSCI Top 15 coming out of high school. Add Dexter Strickland and Leslie McDonald to the mix and that gives UNC a core group of talented and experienced players. The problem is none of the five have ever been pressed into a position of being primary scoring options since putting on a Tar Heel uniform. Dexter Strickland and Reggie Bullock have both started on teams where they were the fifth offensive option on the floor. McAdoo, Hairston and even McDonald have only come off the bench(excluding McAdoo's brief starting stints in John Henson's stead last season.) The transition of at least two if not three of these players to consistent double figure scorers is paramount to UNC's overall success.
Obviously that begins with James Michael McAdoo who will attempt to replicate what Thomas Robinson did at Kansas a year ago going from reserve to nigh unstoppable force in the front court. McAdoo has all the tools with the chief concerns being his ability to rebound and play defense without foul trouble. Bullock has the opposite problem. There is no doubt the Kinston junior can play defense and his nose for the basketball made his a top notch perimeter rebounders. However his scoring in games last season were opportunistic or resulted from all eyes being on his teammates. There is no such luxury this season as Bullock will be called on to his three pointers and drive the basketball some. There is also an opportunity for Bullock to be a jack-of-all-trades kind of player whose multifaceted game can make him a very tough player to account for.
Outside of the two obvious choices of McAdoo and Bullock to be offensive options one and two, the next guy in line seems far less obvious. Dexter Strickland will get minutes but at this stage in his career it is hard to see him being a consistent scoring option. P.J. Hairston will come off the bench and the belief is there he can rain threes but his defense is a primary concern. Leslie McDonald has shown he can hit threes but is coming off an ACL rehab and has not played a meaningful game since the 2011 NCAA East Regional Final. Can one of these experienced players provide a reliable third scoring option or will UNC be surprised by the play of a freshman like it was during the 2006 season?
Of the four incoming freshman Marcus Paige and Joel James seem most likely to be productive. Paige will get an opportunity because he will be thrust into the starting point guard job and has to either sink or swim. James' role is not quite clear but having the bulky 6-10 freshman alongside McAdoo in the post seems like a logical choice assuming he is up to the task. Brice Johnson also showed promise in the exhibition but his thin frame elicits concerns about how much of a beating he can take against stronger players. J.P. Tokoto, while athletic beyond words, is buried by UNC's depth on the wing and will be called on to simply play defense and rebound.
Desmond Hubert and Luke Davis will round out the roster along with Jackson Simmons. All three could see some time, especially Hubert because of how thin the front court is and foul trouble always being an issue in college basketball.
In short the personnel is there, the question is can the head coach put the pieces of the puzzle together.
Normally, I wouldn't preview a coach with Roy Williams' success rate, but in light of recent events and how 2010 went down, Williams' handling of 2013 will be interesting to watch. As most everyone knows, Williams underwent surgery this past summer to have a tumor removed from his kidney. It was found to be non-cancerous but Williams has commented on how the experience has caused him to slow down more that he normally would have. Part of that was the recovery process but the other part could be a perspective change. How much that seeps into his coaching remains to be seen.
The 2010 season is probably the more influential experience in this arena. The question of what Williams learned from 2010 and how much that has changed how this team is handled is a pertinent one. Has there been more teaching going on in early practices? Will he takes things more slowly with this team than perhaps he would in the past? Given the shift in team makeup from being front court deep to wing deep will Williams opt for smaller lineups? Williams is known for being stubborn in his ways and some aspects of his coaching like when he uses timeouts will never change. We also know that UNC teams under Roy Williams steadily improve as the season moves along which speaks to how well Williams handles overall team and player development over the course of the year. I would expect nothing less than that here even thought that generally proves to be frustrating to the fan.
The early schedule has plenty of challenges and for a team trying to find itself being on the road against quality teams is a tough row to hoe. UNC faces Long Beach State on the road en route to Maui. LBSU has given UNC fits over the past two seasons and will be so again. The Heels face three team in Maui then return to the states for a smattering of home games plus trips to Indiana and Texas. As noted, for a team that will be in the process of figuring out which end is up, playing six games away from the Dean Dome and one of them against the preseason #1 team in the country is probably going to leave a mark. In addition UNC faces UNLV at home along with the usual suspects of teams ranked 100 or higher in the Pomeroy rankings.
Following the non-conference slate, UNC faces an 18-game ACC schedule with home and away contests against NC State, Duke, FSU, Miami, Maryland, Virginia and Georgia Tech. According to the ACC preseason poll, that means UNC is playing 10 games against #1, #2, #4, #5 and #6 in the ACC. The upside is if UNC is going to hit its stride during the season, it generally comes in ACC play in January and February.
Regular season record: 23-8 overall, 13-5 in ACC
ACC Tournament: Lose in semifinals
NCAA Tournament: Lose in Sweet Sixteen
Final Record: 26-10 overall