What a difference a year makes? Granted that is an old saying, but never has it been more applicable than when looking at UNC basketball on the eve of the season in 2005 versus today. Last season it was all about a bear cupboard and unknown commodities this season the talk is about the embarrassment of riches found in 13 quality players on the roster. A year ago UNC fans content following the 2005 title and prepared for an onslaught with a walk on senior and little used junior forward carrying the load alongside a group of well thought of freshmen. Speaking for myself I thought the 2005 season would be a struggle but I was not worried because the incoming class for 2006 would make it all right again. That was the expectation before UNC went a surprising 23-8 last year. And had UNC simply returned the top seven players from that team we would probably still be talking ACC title. Add to that the super six freshmen and we are easily talking national championship.
As mentioned above, UNC returns seven from last season and adds six more in the form of what is considered to be the best recruiting class in recent history. Roy Williams in the wake of massive defections from the 2005 team snagged three players rated#1 at their position along with three other ranked in the top 100. Bringing in these six to play along a group which were battle tested all season long out of sheer necessity makes this team arguably the most talented team in the nation from top to bottom.
Tyler Hansbrough will be the center of attention literally and figuratively. Hansbrough came in last season and posted one of the best freshman season for a UNC big man since Antawn Jamison. Strong and intense it seemed there was little any one-on-one defender could do to slow down Hansbrough once he got the ball in his vise grip hands. Hansbrough version 2.0 is allegedly quicker, stronger, and bigger than last season which makes him all the more dangerous.
Reyshawn Terry is the high flying senior from Winston-Salem who showed glimpses of brilliance last season and also momentary lapses in judgment. Terry does a lot of nice things on the court besides scoring. He has tremendous athleticism which allows him to move in a block shots and in some cases grab rebounds against better positioned players. Terry's athletic prowess will fit well into Roy Williams run the ball down the opposition's throat offense, the question is whether Terry will be focused and smart as well as mature enough to handle senior leadership.
Bobby Frasor was the point guard last season despite being a natural two guard. That arrangement was workable but also showed some signs of weakness on the defensive end. This season Frasor's services at the point will no longer be needed after the first few games with the arrival of Tywon Lawson. Frasor struggled with his jumper a season ago but mostly because he was playing out of position. If he is moved back to the two guard, look for him to hone that jump shot and provide UNC with an additional perimeter threat. I expect Frasor will still see some minutes at point given the high octane nature of the offense itself.
Wes Miller was another pleasant surprise last season hitting threes with incredible accuracy. Despite being somewhat of a defensive liability with his speed and height, Miller was an integral part of the success last season as a viable threat from outside. This season with the glut of guards, his role may be diminished. However, I can still see him being a very important part of the offense as a spot up shooter on the secondary break.
Quentin Thomas was originally supposed to be the heir apparent to Raymond Felton but struggled with playing under control. Thomas wanted to play wide open and usually ended up turning the ball over. About mid season last year he began to show signs of improvement and when he was spelling Frasor at point was very steady running the offense. This season will be interesting to see where he fits in with Lawson on board and Frasor, who may pull some time at point after he makes the expected move back to shooting guard. Thomas is said to have improved over the summer and with the frenetic pace UNC will play double figure minutes may come very easily for a lot of guys, Thomas included.
Danny Green and Marcus Ginyard are an interesting pair since they are guard/forward combo players. Ginyard gained a lot of notoriety last season as a defensive stopper and Green was very impressive as an athletic role player able to contribute in a variety of small ways. So far through two exhibitions both have scored in double figures each in a different game. I make both of them out to be total wildcards. Defense who think they have all their bases covered with the other more well known Heels will find Green backdooring for a dunk or Ginyard popping of a screen to drain a three. These two are exhibit A as to how deep UNC is and how many different ways they can kill you.
Tywon Lawson is the fans' presumptive choice to run the point and I expect by December he will be Roy's choice as well. Lawson is said to be everything Felton was...when Felton was a junior which means quick and a great scorer/ball distributor. Given the offensive scheme it would be insane not to have someone who can push it faster than most defenders.
Wayne Ellington constitutes one of the best pure shooting guards UNC has seen since Rashad McCants. Ellington will have to share time with all of the other guards but when he is out there opposing defense should make sure they have. him. covered.
Brandan Wright may be the one freshman coming in knowing he would probably start because there is no returnee at power forward. Wright has had all of those nice buzz words like "great length" ascribed to him. Based on the exhibitions he is a pure beast with incredible athleticism to go along with his gigantic wingspan and strong body. Dealing with both him and Hansbrough will be none too fun for everyone else.
Alex Stepheson and Deon Thompson are the front court version of Ginyard and Green. Both players are in the 6-8, 225-245 range. The issue is where they will play. Stepheson may serves as a backup to Hansbrough and Thompson to Wright. Also either one of these guys could play power forward with Wright at small forward and Hansbrough at center.
Williams Graves is the least heralded of the freshman players and will see limited time this season. Undoubtedly he will develop into a very good player and especially after most of his classmates are in the NBA.
Offense and Defense
Roy Williams loves to run the basketball. If he does not have the personnel he will not do it but when he does have it, he runs it as much as possible. This season not only does Roy have the personnel, he has it in spades which means they have set some lofty goals for offensive production. One goal is to score 90+ points a game and some talk has centered on the UNC season record of 91.3 points per game. The second goal is 100 possessions per game which is an incredible number in and of itself. Through the two exhibitions UNC has scored 110 and 140 points and have hit the goal for possessions in a game. An offense like this will be fast and require a lot of different lineup combinations as they shuffle players in and out to keep the legs fresh. Hansbrough does not look like the kind of player who would excel in a fast break offense but last season he showed he could run the floor extremely well. Lawson will be very natural playing this tempo as will Terry, Wright, Ellington, Green, Ginyard, Thompson, and Stepheson. Frasor and Miller are two of the slower Heels on the floor and given their spot up shooting they will be spanning out to the three point arch to take kick out passes or filling up the secondary break. All in all it will be scary because of the pace and the number of weapons capable of scoring points. The opposing defenses will have to work very hard on covering everyone and double teaming may not be an effective answer since leaving any other Tar Heel player open is just as deadly as Hansbrough one-on-one.
Defensively, if you are running the ball that usually means you are pressing and trapping. This is usually the case if you have UNC's depth and it is no different here. UNC can trap and press at will which has the benefit of creating turnovers that create fast breaks. It also means teams waste a lot of time and energy getting to the half court set and must accelerate their offensive set. That leads to an out-of-sync offense that is rushed and results in a rushed shot. The flip side to the press is it can surrender some easy baskets. Another aspect of the fast break as it pertains to defense is that fact that 100 possessions for UNC also means as many for the other team. So it is possible opposing teams will score higher than one would normally expect on UNC but that is the nature of the beast. The key for the UNC defense is to be able to create turnovers for the express purpose of igniting the break and in the absence of that be such a disruption as to create missed shot, defensive rebound which will also kick off the break.
Chemistry is the biggest topic with this team. Roy got tired of it about two weeks ago and made it clear that he (1) does not care about it and (2) is convinced it will take care of itself for better or worse. He is probably right but with such a loaded team the media had to have something to discuss. Like it or not it is a real issue but in my mind it will only be a major problem if the Heels experience any kind of poor play and losing. In the midst of trouble good teams work it out and get stronger. The problem I would foresee here is the number of younger players and how mature they are in dealing with such situations. Roy says they are kids of high character and I believe him on that. It should be noted they are also kids who look at stat sheets and see a number under minutes played or shots taken that might not sync with what they think they should be getting. Hopefully it will not be an issue but one never knows with 18 year olds.
Another issue is one of focus, particularly considering how good this team is perceived to be by almost everyone. The exhibition Saturday night against Pfeiffer presented us with the first example of how this team can lose focus because they are so dominating. UNC basically shut it down with four minutes left and a 55 point lead. I think that is human nature and the issue comes into play when that lack of focus manifests itself in a road game at Boston College where UNC overmatches BC on paper but loses focus based on that assumption. I can see situations where this team might let up instead of continuing to push forward. I know that is not how Roy Williams' coached teams play basketball and Roy himself has already seen more of this than he care for this season and appears to be addressing it.
One final note is that of team leadership. Terry is the senior leader on this team along with Wes Miller. Terry's suspension for the Pfeiffer game for violating a team rule makes some of us a little uneasy about the state of leadership on this team. In fact Roy already lowered expectations on Terry being a prominent leader on this team during the first days of practice. As the same time, how much leadership is needed is usually a by-product of good or bad on-court performance. If the team is playing well and winning, the need for any glue to keep it all solvent is not needed nearly as much. A team struggling with it's identity obviously needs someone like David Noel to give it that identity. So I think guys like Hansbrough and Frasor as well as Miller and Thomas have enough character and presence to keep the team focused in the locker room and ensure the team is unified and playing well together.
I am not one to go out and say UNC will win every game this season, but it is probably they will be in every one they play. Simple history seems to dictate that UNC will drop a few on the schedule but should make a nice run to win the ACC regular season title. I think this is also the season the eight year ACC Championship drought is broken for UNC. As for the NCAA Tournament, it is a dicey affair from the Sweet Sixteen on. It all depends on how the bracket breaks or in some cases breaks down. I think UNC makes the Final Four and then it becomes a matter of winning two games and that is by no means a guarantee.
Record: 38-2 overall, 15-1 in the ACC for 1st place.
ACC Tournament Result: Champion
NCAA Tournament Result: Final Four and National Champion