When North Carolina takes the floor for the first time in a meaningful game on November 14th in Charlotte it will be 234 days since the collapse against Georgetown. That game had been indicative of issues which plagued UNC all last season marked by the inability to close games out and the general feeling that while UNC was possibly the most talented team in the nation, they lacked the experience and cohesiveness as a unit. It also became clear to me that, assuming the NBA defections were limited, this game would be the rallying cry for the 07-08 season as the Heels would look to redeem themselves of that last six minutes in the East Regional Championship. As the summer proceeded, Brandan Wright went into the NBA Draft, Deon Thompson played with the US U19 team, Wayne Ellington saw limited action with the Pan Am team and the rest of principals did their part to make sure the failures of March 25th would not be repeated.
Now we find out how well the lessons of last season were learned.
The two aspects of the Heels that garner the most confidence from fans is the frontcourt and the point guard position. Tyler Hansbrough is well Tyler Hansbrough. There is every reason to believe his play will even elevate from the previous two seasons. While others question how the Heels will handle losing Brandan Wright and Reyshawn Terry I actually think Hansbrough will be better complimented with Deon Thompson at power forward and either Danny Green or Marcus Ginyard at the small forward spot. While Hansbrough's production was virtually the same between his first two seasons, there seemed to have been the idea that last season was going to be a huge step up from his stellar first year in Chapel Hill. That did not seem to happen and Wright's presence may have had something do with it. Hansbrough's performances in the NCAA Tournament may be indicative of what is to come this season. As for Thompson, it will be interesting to see how the incredible performances he turned in versus international competition in the U19 World Championships translate to the ACC. I am convinced his game, which he showed flashes off versus Arizona and Georgetown last season will fit perfectly next to Hansbrough since he does have more range from the basket than his post partner has shown.
Ty Lawson shunned the NBA to return and run point at UNC. In my mind he constitutes the lynch pin of the Tar Heel offensive attack. The pressure Lawson can exude on the opposing defense with his speed and penetration will be key as he puts the ball into the hands of major scoring threats. UNC is still a deep team and it is Roy Williams' intention to run the ball at every conceivable opportunity. Given Lawson's speed as well as the proven ability of every Heel on the court to run the floor well, having the sophomore point pushing the ball will make it extremely difficult for opposing teams to keep pace.
Outside what we will see from Hansbrough and Lawson I think the Ginyard/Green combo will be an indispensable duo for purposes that may not show up on the box score. Ginyard has already stepped up as the leader for this team and will be the voice both pushing his teammates and holding them together. Ginyard is also the team's top defender and like Derrick Phelps in 1993 and Jackie Manuel in 2005 will be the guy who draws the tough assignment. Green is what I like to call the "garbage" man. In fact my father was fairly insistent that UNC teams were often better when they had that one guy who could be depended on for the hustle plays. Green showed some of this versus USC in the Sweet Sixteen where he had a couple of tip-ins and key boards amid the Tar Heel rally.
The Question Marks
Perimeter shooting and defense.
I will actually deal with the latter first because I think on one hand it was underrated last season. I also think defense is about effort and focus which was fleeting at times last season. Given that I think this team will be singularly focused I expect the defense to improve in that respect. The fact that Roy's defensive principles can be somewhat daunting to pick up on was also a factor last season. Since there are no new players to break in everyone should be on the same page and that should be reflected on the defensive end. The real crux of the defense rest on individualized defensive efforts which I expect to be better and if not could prove problematic.
As for the perimeter shooting, for the sake of balance on offense and to keep opposing teams from sagging back in a 2-3 zone this is a must have. Last season it was spotty at best with Reyshawn Terry being the most consistent shooter on the team from outside. This season it rise and falls on the shoulders of Wayne Ellington. Yes Ginyard and Green will chip in a few as will Lawson from the PG who will need to keep defenders honest but for the most part Ellington is it. Why? Well one reason is that was the bill of goods we have been sold concerning the sophomore guard. Quentin Thomas told the world that Ellington could light it up from outside and during last season he was streaky at best. And while some folks might want to saddle him for the miss that could have averted the disaster last March, it apparently has served as a motivational point for Ellington who has made it clear he wants to hit that shot next time. More important than all of that, UNC needs the two guard to be productive from beyond he arc and in creating his own shot. Based on the historical configuration of UNC title teams, Ellington needs to fill the role of Donald Williams or Rashad McCants. Anything less than a consistent shooting touch will give opposing teams the leeway on defense to pack the lane and give Hansbrough et al a difficult time. Yes, Ellington will be under pressure as will Bobby Frasor who is looking to find his shooting touch in an effort to give UNC another perimeter threat. At this point both players have a lot to prove and hopefully are up to the task.
This teams's response to the Georgetown debacle has been given it's due but I think as much as that is the spark of motivation the more pertinent factor among the intangibles might be found in how well individual players embrace their roles. Far be it for me to disagree with Roy given he is a Hall of Fame coach and I am just a blogger but I think the deep rotation hurt the ability of the team to gel last season. I understand how much the depth helped UNC wear other teams out but the more I watched UNC play last season the more I got the sense that the team just never clicked and the players were unsure of their roles in certain situations. The substitution pattern also played havoc with how much time players saw on the court and despite the character these guys have I think it wore on the mentally to not know when they would play and for how long. The point is with fewer players in the rotation I am convinced everyone fits into the system better as well as understanding not only what they need to do but what everyone else is doing.
As for the much talked about debacle from last season, the impact it will have on how this team handles adversity will be profound. It helps for a team to be experienced with tough games, especially at the end. Having lost in such a way means when something of that nature rears itself again the players can see it coming and handle it appropriately. I also don't think you can underestimate how a game like that can give all the players a singular focus that unifies them. At the end of the day I expect a UNC team that is tougher and experienced from top to bottom. I expect UNC to be driven not only by the quest for redemption but by quest for a national title. This team needed to learn how to win by getting a grasp on the concept of putting teams away at crunch time. These are the pieces of the puzzle which cannot be taught in practice but something the players sort of figure out on their own or have it figured out for them through the worst of circumstances during the game.
In my opinion UNC has the perfect schedule to prep for an NCAA Tournament run. UNC will play six straight games away from Chapel Hill beginning in late November. This is a rare stretch for any upper level team in today's college basketball landscape. In that stretch UNC will play in a four team tournament in Las Vegas followed by trips to Ohio State, Kentucky, Penn and Rutgers. While the latter two games should be no trouble, if UNC draws #6 Louisville for the second game in Las Vegas, the Heels will end up playing a trio of opponents that looks like something you would see in March only the latter two would be on a hostile court.
On the ACC portion of the schedule UNC will face the predicted 2nd(Duke), 3rd(NCSU), 4th(Clemson), 8th(BC) and 9th(FSU) place teams in the conference twice which is a tough setup before you add that UNC must travel to the 5th(UVa) and 7th(GT) place teams. Miami rounds out the other road game among the singles with VT, Wake Forest and Maryland at home.
In other words there is no shortage of challenging games alongside a fairly creative layout on the schedule itself.
Expectations and Prediction
Historically speaking UNC has never won the national title with more than four losses. The 1957 team was undefeated, the 1982 team had two losses while the 1993 and 2005 squads both lost four times. Then again given the current level of parity, losing five or six times is probably less troublesome than it was even three years ago. That being said, based on the schedule I expect 0-2 losses outside the conference and 2-3 losses in the ACC. So at best UNC arrives in Charlotte for the ACC Tournament with only two losses or at most five. If UNC is playing well, a repeat ACC title should be in order before securing a #1 seed in the East for the NCAA Tournament and being assigned to the sub-regional in Raleigh at the RBC Center(which I am totally going to should it happen) From there UNC should go to the Final Four and anything less will be a profound disappointment. There is no way around that. If the loss in the Elite Eight last season is the impetus for this current team's quest for redemption then falling short of San Antonio is considered a failure. Once you get to the Final Four it becomes a matter of the pieces falling into place for two games so in that respect I am less inclined to call a failure to win the national championship a disappointing season if UNC happens to get to the final weekend.
When it is all said and done I firmly believe this team will win the ACC regular season and ACC Tournament, advance to the Final Four and win a national title. The talent is there, the intangibles are there and given the fleeting nature of keeping key personnel longer than two years this is the best window UNC will have to take home the title into the forseeable future. All that is left is execution and answering the questions on defense and perimeter shooting. While I am biased looking at this team I think the right combination of experience, skills, stars and role players following the direction of a coach who is more than capable of bringing the title back to Chapel Hill makes this season a simple case of now or never.
No matter the ending, it should be a fun team to watch and I can hardly wait for November 14th.