Mike Decourcy offers up some excellent analysis of next season.
In one afternoon, with one press release, the entire nature of the 2008-09 season changed. It now will be about everybody trying to catch North Carolina. That is not to say that no one else will have a chance to win the NCAA championship, but unless/until the Tar Heels are eliminated it will be theirs to lose.
A year ago, we had four teams returning nearly every important player from 30-win teams that reached the Elite Eight or beyond. They were: UCLA, North Carolina, Memphis, Kansas.
And of course, those teams wound up the season in the Final Four.
This year, Carolina is the only team in that category. Memphis lost stars Chris Douglas-Roberts and Derrick Rose to early entry. Kansas lost guard Mario Chalmers and forwards Brandon Rush and Darrell Arthur. UCLA lost center Kevin Love, power forward Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and athletic guard Russell Westbrook. Texas lost All-American point guard D.J. Augustin. Xavier will be without three senior starters.
And though there will be teams improved by adding particular freshmen, there is no freshman who will have the revolutionary impact on a team such as Rose had for Memphis, Love for UCLA, or that Greg Oden and Mike Conley did for Ohio State two seasons ago.
Thus, with the Tar Heels adding three capable recruits who can deepen the rotation, it is possible they will enter the coming season with the greatest on-paper disparity between any team and its closest competition since the 1993-94 Heels returned all but one essential player from an NCAA champion and added future top-five picks Jerry Stackhouse and Rasheed Wallace as freshmen.
Of course, that team lost in the NCAA second round.
So the trick for these Heels will be finding the formula that will sustain them through six NCAA Tournament games in the way that Kansas did this season, the way Florida did the previous two years.
What did they have that Carolina hasn't shown?
KU's opponents shot 37.9 percent from the field in 2007-08. Florida's shot 40.7 percent in 2006-07. Carolina's shot 42.6 percent.
KU blocked 235 shots in 40 games. Florida blocked 194 in 40 games. Carolina blocked 174 in 39 games.
KU shot 39.7 percent from 3-point range. Florida shot 40.9 percent. Carolina shot 37.2 percent.
Decourcy is dead on with the three elements UNC needs to show. The outside shooting needs to be more consistent but since 4:45 PM on Monday I have been staking the odds of winning the title on one thing and that is the ability of this team to play 40 minutes of suffocating defense. UNC finished the 2008 season as the 19th ranked defense according to Pomeroy. Kansas was #1. What that basically means is UNC was a capable defensive team prone to lapses as much as they were given to playing intense defense. If this team wants a national title then playing defense makes or breaks them. In fact the offense is powerful enough that even on a bad night they will easily put up 75 points and if the defense is great it will be plenty.
The defensive equation comes down to individual players owning their effort on that end of the court the way Marcus Ginyard does. Ty Lawson in particular will be under the gun since he talked so much about his own defensive play during the NBA workouts. Wayne Ellington also needs to make it a priority in his game and Danny Green could be the key to the shot blocking problem since he is an excellent help defender with good leaping ability. Deon Thompson and Tyler Hansbrough are not immune in this area either and both need show do a better job guarding players in the post and being smarter in how they play certain situations. Hansbrough's inability to front players and stop inside lobs like Louisville and Kansas used is one area that he needs to improve upon. Thompson just came off as soft last season and needs to be tougher when guarding players his size while adding a shot blocking element to his game as well. Adding Bobby Frasor back into the mix will help the defense and give Roy more flexibility with putting a solid defensive minded team on the floor. The ability of this team to shut down their opponents in terms of forcing bad shots leading to rebounds and forcing turnovers ignites the fast break. UNC has the players to run any team off the floor and they is most effective when the defense creates it.
I would also point out that the 1994 team was undone by serious chemistry issues. Losing George Lynch was a huge deal in this regard simply because he was a natural leader and kept the focus on winning the title. In 1994 Jerry Stackhouse and Rasheed Wallace enter the scene and Lynch exits. That left a team with two great freshman talents but also personalities that largely went unchecked by a senior leadership that was content to lead by example. This team is not made up the same way and the freshman are not going to have the same impact as Stackhouse and Wallace did though I do think they will have important roles.
Sitting five months out there are plenty of questions but nothing that casts major doubts on the basic premise that this national title is UNC's to lose.