Tell me if you have heard this one before. National title winning team loses huge chunks of the offense to the NBA and graduation and then is forced to rely on a handful of uppeclassmen who have never been in the spotlight and freshmen. Yes, this is 2006 all over again, however since UNC returns much more experience this season than they did in 2006, it also has shades of 2007 to it. At least the polls are treating it like it is 2007 since the Heels are a consensus top ten team in the preseason. Given what I have heard or seen, that ranking is a tad high and the road that leads to March stands to be a little bumpy early on.
What We Know
UNC returns Deon Thompson, Tyler Zeller, Larry Drew, Ed Davis, Will Graves and Marcus Ginyard from a team that won 34 games and crushed the NCAA Tournament like the Tar Heels were hosting a holiday tournament. Of those six players, only two of them saw significant time on the court. Ginyard and Zeller were injured with the former redshirting and the latter playing only sparingly. Graves was suspended midway through the season and Drew played the minutes one would expect for a player backing up the ACC Player of the Year. Still this group is experienced and has competent team leadership in Ginyard and Thompson.
UNC has plenty of frontcourt scoring, as illustrated by Friday night's exhibition game against Belmont-Abbey. There were three double figure scorers, all big men: Thompson, Davis and Zeller. The offense will run through the interior which is not unusual in a Roy Williams coached team but what might be different is that is where most of the scoring will happen as opposed to getting offense on the perimeter. Speaking of which, the experience on the perimeter is basically Ginyard. Drew will still be getting his feet wet at point and Graves is questionable. Whether these three can produce reliable three point shooting remains to be seen. What doesn't is that this team will be great on the defensive end. Not only are they long but for the most part are focused on the defensive end. All of them, save Graves move their feet well and Davis, Thompson and Zeller will be solid in protecting the basket. Add to the freshman with a 6-10 John Henson roaming the perimeter along with 6-9 David and Travis Wear you basically have personnel who can give most opposing offenses matchup fits across the board.
What We Don't Know
The three biggest concerns coming into the season are Drew's play at PG, perimeter shooting and whether the freshmen will be able to contribute enough to fill the gaps. After watching the exhibition it appears the Wears are the most ready to make an impact now. Henson was a tad disappointing but odds are he will be very effective at SF by the end of the season. Dexter Strickland has talent and athleticism but needs experience. Once Strickland learns the system he should be serviceable backing up Drew. Leslie McDonald might see the least amount of time among the freshmen, though the needs on the perimeter could force Roy to play him more simply for the sake of depth.
The point guard play and perimeter shooting concerns are well documented so I won't spend much time on them here. In short, UNC needs just enough three point shooting to keep opposing defenses from packing into a zone. The versatility of the UNC big men will prevent that to some extent but still some three point shooting is needed. At PG, Drew's line from the Belmont-Abbey game of 2 points, 8 assists and 3 turnovers was decent but UNC needs more from that position. Also, what is often important with a PG does not show up in the box score. The feel and flow of the offense is dictated by the PG and on Friday that flow was out of kilter. While Drew did end up with eight assists, there were opportunities missed due to Drew making a poor decision. It did not result in a turnover and at times it ultimately led to a basket but the failure to get the easy bucket was there. Improvement in that area will be key to getting the offense moving efficiently.
What to Expect
This team has a legitimate shot at defending the 2009 title assuming the pieces fall into place. Unfortunately that will not be evident early on and a schedule that includes three top ten teams in December will test the resilience of this team. The upside is losses against top ten teams do not harm NCAA seeding down the road. If UNC gels by late January through to March they will be in excellent shape for a 3rd straight Final Four run. The final weekend is always a crapshoot to some extent so if UNC can simply get there, who knows what can happen then. Whatever the case, UNC has Roy Williams and his experience in going through this cycle of rebuilding following a title run induced attrition. There is no coach I trust more to manage a team with this many questions than Roy as 2006 has proven.
In terms of predictions, this looks like about a six loss season. UNC can win the ACC regular season but closes with a brutal four of six on the road so that could make finishing first in a tight race with Duke tough, especially since the Heels close at Hansbrough Indoor Stadium. Roy's disdain for the ACC Tournament is known so that is not even worth talking about. As for the NCAAs it is all a matter of seeding and matchups. I do expect at least a Sweet Sixteen berth as the basement with winning the title as the potential ceiling, again assuming the pieces fall into place.