Basketball season is so close you can taste it. As a part of our basketball previews here at THF, Doc, C.Michael and I decided to answer some questions from you the readers and each other as we prepare for the upcoming season.
1. Please discuss former Carolina and Kansas teams that have played with a shortage of big men up front and how Roy compensated. Probably more Kansas than UNC, but I'm curious what Roy might do to keep the big guys rested and out of foul trouble?
C.Michael: To me, this is really a question of whether or not Justin Knox is capable of providing a solid 15-18 mpg in the ACC. If he can, then the idea that UNC has a shortage of bigs is somewhat overblown. Roy may want to have more options, but when you really look back at the history of his coaching career, his teams are at their best when 3 guys are getting the bulk of the time at the 4/5 positions.
2002: Gooden, Collison, Simien combined for 72.3 mpg
2003: Collison, Graves, Simien combined for 76.7 mpg (Simien missed 20+ games)
2005: May, J. Williams, M. Williams combined for 73.0 mpg
2008: Hansbrough, Thompson, Stepheson combined for 69.0 mpg
2009: Hansbrough, Thompson, Davis combined for 74.0 mpg
If Zeller and Henson each play 28 mpg, and Knox plays another 15, then that would put the trio at 71 mpg, which is right in line with the other teams listed. And don’t forget, Harrison Barnes is 6’8” and could easily slide down to the 4 for a few minutes (with a 6’7” Reggie Bullock still on the wing); none of the other teams had that luxury. Obviously, the Heels would be in big trouble if one of them (especially Henson or Zeller) were to get hurt, but what team is that not true of?
Doc: I think this is more of a shortage of depth than of talent. Zeller and Henson are solid big men and are capable of playing 30+ minutes per game. The X-factor is Knox, who has not averaged more than 20 minutes per game over the last two years.
These days with nearly every game on TV and media timeouts every four minutes, I don't think keeping these guys rested is going to be a huge deal. If Zeller and Henson each play 31 minutes and Knox plays 18, that covers the 80 minutes per game for the 4 and 5 positions. Besides, even though all three bigs are solid physically and can run the floor, I don't see UNC playing at the break-neck pace of the Lawson years, so the bigs will not be as taxed.
As CM notes, Roy Williams sometimes seem to struggle with too much depth rather than not enough. I think this plays to his advantage in this case.
THF: The depth issue is overblown, mostly by Roy who feels he needs it but in reality his team is generally better off if he has limited options. For some reason Roy never adheres to the rule "just because you can doesn't mean you should." This was even true last season with his need to played the much maligned Wears valuable minutes. Zeller and Henson, by all accounts, have tremendous conditioning and run the floor extremely well. The tempo is going to checked a little but that is more a product of the PG and execution than really a need to conserve players' legs. Apparently Roy is doing that with less intensity in practice.I also imagine he will hold minutes down early in the season and gradually lift the ceiling as UNC hits ACC play. As CM points out, Roy has operated plenty of times with only three quality bigs and there are Final Fours and rings despite the alleged "depth issues" in the post.
2. From what we have seen and heard do you think UNC has a legitimate shot at the Final Four this year?
THF: Let me answer the question this way. If the AP's preseason ranking of #8 ends up being true then, yes, UNC has a legitimate shot at making the Final Four. At #8, UNC is a borderline #2 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Then it becomes a matter of how the bracket breaks. If they get to play in Duke's bracket from last season, then book your tickets for Houston. Otherwise it is dicey business but that is the nature of the NCAA Tournament.
In reality UNC is going to go as far as their point guard can take them. In this case, much of this season can be will rest on Larry Drew or should he falter Kendall Marshall. If you look at all the UNC Final Four teams since 1990, a good/great PG has been the common denominator on all, King Rice and 1991 included. Larry Drew must be able to facilitate the offense in a consistent manner without giving the ball away too much. If he does that and UNC gets the balanced scoring from the interior and perimeter then the ceiling rises. I would note that the presence of Harrison Barnes in terms of his ability to facilitate the offense might be a wildcard if Drew/Marshall are not as effective as one would hope. The scouting report on Barnes is he can score but also make his teammates better which means he is very good at getting the ball to his teammates if it appears he is well defended. If that happens regularly then it takes some of the heat off the PG slot and makes UNC a tougher team to defend. That could be very valuable come NCAA Tournament time when there is less time to prepare for a team.
C.Michael: It is probably borderline for me. If you look back at the preseason AP rankings for the last 11 UNC Final Four teams (staring with 1981), their average rank is just under #5, and only two (1981: #13, 1997: #8) had an initial ranking as low as this team's current ranking. So on the basis of that, I would have to say that it is unlikely.
That being said, there was a lot of thought going into the 1997 season that that team, like this one, was also probably a year a way. This year's team is a lot deeper, and probably has more future 1st Round picks on its roster than the 1997 team did, so if Harrison Barnes can be as dominant as a freshman as Jamison was as a sophomore, then I would have to say that a Final Four is possible. However, it might not be until the middle of February before we see consistent evidence of this on the court.
Doc: To me, an answer to this question will depend largely on the field. The field in 2010 was wide open and a very unassuming Duke team won a title by beating Butler, of all teams, while there were a lot of big names (UNC, UConn) in the NIT.
Meanwhile, to borrow one of THF's phrases, there are a lot of moving parts here: point guard play, post depth, development of outside shooting, just to name a few. If all of these things develop to the level UNC has experienced for most of Roy Williams' tenure, then sure UNC has as good of a shot as anybody. But this is still a young team, and if the learning curve is larger and the issues from last season are harder to shake, then making it to the second weekend of the tourney may be a good intermediate step.
3. How much scoring can be expected from this team, and who will do it?
THF: Just a note on process. I decided to randomly divide up the questions for the roundtable so each participant answered two questions first then there was an order set to response. This was done to mix it up a little. However when I looked at this question I realized I should have just given it to C.Michael so he could offer up some tables on it. Doc and I could just say: "What he said" and be done with it. ;)
Given the relative uncertainty at the point, the assumption is UNC's tempo will not be as fast as it was during the Felton/Lawson years. In fact it is easy to draw your attention back to 2006 when Bobby Frasor ran the offense and figure it will be closer to that than what was seen between 2007-2009. Even if that is the case, according to Ken Pomeroy, UNC was 22nd nationally in adjusted tempo with 72.8 possessions per game. With Lawson, the Heels picked up a couple of possessions on average and moved into the top ten. Of course tempo is only part of the equation, players need to execute and make shots. In terms of sheer points, it helps to make some threes since..well...they are worth more than two. General shooting both from the floor and from the free throw line should be better which will help offensive efficiency and lead to more biscuits for everyone. Also, if UNC can really crash the boards on the offensive end that opens up more opportunities. Offensive rebounds are about effort but it also helps if your wing players are 6-7 and 6-8 respectively which UNC can potentially put on the floor along with a 6-10 PF in Henson and 7-0 center in Zeller.
As for who will do the scoring? Barnes, Zeller and Strickland could be your most productive with Bullock and possibly McDonald lighting a fire off the bench. I do not see Henson and Drew providing much offensive production except Drew is a good outside shooter but most likely in an opportunistic sort of way.
Doc: I, too, am waiting for CM's usual dazzling statistical analysis, but I would venture that this team will obviously not score at the pace of teams in the past few years. Then again Ty Lawson and Raymond Felton are playing in the NBA, so they have that going for them, which is nice.
Still, given Larry Drew's point guard production, which was diminished by the offensively-challenged nature of last year's team, UNC should be expected to play at a pace that will make Roy Williams comfortable.
I agree with THF that the top scorers on the team should be Barnes, Zeller, and Strickland, simply because they will be the people the offense is run through. Zeller has the most polished offensive game down low and should therefore be the most consistent post scorer as I expect Henson will be a garbage collector for his points. Meanwhile, Williams likes to run his offense through the wings (see McCants, Rashad and Ellington, Wayne) so the opportunities should be there for both Barnes and Strickland.
C.Michael: Well, based on history, I would suspect 83-85 ppg is a safe bet. In Roy's 22 years as a head coach, only 3 of his teams have averaged less than 80 ppg. On the other end of the spectrum, he has had 7 teams that averaged more than 85 ppg. Additionally, only once have his teams gone 2 seasons in a row averaging less than 83 ppg.
There has been a lot of focus on the correlation between point guard ability and team scoring, and given the last two UNC PGs, that is certainly understandable, but Roy has had big time scoring teams in the past who did not have Felton/Lawson-like PGs. A great example of this is his 2002 Kansas team, which averaged 90.9 ppg while being lead by a freshman Aaron Miles who averaged 7 ppg and barely shot 40% from the field, but he did end the season with 252 assists. In reality, there are 3 equally important components that make the secondary brake offense so deadly: solid point play, wings who can score and lead the break on their own, and bigs who can (and do) run like crazy. The 2009 team had all three of those things in spades, plus the jet at point. Last year's team, amongst the starters, had none. I think this team's current roster should have more similarities (though lacking the seasoning), to the 2009 team, than to last year's squad.
As for who does the scoring, I actually think that this team has the potential to have a very balanced and deep scoring attack. Barnes certainly has the talent to be an elite scorer, but from what I have read and seen, his game is somewhat "LeBronian" in that he is just as good as a facilitator as he is a scorer. If this is true, it should diminish his scoring levels a bit, while elevating the rest of his teammates'. I would not be surprised if at the end of the season, Barnes, Zeller and Strickland are all in the 13-16 ppg range, with Henson averaging about 12, and Drew scoring about 10. If that happens, it will only be the 8th time in Roy's career that he had 5 double figure scorers on a team. The previous seven averaged just under 31 wins a season, and the last 2 won National Titles.
4. Who is the "dark horse" player on this team whose play this season will surprise us?
Doc: This may not be much of a "dark horse", but I think the player whose play will surprise us is Tyler Zeller. As everyone basks in the aura of the glory of Harrison Barnes and looks for John Henson to have a breakout year, Zeller can easily get lost in the shuffle. It's easy to forget two years ago when Zeller started the season like gangbusters, filling in for the injured Tyler Hansbrough. Zeller showed a deft touch from the outside and ran the floor as well as any big man in the country, as evidenced in the fast break dunk against Kentucky that resulted in a broken wrist. Zeller never seemed to hit his stride last year as he played behind Ed Davis and Deon Thompson, before injury claimed a good portion of his season yet again. This season, fully healthy and counted on to be a leader down low, Zeller could be poised for a breakout year. Fox Sports' Jeff Goodman noted that in UNC's closed scrimmage, Zeller played like a lottery pick. That would certainly be good news for UNC fans spoiled to an effective big man named Tyler.
As for a true dark horse, I think Reggie Bullock may play his way into key minutes for this team. Bullock is a huge wing player at 6-7 and has shown the ability to be silky smooth from the outside. He is physically developed beyond most freshmen and causes matchup problems if a small guard is on him. If Dexter Strickland and Leslie McDonald continue the inconsistency they showed last season, I think Bullock sees the court early and often, provided he picks up Roy Williams' system.
THF: Case in point on Zeller. Gary Parrish at CBS Sports did his ACC preview and named Barnes 1st team All-ACC, put Henson on the 2nd team and named Henson "Breakthrough POY" or something. No mention of Zeller. I would be more inclined at this point to think the Indiana junior is in a better position to have a "breakthrough" season than Henson. We have seen Zeller show solid offensive skills and run the floor. His strength and toughness with the ball has been a question but largely I think he is far more polished that Henson who is going to be a little raw offensively. Zeller is not a true dark horse but if he puts up 16 ppg and 8 rpg, it will get played in the media as a surprise.
For my money, I think Dexter Strickland will not only start at SG but also have more games like he did vs Michigan St. last December. The fact Strickland won the annual mile run speaks to the fact he has apparently been working hard in the offseason. The talent is there and he is the quickest player on the team. There are still some doubts lingering about whether he can step up his game but I think he will which would be a huge boost.
C.Michael: I concur with both Doc and THF that Zeller is likely to surprise a lot of people who don't follow Carolina closely. Zeller also has some pretty big footsteps to follow: the last two Tar Heel centers from the state of Indiana won titles during their junior seasons, and the last Tyler won the NPOY. No pressure, kid! ;)
But in terms of the "dark horse," I agree with THF's pick of Strickland. It is fairly common for HS All-American guards to struggle during the rookies seasons, and it is just as common for those guards to blossom during their sophomore year. I mentioned the comparison to Kirik Hinrich in Strickland's Player Profile, but even looking at UNC history, players like Ellington, Carter, and even some guy named Jordan all made huge leaps during their second season. Do I think Strickland could play at an All-American level like those guys did? Probably not, but with a year of seasoning and more time playing his natural position, I can't say that I would be shocked if he was one of the top 2 scorers on the team.
5. What are the three most important games on the regular season schedule?
C.Michael: I am going to go a little against the grain here and say that none of them will involve that team from Durham. Obviously the Duke games will always be important, but in my opinion, the tone of this season will be determined well before the first match-up at HIS on February 9th. With that said, here are my picks for the three most important games of the season.
November 28th versus Charleston: REVENGE! If the Heels want to quickly show that this year is different, then they should beat the tar out of Bobby Cremins and what will be a good CoC team. The Cougars will return 3 of the team's top 4 scorers, including Andrew Goudelock, who did a terrific Harold Arceneaux impersonation against the Heels last year.
November 30th at Illinois: UNC’s first true road game will be a very stern test. Illinois is a top-15 team to start the season as it returns its top 5 scores to go along with the addition of stud freshman, Jereme Richmond. Assembly Hall is never an easy place to play, but when the Illini are good, it can be devastating. If this young Tar Heel team comes out of this game with a win and a 6-1 or 7-0 record, then it may be time to reassess what this team’s capabilities really are.
January 8th at Virginia: This is a big game for a number of reasons. It is the first ACC game. It is another revenge game, as UVa embarrassed UNC at home last year. And, most importantly, it is a game UNC should win, as the Virginia will have 7 freshmen on its roster. That being said, JPJ Arena has not always been the kindest to UNC, so a win of any sort in this game would be a great way to kick off the ACC season.
THF: The Duke games sort of get automatic status in the important game of any season genre. Likewise I am going to set them aside.
December 4th vs Kentucky: The annual battle of the two winningest programs in college basketball. UK like UNC is in a similar boat with a handful of returning players and great dependence on freshmen to make some noise. Coming on the Heels of the road game vs Illinois, this game in Chapel Hill could tell us whether the Heels can be consistent(should the win in Champagne) or bounce back(should they lose.) Outside of Puerto Rico the Illinois and Kentucky stretch constitutes the toughest part of the pre-ACC schedule.
January 13th vs Virginia Tech: This is the only meeting between the preseason picks for 2nd and 3rd in the ACC. With it carries the possibility of controlling a tiebreaker where the finishing order is concerned. This is also a real test versus an ACC team that has quality players on the perimeter and down low. Plus, there is a very weird vibe that goes on in games between Roy Williams and Seth Greenberg. I cannot put a finger on it. Assuming the Heels take care of UVa this game could get them off to a 2-0 start in ACC play with the always daunting trip to Atlanta next and The Streak on the line vs Clemson after that.
February 23rd at NC State: This will be the second meeting between the two teams. This is supposed to be Sidney Lowe's breakthrough season and nothing would him shouting "Kool Aid!" like getting it done at home versus UNC. And not because his teams shoots 120% in the 2nd half or something. Given the infusion of talent in Raleigh with Ryan Harrow, C.J. Leslie and Lorenzo Brown joining Tracy Smith there portends to be some good match-ups to watch on the individual level. Given this is one of two road games in the Heels' last four and the home stretch of the ACC race, it is a game that will loom large.
Doc: I agree the tone of the season will be set long before either the Duke or the NCSU games.
November 19th/21st in Puerto Rico Tip Off: In the semifinals in San Juan UNC will potentially face a Minnesota team lurking just outside the top 25, and in the finals could face West Virginia, coming off a Final Four appearance and also hanging just outside the top 25. It was in last year's preseason NIT game against Syracuse that we first saw an inkling of trouble to come for the 2010 Heels; will this year's preseason tourney reveal something about the 2011 Heels?
December 4th vs. Kentucky: Pretty much what THF said. UNC will hit the road at a top-15 Illinois team, followed by a date with a top-15 UK team that in many ways mirrors Carolina. This two game stretch may say a lot about this team.
January 13th vs. Virginia Tech: Put up or shut up time for the Hokies, some of whom were miffed at UNC's preseason ranking above their own. This game falls in the middle of a rough stretch that includes games at UVa and Georgia Tech, where even the best Tar Heel teams have struggled. This is the only meeting between VT and UNC, so there is added pressure to get this one in the win column.