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Basketball Roundtable Discussion

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In two days UNC opens the 2011-12 season with aspirations of winning Roy Williams' third NCAA title. What are some of the big questions facing this version of the Tar Heels? Doc, C.Michael and I explore them in this 2011 version of the basketball roundtable.

Doc: How do expectations for this team compare to 2009, and what is fair to expect from the 2012 team?

THF: Needless to say I expected more from 2009 than even this team. In fact 2009 was one of the few times I thought it was absolutely appropriate to play the "national title or bust" card. 2009 was a polished group of players comprised of juniors and seniors. They had the reigning NPOY along with arguable the best PG and SG in the country. We knew where the rebounding/interior scoring would come from, what the point guard play would be like and the perimeter shooting was deadly from at least three different players. The defense was iffy but the breakneck offense was such that it was possible to get away with a weak defense at times. Plus there was a discernible gap between UNC and the competition. No one returned the personnel UNC had so it was hard to imagine them not getting it done in the end.

Since the 2011 team went to the Elite Eight, then it is reasonable and fair to say a 2012 team returning all the starters should exceed that and make the Final Four. After that it is a crapshoot as to whether they win or not. Kentucky, Ohio State and possibly UConn are much closer to this team than anyone was to the 2009 team. Not to mention, the 2012 Heels have question marks such as perimeter shooting and offensive production from the backcourt. I think UNC has the answers to those questions and the frontline is NBA caliber but there is still some work to be done in gelling this team into a national title winning unit. So winning the ACC regular season and going to the Final Four is where I would put this team. Anything beyond that is even money.

C.Michael: This is North Carolina, and they are the preseason #1, so obviously there are going to be pockets of extraordinarily high expectations, but THF is absolutely right; this is not 2009.  And even if it were more similar to 2009, I would still caution against a "Title or Bust" mentality, as only 7 of the last 30 teams to be ranked #1 in the AP preseason poll have gone on to win the National Title.  While that is actually a significantly large percentage, when all of the factors that go into winning a title are considered, it is still only 26.7%.  And one only needs to look back one year to find an example of an "overwhelming" #1 who did not go on to win the Title (Duke).

More importantly, THF raises the fact that there is still an enormous question about how efficiently this team will score.  Since 2003, the average rank, in terms of (adjusted) offensive efficiency of the eventual National Champion has been 4.3.  Last season, UNC ranked #38 on offense.  That is an enormous jump that needs to be made if one wants to really start thinking about National Titles (the 2008 team was ranked #1; the 2009 team was ranked #1).

Doc: Another point is that I think there was a progression with that 2009 team over the course of four years. After the 2005 title, there was the surprisingly good '06 team, Elite 8 (with the bitter Georgetown loss) in '07, and the Final Four (with the hideous Kansas loss) in '08. As you guys have noted, the '09 team was loaded with juniors and seniors with significant post-season experience and there was a clear demarcation between the Tar Heels and the rest of college basketball. This year's team was still finding its way in January of last season before the apparent cancer that was SOK was removed and things started to gel. I get the impression that these guys are more like the 2008 team, coming into their own, certainly capable of winning a national title, but not a prohibitive favorite.

THF:
True and while everyone is willing to rank UNC #1 the undercurrent among some national media writers is that Kentucky is the best team. I am not sure I follow(I am biased granted) but they are really high on Terrence Jones and Anthony Davis enough so they seem willing to ignore the inexperience factor. So UNC has teams that can certainly beat them, same as in 2008 which makes them a contender not "the" contender.

C.Michael: And while I don't know how much this really matters, there is also the "Legacy Factor."  The 2009 team was coming off of a 36-win season (a school record), 2 consecutive 30-wins seasons (a Carolina first) and two consecutive ACC Tournament Championships; there was literally only one thing left that they could do to further enhance their Carolina Legacy.  And to their credit, they did it.  Emphatically.  This team has accomplished none of the aforementioned, which is why, in my mind, there are a number of outcomes for this season that fall short of a Title, but will still allow this season to be looked at (eventually), as successful... especially if Barnes et al. return for the 2013 season.

THF: We know UNC isn't going undefeated and given the parity out there a national title is not a given. However, seeing how weak the ACC has looked, could UNC go 16-0 in conference play?

C.Michael: Well, the superstitious part of me hopes the answer is no.  Haven't the last four title teams lost to Wake Forest?  But even beyond that, I'd be very surprised if they went 16-0.  With 4 of their last 6 on the road, there is bound to be a loss in there, especially if they have really taken care of business up until that point.  And if they do make it to the last game at 15-0, you know that the Blue Devils will be looking to exact some revenge for last season's finale.

More than 16-0, the bigger thing that I will look for is a 10-game win streak in conference.  Every UNC title team has won at least 10-straight in conference, and it stands to reason that if you can't put a long win-streak together in conference play, what chance do you really have of winning 6-in-a-row in March?

Doc: Well, since UNC doesn't go to Atlanta, anything is possible this year.

Seriously, I don't see 16-0. An amazing amount of things have to go right for that to happen and with college basketball being what it is, the odds of that are slim. UNC has road trips to FSU, Wake, and Virginia Tech along with the usual visits to NC State and Duke. There's bound to be a loss or two in there somewhere.

THF: Well they aren't losing to Wake Forest so if a title is won this year it will be won sans the requisite loss to the Deacs. That is unless Roy gives the guys a night off and simply runs Blue Steel and the freshmen out there. Even then I think UNC wins by 10.

This falls into the "possible but not probable" provision a seminary professor of mine liked to use. UNC will be favored in every game they play, probably even the one at Duke. However in college basketball every single game is a self contained event in many respects because you are dealing with 18-22 year old kids who are subject to being less focused one night versus another. That is why experienced teams do better in the NCAA Tournament because they are more mature and focused. Since this team is relatively young 16-0 probably won't happen. 14-2 is more likely, maybe even 15-1 but as weak as the ACC is perceived, all the new coaches means there will be more surprises than not.

C.Michael: Okay, so we have talked about expectations, and all the reasons that a title or an undefeated season (in the ACC) are unlikely, but let's flip the script a little bit.  What one or two things, in your opinion, will be the biggest factor or factors in determining whether this UNC team can reach the pinnacle of college basketball? Obviously health and luck are of critical importance,  so let's stick to things that the team can control. 

Doc:
Two words: outside shooting. UNC will run as per usual, and the Heels seem strong inside with Zeller and Henson and the young guys, so the big question mark once again is the ability to score from the perimeter. Early indications are that Reggie Bullock is back to 100%, which is a huge addition to an inconsistent perimeter game.Marshall and Strickland haven't shown the ability to drain the three night in and night out, and last season Harrison Barnes was known to throw up a 2-12 game to go with the amazing ability to score. A consistent perimeter game will be crucial for this team's ultimate success.

THF: I am going with perimeter shooting as well. That was the missing piece last season from an offense that simply struggled at times to score. Perimeter shooting does wonders to spread the floor which opens up all sorts of lanes for Kendall Marshall to throw passes between his legs while looking at the upper deck. Probably more important is it keeps opposing teams away from the zone defense which the Heels had a lot of trouble solving last season. UNC will still be an interior scoring team first but if you give those post players a kickout option for three, it will be amazing to see what that opens up.

C.Michael: This certainly relates very closely to the questions of perimeter shooting and scoring efficiency that have been discussed above, but for me, the key question is how balanced will Carolina's scoring be?   More specifically, I will be very curious to see how many consistent double figure scorers this team can produce.  Last season, the Heels only had 3 players average 10+ PPG, and only Zeller could be said to have been really consistent.  This lack of additional threats often caused the offense to bog down, including the 46.0 eFG% in their season-ending loss to Kentucky.  Looking back at all seven of Roy's Final Four teams, they shared a common trait in that they had at least four players average 10+ PPG, and his two Title teams each had 5 players.  And as great as the 1998 UNC team was, they only had 3 players, which made it almost impossible to overcome the combine 9-31 performance of Jamison and Williams in their season ending loss against Utah.

Looking at this team, I would go so far as to say that if Marshall does not become a consistent 10-12 PPG player, then this team will not only fail to win a Title, but they will likely lose before making it to New Orleans.  On the positive side, if he does demonstrate that type of scoring ability, and any one of Strickland, Bullock or Hairston do the same, then the comparisons between this team and the 2009 team may end up being accurate.

Predictions

Doc: My prediction is 32-6, 13-3 in the ACC, ACC regular season and tournament champion, and Final Four. I am loathe to predict a national championship, though I think this team is certainly capable of winning the whole thing. My concern about individual awards is that the balance on the team may prevent one player from being head and shoulders above another, although I do predict UNC will have two all-ACC players and at least one all-American. I'm just not sure who that will be.

THF: 35-4 and 14-2 in the ACC.

Heels win the regular season and the ACC Tournament(for a change) and like Doc I am loathed to predict a national title so I will put them as far as the title game. Of course the Final Four will be in New Orleans with the NCAA Tournament 2nd and 3rd rounds being in Greensboro. The path is there for a fairy tale run to the title for Harrison Barnes who would love to win it on the same floor Michael Jordan did 30 years ago.

Individual awards are tricky because you have players who surprise us and some that don't pan out. I will be shocked if Barnes isn't All-ACC first team. The question will be who else joins him there. If UNC goes 14-2 then Barnes is probably ACC POY with two Heels on first team and two on the second.

C.Michael: I am going to nerdify it a bit.   Last season, you will remember that I made a prediction using models based on a returning percentage of production.  This was just for fun, but it turns out that the prediction of 23.7 regular season wins turned out to be pretty accurate (24).  Always one to take advantage a fluky result, I updated those models, and based on what UNC returns this season I came up with a SWAG of 26.5 wins.  Looking at the regular season records of both the 2005 and 2009 teams, a 27 – 3 regular season certainly seems reasonable.  I also think that the Heels will win the ACC Tournament, but like Doc and THF, I am hesitant to go all the way and predict a Title.  I think a Final Four is probably likely, but beyond that, anything goes.  However, in doing the above calculations, I discovered that this is only Roy’s 4thteam to return at least 90% of its scoring from the previous season.  The other three teams (1997 Kansas, 2005 UNC, 2009 UNC) combined to go 101-10 and won 2 National Titles, so the potential for this to be a special season is certainly there.

As for individual awards, I think Henson will be the National DPOY, just because that is often more of a reputation award than anything substantive.  I also think that Tyler Zeller will be the "surprise" ACC POY, in much the same fashion as Ty Lawson "upstaged" a more hyped (legitimately) teammate in 2009.

THF: Show off. ;)