Since UNC returned all five starters and key reserves for the 2012 season the automatic response is to immediately compare the team to the 2009 version which won an NCAA title. Never mind the two teams have plenty that differentiate them the return of most of the team intact makes the comparison an easy, if not lazy one to make. While the 2009 team was a prohibitive favorite to win the national title with no clear equal, 2012 enters the season with the likes of Kentucky and Ohio State breathing down their neck. In some ways UNC is #1 by default based on the highest ranking finisher from last season with the most returning personnel. UNC will be good, possibly great but the expectation level should be balanced by a couple of factors.
First, this is still a youngish team. Tyler Zeller and Justin Watts are the only seniors and Zeller only has one full season under his belt. Dexter Strickland and John Henson struggled through their freshman season so in some ways the two juniors are operating with less experience. A trio of sophomores in Harrison Barnes, Kendall Marshall and Reggie Bullock plus two highly touted freshman, P.J. Hairson and James McAdoo fill out the probable eight man rotation. The personnel is still gelling and while the 2009 team had tons of NCAA Tournament experience, last season was the first time any of the returnees took part in the Big Dance. In short there will be some growing pains. The ongoing development of individual players and as a team means there could be hiccups along the way.
Secondly, there are some uncertainties with the UNC offense. The perimeter shooting is still a question mark. Barnes needs to show he can play a full season at a high level and this is also Marshall's first season as the full time starter. I think when a team returns so much personnel there is an assumption that it will simply pick up where it left off last season. That is not always the case. As players develop it changes the dynamics of the team. It should be for the better but I expect there could be some kinks to work out. The bottom line is this team has tons of potential but is not perfect. If the parts play up to expectation and come together as a team then we should be in for a treat watching them play night in and night out.
As fans, it is easy to get caught up in every little thing that could or does go wrong. When there is NCAA title expectations in play, the level of criticism intensifies. In 2009, there were actually points in that season where the pressure on UNC to win a title took the joy out of the season. Games that UNC win were dissected for potential issues that could trip the team up in the NCAA Tournament. And when the team lost? Holy crap did we go nuts. When UNC lost to Wake Forest someone actually was banned on this blog. After the loss to Maryland late in the season I wrote an edition of War and Peace highlighting concerns. All of it was for naught after the Heels steamrolled the competition once the NCAA Tournament started. In the end everyone was happy but the journey getting there was far less enjoyable than most of us hoped it would be.
In that spirit, my advice to everyone this season is to enjoy it. The players are on this team have incredible personalities and the chemistry, by all accounts, is outstanding. You have a point guard in Marshall who is capable of making some phenomenal passes. Barnes who has already shown the ability to make "wow" plays and Henson swatting balls like they are volleyballs. This is a cast who will simply be fun to watch play. Winning makes it even more fun and while we will have our criticisms as warranted, the point is to not allow those criticisms to cause a loss of perspective. When you consider how well Roy Williams' teams play late in the season, if there was ever a season where we needed to keep an even keel it is this one.
So enjoy the big shots, dunks and no look passes. Enjoy watching a great group of young men go out there over 30 times this season and chase their dreams.
Enjoy the ride, I know I will.