CHAPEL HILL — Roy Williams is that guy. The Tar Heels’ head coach acknowledges his team’s power and potential heading into the 2011-12 season, and he unflinchingly compares his club to Carolina’s national championship squads of 2005 and 2009.
While most coaches view amplified preseason accolades with a combination of fear and contempt, Williams understands and embraces why the Tar Heels are ranked by most the No. 1 team nationally this fall. The blueprint was laid two years ago. Elite talent? Yes. Experience? Yes. Players flirting with the NBA draft, only to pass up a viable shot in the pros to pursue a collegiate title? Yes.
“I think we’re going to be a very good basketball team,” Williams said during Thursday’s media day. “If we can stay healthy and get things going the right way, we’re going to be one of those teams that has a chance to win the whole thing.”
Harrison Barnes enters his sophomore campaign as arguably the top player in the country.
Barnes’ problems early last season inspired great angst among fans and scathing criticisms from media lashing out at Barnes due to their own excesses — the same people who ridiculously named him a preseason first-team All-American were the first to tab him a bust when he suffered through the typical freshman learning curve — but he finished the year brilliantly and is poised for the honors predicted for him since high school.
He also may hold the distinction as the highest-esteemed NBA prospect in UNC history to reject the draft. Tyler Hansbrough could have exited and become a first-round selection after any of his first three seasons, but scouts never considered him a top-three pick as they did Barnes.
Perhaps Michael Jordan, James Worthy, Phil Ford and a handful of others should fall into the same category, but they competed in a different era without the presence of numerous one-and-done players each year. By returning to Chapel Hill, Barnes certainly passed up a more lucrative NBA option than any other Carolina player in the Roy Williams era.
Yet despite all that, is Barnes even the best player on the team?
The Heels return all five starters, including co-leading scorer (with Barnes) Tyler Zeller. The senior big man has buffed up to 250 pounds and remains one of the most fleet big men you’ll see on a college court. It was Zeller, not Barnes, who led the offensive attack in Carolina’s valiant defeat to Kentucky in the Elite Eight last spring.
Indeed, Zeller was the most consistent performer for the Heels throughout the NCAA Tournament, finally overcoming the injury-plagued campaigns that hindered his development as an underclassman. In Roy Williams’ fast-paced, high-percentage offense, an efficient big man like Zeller — just like Hansbrough in 2009 and Sean May in 2005 — will receive numerous opportunities to deliver inside.
Junior shotblocker John Henson embodies the team’s close-knit personality. Affable perhaps to a fault, Henson nevertheless is an elite shot-blocker and during private summer scrimmages showcased a more refined scoring touch. If he can raise his scoring average from 12 points-per-game to roughly 16-per-game, he also could enter the All-American conversation.
Sophomore point guard Kendall Marshall will run the show at point guard. After commandeering the starting position from Larry Drew last year at midseason — leading to Drew’s stunning departure from the team shortly thereafter — Marshall proved to be a playmaker deluxe and far more savvy than one would expect for a freshman.
Dexter Strickland returns as the relatively unsung fifth starter. He turned in one of his finest defensive performances ever in the loss to Kentucky, and Williams expects him to become a potential stopper on the wing while also backing up Marshall at point guard.
But despite all the justifiable excitement and optimism directed toward this year’s Heels, one nagging issue remains: Can this team shoot the ball?
Last year, Carolina fluctuated between average and poor from the three-point stripe, and UNC’s inability to keep up with the Wildcats in the NCAAs from deep ultimately cost them a spot in the Final Four.
Junior wing Leslie McDonald was expected to spearhead an improved shooting effort and looked fantastic during the summer, but he tore his ACL and likely is out for the season. Sophomore Reggie Bullock enjoyed the reputation as a shooter in high school but remains unproven due to an injury-plagued freshman year of his own.
Incoming freshman P.J. Hairston is yet another touted marksman but, as with all newcomers, may experience inconsistency as he adjusts to the college game.
And even if Bullock and McDonald do accompany Barnes as long-range threats, they’ll likely do it off the bench. The starting backcourt of Marshall and Strickland has lacked shooting touch and failed to command respect from some opponents last season, and they’ll log significant minutes together. Managing his backcourt personnel to match the adjustments made by opponents looms as one of Williams’ greatest challenges.
Practice opens this weekend, but the first official game takes place versus Michigan State on November 11. That contest will enjoy historic majesty, as it’s taking place on the USS Carl Vinson, the aircraft carrier that delivered Osama Bin Ladin to his watery grave this past spring. The Veterans Day affair will feature among its spectators Barack Obama, who practiced with the Tar Heels during his candidacy in 2008.