The Tar Heels of North Carolina (20-17, 5-11 ACC) won the NCAA Tournament in 2009 but in 2010 ended up at the NIT. The NIT appearance happened after the Tar Heels accumulated a losing conference mark of 5-11, finishing tied for ninth. It was a bad season for a club that had won two national titles over the past five seasons and had also been to the Final Four and Elite Eight in two of the other three years. If you’re a Tar Heels fan, there’s good news because the team looks like it is back in contention.
There’s certainly talent in the front but not a lot of depth. Forward John Henson (6-10, 195 lbs., SO, #31, 5.7 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 0.9 apg, 15.8 mpg, .486 FG, .222 3PT, .438 FT) started out at small forward last season and then midway through switched to the power position. That made all the difference in the world for the rangy guy who added 25 pounds to his frame over the course of 2009-2010. That extra muscle and bulk enabled him to command the boards. Henson became a fine shot blocker earning a blocking percentage of 9.4% as he knocked away 59 shots. He also became a solid rebounder. Henson is an inside player who has a tough time from the foul line and cannot hit from the perimeter. If the Heels want a guy to pop out and hit, it’s not him.
Junior Tyler Zeller (7-0, 240 lbs., JR, #31, 9.3 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 0.3 apg, 17.4 mpg, .521 FG, .000 3PT, .722 FT) can hit a midrange jumper and also offers a jump hook that’s tough to defend. He’s big and capable of commanding the paint, but Zeller has been injured both of his first two seasons, which cut down on his output and effectiveness. Last season, he missed seven games. Zeller has a solid foul shot and can big a big asset of he can last a whole season.
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The new kid on the block is small forward freshman Harrison Barnes. Barnes, who is 6-7 and 215 pounds, is a major talent. He’s pretty much a Mr. Do-it-All—able to hit from inside and outside, defend with his long arms and connect with a cutter on the bounce pass. The freshman is not only versatile but also mature and composed. He will be a major contributor immediately.
During what was a dismal Tar Heel season there were numerous rumors that Larry Drew II (6-2, 180 lbs., JR, #11, 8.5 ppg, 2.7 rpg, 6.0 apg, 28.8 mpg, .402 FG, .352 3PT, .606 FT), the team’s point guard, would transfer. But he did not. Drew is back and although he has been a disappointment to some, as he has not been as effective and explosive as former point man Ty Lawson, he has been a consistent performer. While at North Carolina, Lawson was the ACC Player of the Year. Drew will never earn that honor. However, Drew’s assist rate came in at 35.7%, which was 21st in the nation. What you get with him is sound and solid point play; he’ll never be a star but he is an important stabilizing force.
The shooting spot will be manned by freshman Reggie Block. Block, who is 6-6 and 195 pounds, gives the team a true threat from the perimeter. In addition to much needed firepower, the guard is an able defender from various parts of the court. He will play a big role in his first year.
Off the bench, Alabama transfer Justin Knox brings his 6-9, 240-pound frame to the post. The forward adds a lot of experience and a solid physical presence to the floor.
Also, guard/forward Will Graves (6-6, 240 lbs., SR, #13, 9.8 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 0.9 apg, 24.3 mpg, .336 FG, .371 3PT, .806 FT) may be asked to come in. That is if he’s heeded the coach’s warnings regarding his weight. If he has not thinned down and lost some of the 240 pounds from his 6-6 frame, he’s on the bench. That’s too bad because the Heels could use his fine shooting chops.
In the backcourt, freshman Kendall Marshall offers advanced passing skills and brings an exceptional basketball IQ to the game. You can expect to see him at the point from time to time.
Both Dexter Strickland (6-3, 180 lbs., SO, #1, 5.4 ppg, 1.5 rpg, 2.0 apg, 17.4 mpg, .432 FG, .242 3PT, .692 FT) and Leslie McDonald (6-4, 215 lbs., SO, #2, 3.4 ppg, 1.5 rpg, 0.6 apg, 10.3 mpg, .309 FG, .208 3PT, .655 FT) had disappointing frosh seasons last year. Neither could make a three and both were fairly inaccurate from the field. They’ve each rededicated themselves to improving over the summer and should come back ready to contribute.
The numbers from last season are less important than they might be for other teams due to the fact that this club sees so many new guys who are ready to contribute. One thing is for certain they want to improve on offensive efficiency. The Tar Hells earned a mark of 48.0, placing them 204th. One area in which they were solid was in offensive rebounding where they nabbed 38.9% (16th). Overall, their shooting was mediocre to poor. They were bad on threes (32.8%) and better but not great on twos (47.6%). More than 60% of their points came from two-point range, placing them ninth nationally.
North Carolina did much better on defense with an efficiency rating of 92.6 (46th) and a blocked shot grade of 13.5% (18th). One good thing about this team is they did not foul much as they sent opponents to the line very little.
Head coach Roy Williams (614-155 in 22 years and 196-53 in 7 years at North Carolina) has had his ups and downs with the Tar Heels. Just two years ago they were the champs and last season the team was floundering and failing. Williams did a great job securing some of the best recruits in the game and has definitely snagged the cream of the crop in the ACC. Barnes alone would be considered a major triumph in terms of recruiting.
They are not used to losing at North Carolina State. This is a program that has a tradition for being competitive. Basketball is king at North Carolina and it looks like it is back on top in terms of the quality and skill of its players as the Tar Heels begin the new season ranked ninth in the nation. There’s a lot of optimism and yet some healthy doubt as to how good these Tar Heels can be.
Will they really challenge Duke? Probably not this year, but with another season under their belts, you can expect them to be able to take on just about anyone.
However, this is not a NIT year for the Heels. They will contend for the ACC Championship and earn an invite to the Big Dance. Look for them to get to the Sweet 16. If they manage to go further, they will have made a major achievement. Basketball is definitely back at North Carolina.
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