College Basketball Team Previews: North Carolina Tar Heels

Tyler Zeller fills the middle for a talented UNC team
North Carolina fell just short of making the Final Four last season, but many are expecting them to get there this year, if not win the title come March.

Odds to win NCAA Tournament on Bodog: 7/2

UNC returns their frontcourt of Harrison Barnes, John Henson, andd Tyler Zeller, all of whom chose not to enter the 2011 NBA Draft. Because of that decision, UNC brings back their top seven scorers last year. That will give them some continuity and chemistry that isn’t seen often in top tier programs, whose players tend to be one or two season players before making the leap to the pros.

Roy Williams realizes how special that is:

“I’ve had five or six teams that I thought had a chance if they (got) lucky…to win a national championship…That’s the same kind of things I think (will happen) with this team…but you never know…”

Indeed, never knowing is what makes college basketball the interesting gambit that it is. Many will choose to back UNC in pre-season futures bets, but the fact remains, nothing is guaranteed when it takes only one loss to derail a team in March.

UNC’s frontcourt figures to be their main strength. All three of the aforementioned front court players will contend for All-ACC honors and the trio combined for 43.1 points per game last season. Harrison Barnes solidified his role as a clutch big time scorer. After an off season in which he worked a lot on his ball handling, we can expect more versatility from Barnes this year, who figures to be among the top – if not the top – pick in the 2012 NBA Draft. Henson, meanwhile, looks to be one of the best defenders in the college ranks. His long reach and springs enable him to be a great shot blocker (3.2 per game last year) and he also finished third in rebounding last year, as only a sophomore. Zeller remained healthy for once last year and the senior is strong in transition, as an excellent court runner with some decent post moves. Roy Williams said Zeller is “as good a runner as (he’s) ever coached,” which should suit him well when things go up-tempo. Newcomer James McAdoo will serve as the team’s third big and sophomore Reggie Bullock will back up Barnes. Justin Watts, a senior, is a bit on the undersized side, but his athleticism makes up for it.

In the backcourt, UNC will start Kendall Marshall at the point. With Marshall at the helm last year, UNC went 17-3 down the stretch. After Larry Drew quit the team last year, it cleared the way for the dynamic Marshall to run the team. He’s only a sophmore so inexperience could be a worry, but not to the point that it will handicap UNC. Their leadership lies in the frontcourt, while Marshall will simply provide the offensive engine needed to satiate the high scoring forwards. Dexter Strickland had a rough year shooting last year but proved himself to be an excellent defender. He will both start at shooting guard and serve as a stop-gap point guard when Marshall needs to rest.

The Tarheels must improve their three point shooting to offset their interior presences. Last season, they hit only 32.8% of their threes and to solidify themselves as the top team in the NCAA they are going to have to get steady outside shooting to open things up inside, where they are at their best.

Expectations are high for the Tarheels, and it seems to be that anything less than a championship would be a failure and disappointment. Last season they fell out of the Top 25 early on, but came back strong. This year, such faltering would not be received well and would put the pressure on a team that seems destined to succeed.

Roy Williams realizes the immense pressure on his squad and said “We have the opportunity to win it all, and we have the opportunity to completely fail…It’s just a matter of whether we continue to stay humble and take the right steps…” Indeed, if the right steps are taken to shore up the weaknesses and questions they have in the backcourt, particularly with regard to their shooting, they have as good a chance as any team to take home this year’s title in March.

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