- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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In the buildup to Midnight Madness, Insider and our college hoops team are collaborating on a preview of one high-profile college hoops team per day -- based on Joe Lunardi’s top 20 teams in his offseason Bracketology. We're calling it "Countdown To Madness." We'll have Five Questions with someone from each team and I'll be tracing three key things you should know about each team we preview. We're calling that "Three Big Things." (Hey, that's snappy!) Today: North Carolina.
1. The first two teams we’ve analyzed in this space -- Marquette and Michigan State -- were thematically similar subjects. Both teams had great seasons in 2011–12 thanks in large part to star seniors; both teams return deep and dynamic supporting casts who should be able to replace much of that production in the season to come.
North Carolina is a whole 'nother story. North Carolina doesn’t have to replace a star or two. North Carolina isn’t waving goodbye to a singular, program-defining star. North Carolina is a full-scale overhaul, and it’s almost impossible to know what to expect.
A cursory glance at Ken Pomeroy’s 2012 UNC breakdown page tells the tale. Or you could compare this roster to this one. Or, being a college basketball fan, you already know. This offseason, UNC lost its four best and most important players -- point guard Kendall Marshall, small forward Harrison Barnes, power forward John Henson and center Tyler Zeller -- to the NBA draft. North Carolina’s best returning player, James Michael McAdoo, averaged just 15.6 minutes per game as a freshman, not because he’s not talented, but because it was basically impossible to break the Barnes-Henson-Zeller frontcourt stranglehold. Most of UNC’s best returning players -- Dexter Strickland, Leslie McDonald, and P.J. Hairston -- either (A) struggled in 2011–12, (B) missed much or all of the season with injuries or (C) both. Even diminutive spot reserve Stilman White, a last-ditch plug-in during Marshall’s late-season injury, is off to fulfill a mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
Which is not to say that UNC is bound to have a bad or even mediocre season, by its own lofty standards or anyone else’s. It’s merely to say this: I don’t know. All offseason, through the various off-court scandals (academics and now travel-related), when people have asked me what I think of the 2012–13 North Carolina Tar Heels, that’s my answer. I don’t know. We’ll see. Anything more is just a guess.
2. Which is also not to say this team isn’t talented, which brings us to its recruiting class, which is -- surprise, surprise -- very good. Roy Williams' class ranks eighth in the country in 2012 and it is highlighted by yet another star player from the state of Iowa: Point guard Marcus Paige. Paige is the top-ranked point guard in the class of 2012 who, like his predecessor, is a left-handed guard who excels at getting teammates involved. But Paige, according to our scouting reports, won’t be the playmaker Marshall was; few are. Instead, he’ll provide a sharp scoring edge with an ability to get past defenders off the dribble and a more reliable outside shot.
Paige could be the key to UNC’s season; no position is more important to Williams' up-tempo/secondary break attack than the point guard. But arguably just as important will be the performance of fellow freshmen Brice Johnson and Joel James. Johnson is a power forward; James is a center; both were ranked in the 2012 ESPN top 100. With McDonald and Strickland back from injury, and Bullock and Hairston competing for spots on the wing, it’s safe to say UNC will be solid at the guard spot. But it will have to get help for McAdoo on the low block, and Johnson and James will be major factors in that effort.
3. Despite UNC’s well-deserved reputation as a high-scoring, fast-breaking bunch, for the past two years -- thanks largely to the dominant interior defense of Henson and Zeller -- the Tar Heels have actually been at their best on the defensive end. Their major weakness in 2012–13? Shooting.
As we wrote above, this is such a total-roster overhaul that it’s hard to analyze areas of the game in which the Tar Heels should improve. We don’t know where this squad’s true strengths will lie. But the shooting has to get better, particularly from the outside. Hairston was hailed as a lights-out shooter as a prospect; he made just 27.3 percent of his 3s in 2011–12. Bullock was better, leading the team at 38.2 percent. UNC got by on offense with interior power and midrange versatility and Marshall’s passing, but it’s reasonable to expect this team to use its plethora of competitive guards to stretch the floor. If Bullock ticks upward, and Hairston proves his skill, we could be looking at a totally different -- and arguably more lethal -- offensive configuration.
McAdoo could be a star. Paige looks promising. This team is deep and apparently talented. But with so many new faces, and so much turnover, we won’t really know what North Carolina is until North Carolina takes the floor. However Williams chooses his minutes, one thing’s for sure: It will be entertaining to observe.