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Monday, July 19, 2010
Summer Buzz: North Carolina Tar Heels

By Eamonn Brennan

For the next month or so, our friends at The Mag are previewing one high profile school per day for their Insider Summer Buzz series. For the sake of all that is synergistic, yours truly will be attempting the same, complementing each Insider preview with some adjusted efficiency fun. Today's subject: North Carolina.

The Tar Heels did not have a good offense in 2009-10. You didn't need to look at UNC's efficiency profile to recognize that much. Roy Williams' team was exposed on a nightly basis as less a team than a group of promising young players with nary a clue how to run an uptempo secondary break. It was ugly to watch. When a North Carolina team can't play offense, they're in deep trouble. 20-17-type trouble, in fact.

Tyler Zeller
Forward Tyler Zeller averaged 4.5 rebounds in 17 minutes per game last season.
There was, however, one aspect of offense that kept the Tar Heels from looking even more pedestrian last season, an aspect that should give North Carolina fans hope for the upcoming season. The Tar Heels could, if nothing else, rebound their misses.

North Carolina grabbed 38.9 percent of its missed shots in 2009-10, the 16th-highest rate in the country. The problem was that North Carolina's forwards lacked the ability to make much of those misses; the team shot poorly, turned the ball over, and didn't go to the line very often, all of which means those rebounds were wasted on ugly second attempts or kick-outs to UNC's young guards. Offensive rebounding is great, but it doesn't mean much if you don't use it to score more points. The Tar Heels didn't.

Still, there is reason to think UNC can repeat this proficiency in 2009-10, and that, context aside, is a good thing. Harrison Barnes is the best recruit in his class, an all-court forward who could probably play shooting guard if he wanted to. But his athleticism and ability in the paint, which this writer saw in person at Kevin Durant's Nike Skills Camp this summer, should give the Tar Heels a better option down low once they grab an offensive board. No one on last year's team had Barnes' silky scoring touch, not even the unpolished but undeniably talented Ed Davis; if Barnes can work his athletic body into prime real estate under the hoop, he could single-handedly reverse last year's ugly interior play.

Veteran forward Deon Thompson is gone, but there are other promising interior signs. Sophomore John Henson is long enough to wreak havoc on any rebounding play, but in 2009-10 he was too wispy to stand his ground under the hoop. Henson has spent most of his offseason eating like Michael Phelps and pushing iron with UNC's trainer, and he's already added about 25 pounds to his lanky frame.

Junior forward Tyler Zeller is a frequent victim of the injury bug, but has been promising big things since his arrival at UNC in 2008-09's title campaign. Before suffering a season-ending injury, Zeller was averaging 4.5 rebounds in 17 minutes per game. More minutes means more opportunities, and Zeller's per-40 figures portend good things.

If there was one trait you could use to predict which teams did well in last year's tournament, it was offensive rebounding. Three of 2008-09's Final Four ranked in the top 10 in offensive rebounding percentage, and six of the eight Elite Eight squads were ranked in the top 25. West Virginia's entire offense relied on the ability to grab misses; the Mountaineers were never a good shooting team, but they were athletic enough and efficient enough to make up for it when the shots didn't fall.

North Carolina could do something similar, at least in terms of scheme. But before that happens the Tar Heels need to improve all over the floor. Point guard Larry Drew II will have to be much better at running Williams' secondary offense. (He'll be joined in the backcourt by point guard Kendall Marshall and shooting guard Reggie Bullock, both of whom should improve the Heels' guard play significantly.) The Heels will have to prevent turnovers. They'll have to play some semblance of defense.

A 20-17 season means improvement is needed everywhere. As last year's Heels showed, merely rebounding your prodigious misses well isn't enough to make up for bad basketball before and after those misses. At some point, you have to make a few baskets. Eventually, you have to pull it all together.

But the good news is that a pretty bad UNC team was pretty good at one of college hoops' most consistently important team skills in 2009-10. If they can maintain that pace, get improved seasons from Henson and Zeller, and incorporate Williams' prodigious recruiting class into the mix, this team should look much more like the North Carolina we're used to.

The offensive rebounding was already there. Now the Tar Heels just have to get better at everything else. Simple enough, right?