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Monday, August 1, 2011
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 Summer Buzz series. For the sake of all that is synergistic, yours truly will be attempting the same, complementing each comprehensive Insider preview with some analytic fun. Today's subject: the North Carolina Tar Heels.

This almost feels redundant.

Harrison Barnes
North Carolina's Harrison Barnes is a national player of the year candidate.
Perhaps no team has had more spring and summer buzz around it than this one. The North Carolina Tar Heels have been the clubhouse leader in pixels spilled -- both here and elsewhere -- for a simple reason: They're the national title favorite.

And they're not simply the favorite. North Carolina might not only be the best team in college hoops; they're also the best candidate to disprove the "college hoops doesn't foster great teams" meme that has spread like wildfire in recent seasons.

Moreover, the Tar Heels sit atop a landscape that returned more elite underclassmen talent than at any time in recent years. Those players will be the story of the 2011-12 season, and if you're the popular pick to reign in that environment, well, you've got to be pretty darn good.

Then again, UNC's path to the national title isn't paved just yet. Ohio State will have something to say about it, while Kentucky might just be John Calipari's most talented team of all-time. All three of the top preseason ranks have something in common: A sophomore star who declined the NBA in favor of the national title chase (and a savvy sidestep of this suddenly dire NBA lockout) and, in turn, will be the most important player in said title run. So it is with North Carolina.

It's not enough to say that as Harrison Barnes goes, UNC goes, because this team is deep and talented at every position, and it just so happened to return the rest of a starting lineup that nearly earned a trip to the Final Four after a dramatic midseason turnaround. But it is fair to say that Barnes' play could be the biggest difference between North Carolina being merely very good -- in contention for a No. 1 seed, competing for the ACC title, etc. -- and becoming, as its spiritual and financial sponsor likes to say, legendary.

For as good as he was down the stretch last season -- and he was especially good in late-game situations -- the national player of the year candidate still has key improvements he can make.

The first, ballhandling, has been Barnes' focus all offseason. He has said he wants to get out on the break faster after a defensive rebound, which is a nice idea, but the most important place Barnes can use better ballhandling is in the half-court offense. Because Tyler Zeller and John Henson occupy so much space in the post, Barnes doesn't spend as much time catching the ball in the post. Instead, most of his half-court possessions last season -- to be exact, 28.2 percent, according to Synergy Sports -- ended in spot-up jump shots, isolations, or screen action.

It became apparent early in the season that Barnes, for all his talent, didn't have the forward-facing game to dominate defenders individually. After gifted distributor Kendall Marshall was inserted into the lineup in January, Barnes was able to get better looks. But to truly dominate, Barnes has to be able come off those screens and attack the rim with his unique mix of size and strength.

He also needs to be more efficient. North Carolina is lucky; it has so many talented players -- Zeller, Henson, Marshall, Reggie Bullock, freshmen James Michael McAdoo and P.J. Hairston, and several others -- that it doesn't necessarily need Barnes to be a high-volume scorer. It can get post buckets and putbacks from Zeller; it can get outside shooting from Hairston and Bullock; it can get fast-break points from Marshall and Henson. Playing for a different, less talented team, Barnes might need to try to do all of those things. On this squad, he merely needs to make his opportunities count.

Better outside shooting would be a start. Even after his torrid second half, Barnes still only made 67 of his 195 (195!) attempts from beyond the arc last season. (That might be too many 3s in the first place, but UNC needed someone to shoot them, and 35 percent isn't terrible.) His effective field goal percentage was 49.0; his true shooting percentage was 52.2. Those are the numbers of someone who often felt compelled to launch from uncomfortable spots. There should be no such discomfort in 2012.

Better shooting and better ballhandling. It sounds simple -- and it is -- but those simple improvements could open Barnes' game and make him a nigh-lethal weapon on a team that is already one of the best defensive units in the country.

Whatever happens, Carolina is going to be really good. Duh, you know? But the difference between "really good" and "national champions" can often come down to a certain level of overwhelming dominance. We haven't had that in college hoops since the last time UNC entered as a preseason favorite. This time, the Tar Heels will have even more competition.

In 2011-12, college hoops is a game of stars. How bright can Barnes' star shine?