North Carolina Tar Heels Basketball Season Preview

The college hoops season is right around the corner, and Busting Brackets is here to whet your basketball-starved appetite. Over the next five weeks, we are publishing season previews team by team, conference by conference, to offer a glimpse into the upcoming season. Busting Brackets is giving you the lowdown on the biggest storylines, offseason changes and x-factors for each team and each league as we roll into the 2012-13 season. Our complete season preview archive can be accessed here. Buckle up, peeps.

North Carolina Tar Heels

Last Season 32-6 (14-2 ACC)
Lost to Florida State in finals of ACC tournament
Lost to Kansas in Elite Eight of NCAA tournament
Key Returning Players: Reggie Bullock, G
James Michael McAdoo, F
Dexter Strickland, G
Leslie McDonald, G
P.J. Hairston, G
Desmond Hubert, F
Key Additions: Brice Johnson, F (Edisto High School)
Marcus Paige, G (Linn-Mar High School)
Joel James, C (Dwyer High School)
J.P. Tokoto, F (Menomonee Falls High School)
Key Losses: Tyler Zeller, C
Harrison Barnes, F
John Henson, F
Kendall Marshall, G
Justin Watts, G
Stilman White, G (Two-year Mormon mission, three years of eligibility remaining)
Top Non-Conference Games: Nov. 16 @ Long Beach State
Nov. 19 vs. Mississippi State (Maui Invitational)
Nov. 20 vs. Butler or Marquette (Maui Invitational)
Nov. 21 vs. TBD (Maui Invitational)
Nov. 27 @ Indiana
Dec. 19 @ Texas
Dec. 29 vs. UNLV
Top Conference Games: Jan. 10 vs. Miami (FL)
Jan. 12 @ Florida State
Jan. 19 vs. Maryland
Jan. 26 @ NC State
Feb. 9 @ Miami (FL)
Feb. 13 @ Duke
Feb. 23 vs. NC State
Mar. 3 vs. Florida State
Mar. 6 @ Maryland
Mar. 9 vs. Duke
Breakout Player: Reggie Bullock. Everyone and his mother—even those moms who don’t follow the sport—has involuntarily tabbed James Michael McAdoo as the Tar Heel poised to break out in 2012-13. And that could very well prove true. McAdoo will have the keys to the car down low in light of the departures of Tyler Zeller and John Henson. But that’s expecting an awful lot from a sophomore who logged less than 16 minutes per game as a freshman, averaging 6.1 points on subpar 43-percent shooting. Like no other preseason All-American candidate, McAdoo, a Sporting News preseason All-American (which is ridiculous), is being judged on talent alone (and he has a lot of it, mind you, as he showed at the end of the season when Henson went down with a wrist injury). Pardon me while I wait for him to actually prove his worth on the court before I coronate the guy. Lost in all the undue hoopla surrounding McAdoo is that one of his teammates, a guard who also [coincidentally] shot 43-percent from the floor last season, is as likely to break out despite the lack of fanfare. Returning shooting guard Reggie Bullock, who led the Heels in 3-point shooting last season and was a huge lift filling in for the injured Dexter Strickland, is set to explode during his junior campaign. Bullock improved more than any Tar Heel (including McAdoo, who also made big strides) over the course of last season, turning in solid efforts in the NCAA tournament and picking up the slack for then-freshman P.J. Hairston, who couldn’t draw iron from 3-point range during ACC play as his perimeter touch magically disappeared. Bullock is a complete player. He’s a great rebounder for his position, can run the break, shoot from the perimeter and defend at a relatively high level. Despite reports out of Chapel Hill that seem to paint Dexter Strickland as Bruce Bowen-esque and all other Carolina guards as defensively-deficient, Bullock can more than hold his own on-ball. The key for the junior guard will instead be diversifying his offensive repertoire. With Carolina uncharacteristically guard-oriented this season, Roy Williams will need Bullock to add more than just 3’s if the offense is to run effectively through the backcourt this season.
X-Factor: Roy Williams managing a guard-centric roster. It’s no secret that Coach Williams covets a lineup with a playmaking point guard with sound court awareness, a slew of versatile, athletic forwards who run the floor and a center who rebounds well and owns a refined offensive game (see: Sean May, Tyler Zeller). This season, Roy is stuck with almost everything but that (save McAdoo, who fits his style to a T). Williams instead has a bunch of swingmen and combo guards at his disposal, by far the two most dispensable player types in the coach’s system. Two-guards seldom serve much of a purpose with what Roy likes to do. His half-court offense runs almost exclusively through the bigs, and his secondary break relies heavily on four players (the 2-guard being the notable exception). On last year’s star-studded 32-win team, Carolina had four first-round picks in its starting lineup. The lone position not represented? 2-guard. Plug in a platoon of trombone players at shooting guard on last year’s squad and Carolina’s offense would’ve still ran swimmingly. Flip that formula around and that’s where the Heels could get into trouble. How quickly and effectively Williams adjusts  his style of play—assuming he even adjusts at all, which shouldn’t be taken for granted—to fit the makeup of his team will go a long way in determining the level of success (or failure) in Chapel Hill next season. Four of Carolina’s top five returning players are natural 2-guards or combo guards (Strickland). If Williams still tries to run his usual system with this year’s bunch, his Heels will be in a world of trouble. UNC lacks every requisite piece needed to sufficiently run last year’s offense (the point guard, the frontcourt athletes and polished center). In the best interest of this year’s Heels, it’s time for ole Roy to find a new trick for one season.
Best Case: The Sporting News is right. Busting Brackets is wrong. McAdoo is deserving of All-American mention. The sophomore forward builds off his strong finish to last season and emerges as the best player in the ACC, leading the league in points, rebounds and looks from NBA scouts. Bullock diversifies his offensive game (which at this point is really just catch and pop) and becomes an able scorer off the bounce. P.J. Hairston remembers how to shoot in conference play. The big-bodied freshman Joel James is an instant impact recruit and his intense offseason conditioning pays off. James, along with the heralded Brice Johnson, deepens Carolina’s better-than-advertised frontcourt. Fellow freshman Marcus Paige, the only natural point guard on the roster, starts at point guard from day one. Though he’s not the passer Kendall Marshall was, Paige proves to be a more well-rounded player who helps Carolina do what it does best: get out and run. Strickland and Leslie McDonald, who also suffered an ACL tear last season, are both 100-percent, adding leadership, defense and timely buckets for a roster in need of veteran experience. Charged with replacing the core of last year’s championship-caliber squad, North Carolina turns back the clock to 2005-06 and replicates the retooling success of the post-2005 championship team. That season, the Heels, having replaced all five starters from the ’05 national title team, won 23 games, notched a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament and laid the foundation for the ’09 title team. UNC mirrors the ’05-’06 success story in 2012-13, again winning 23 games, notching a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament and planting the seed for another title-winning team in the future.
Worst Case: Busting Brackets is right. The Sporting News is wrong. Not only is McAdoo an afterthought on the national level, but his sophomore season is undeserving of all-conference mention as well. McAdoo teases his talent, but it becomes clear he’s more of a work in progress than initially expected. JMM’s career begins to follow the same flight as that of the last super-hyped power forward to play in Chapel Hill—none other than John Henson, who some pundits tabbed as “Kevin Durant light” coming into college. Henson had a breakout sophomore season after a disappointing freshman campaign, but he was never the sure-fire, superstar-lock that scouts had him pegged as during his final years in high school. A productive, but underwhelming McAdoo is flanked by an equally disappointing sophomore Hairston, whose shooting woes carry into the new season. Bullock is solid, but a one trick pony as an offensive weapon.  Opposing defenses take advantage of the predictability of his game, scheming to take his 3-point shooting out of the equation. Strickland and McDonald are productive, but clearly not 100-percent post-knee surgery. Joel James can’t stay on the floor for longer than one stretch between TV timeouts, and UNC is exploitable inside. Brice Johnson contributes immediately, but as a freshman is still raw and overcome by the uptick in ACC competition. Paige is not yet the answer at point guard, and so Williams asks Strickland to run the show despite his lacking natural point guard skills. The drop-off at the point between Marshall last season and Strickland this is the largest drop-off between seasons in Roy’s tenure. Williams never tailors a new system to accommodate his personnel group, instead clinging to the same one that worked with an entirely different-looking roster. Charged with replacing the core of last year’s championship-caliber squad, North Carolina turns back the clock to 2009-10 and replicates the retooling collapse of the post-2009 championship team. That season, the Heels, having replaced four of five starters from the ’09 national title team, lost 17 games (11 in conference), missed the NCAA tournament entirely and ultimately parlayed a preseason top-five ranking into a debilitating loss at the NIT. UNC mirrors the ’09-‘10 failure story in 2012-13, falling way short of expectations, losing 15+ games and missing out on the NCAA tournament for the second time in four years.
Projected Finish: Regular Season: 21-10 (11-7 ACC), 4th place ACC
Lose in semifinals of ACC tournament
NCAA tournament No. 5 seed

Topics: Basketball, North Carolina Tar Heels

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  • Keeping_It_Heel

    geez 4th in the ACC? Not going to happen! UNC will be better than a lot of people think this upcoming season.

    • Evan, Busting Brackets

      Could see 5th place if Florida State is as good as Leonard Hamilton thinks they are. Miami is the team most folks are selling short in the ACC. Loaded team that returns everyone of consequence save Malcolm Grant (who had a terrible senior season). Reggie Johnson is finally healthy and Shane Larkin will shake off the freshman kinks.

      Fourth is a fairly safe bet for Carolina, as there a clear step below NC State and Duke, and on the same level as Miami and FSU. If Miami doesn’t live up to the talent (which is certainly feasible, the Canes seldom do), then FSU and Miami could flip.

      UNC lost four first round draft picks and now has a guard-heavy roster that’s the antithesis of Roy Williams’s system. Not sure how in the world Carolina is receiving all these top-10 national votes from major media outlets. Must be on reputation alone.

      • Evan, Busting Brackets

        they’re a clear step*

      • Keeping_It_Heel

        I can see how people think that, here’s how we’re getting those votes. We have a lot of talent that just sat the bench last year behind those four that went pro. 2 big time players returning from season ending injury and a very good recruiting class. UNC has a learning curve to go through but will be a nice team this season

        • Evan, Busting Brackets

          It’s possible. And the talent is certainly there (it’s there in the wrong places IMO). But that success is banking on a lot of best case scenarios regarding the unknowns; for example, the assumption that McAdoo is going to immediately blossom from a talented, oft-used freshman into an All-American, or that the freshmen will grow up the minute they set foot in Chapel Hill.

          The last time UNC had to replace four starters from a loaded team, I don’t need to remind you of the end result. And that team had a lot of young talent too — including two of the four cornerstones of last year’s team — just like this one.

          I’d advise Carolina fans to be reasonable about this year’s team. Should be fun to watch a bunch of young talented kids come together, but they’re a good way’s off from the top dogs in the league.

          Expecting a team that lost four top-20 NBA draft picks to immediately reload is asking too much and setting the fans / program up for disappointment.

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