Friday, November 12, 2010

North Carolina basketball preview: Young Heels should do well

(Editor's Note: The Tar Heels kick off the 2010-2011 season tonight at home against Lipscomb University of Nashville)

After admittedly the most challenging season of his coaching career, and after losing three who would have played significant minutes this season, UNC Roy Williams nonetheless thinks this year’s team has potential to be good.

There’s no doubt that the young players coming in have great potential, especially Harrison Barnes who, after going 53-0 in his last two years in high school, will be in the North Carolina starting lineup and has even already been picked to All-America teams. If he has the kind of season many expect, he could be the No. 1 pick in the 2011 draft, meaning he could be one and done at Carolina.

The Tar Heels went just 20-17 and failed to make the NCAA tournament. Not only is Barnes not used to that but neither is Coach Williams, who has had the team running hard in practice, basing his practice sessions on those of Dean Smith’s 1982 national champions.

“Last year was not much fun. I don’t want to go through that again,” Williams said. “I’m anxious, no doubt about it. I hope we can put it behind us by coming out and playing well.”

Williams said he won’t know what the true identity of the team will be for a while. A lot of guys have been lost – Ed Davis to the pros, Marcus Ginyard and Deon Thompson to graduation, Travis and David Wear to transfer and Will Graves to suspension.

The expected starting lineup to begin the year is Tyler Zeller, John Henson, Harrison Barnes, Dexter Strickland and Larry Drew II. Before the ACC season begins in January, don’t be surprised if freshmen Reggie Bullock and Kendall Marshall are getting more playing time than Strickland and Drew.

But, on the other hand, Strickland has been playing well so far in inter-squad and preseason games, and Drew is a better scorer than Marshall and was coming on at the end of last season.

Carolina doesn’t have a lot of depth at center and forward but if they stay healthy that should be fine. Lanky Henson has put on 25 pounds and was finally living up to his billing late in the season as the Heels made a run to the finals of the NIT.

Barnes will play every minute he’s not tired and transfer Justin Knox is the most physically solid player on the team and will be valuable off the bench.

But make no mistake, even though he’s not a rah-rah leader, this is junior Tyler Zeller’s team. As he goes, so goes the team. He’s had problems with injuries but if he can stay healthy, this should be a special season for him. The 7-footer can run the court, block shots, play stingy defense, score from the inside and medium range, and can be the experienced leader the Heels need.

Barnes may be more talented and have a bigger upside but if this is going to be the ACC’s second best team as predicted by the sportswriters, Zeller has to step forward, especially with point guard Drew sharing court time.

Guards Justin Watts and Leslie McDonald could be keys off the bench, especially if there are injuries or foul trouble. They could be needed to give minutes at forward. Both can score. In fact, this team, particularly by adding freshmen Barnes and Bullock, is loaded offensively. That’s good news for Williams who saw his team last year shoot the third worst of any UNC team since 1960 and the worst of any UNC team from 3-point land. In fact, even free throw shooting was the worst since 1954.

Still, the Tar Heels start the season as the eighth ranked team in the nation by the Associated Press. Of course a lot of that has to do with the North Carolina written on the front – and Barnes written on the back. The 6-foot-8 Barnes can score and rebound, and Coach Williams even compares him to Tyler Hansbrough as far as his work ethic.

While we’ll know more about Barnes when the ACC season starts in earnest, we should know something about how good the team is going to be following a three-game stretch starting Nov. 28 against the College of Charleston (who famously beat the Heels last season). On Nov. 30 the Heels play at tough Illinois in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge and then play at home against Kentucky Dec. 4.

Besides the Duke games, the matchups against talented N.C. State this season are intriguing as is the Jan. 13 home date with Virginia Tech, which figures to battle the Heels for second behind heavily favored Duke.

The Tar Heels should enter the ACC tournament with a 25-5 or 24-6 record with maybe four losses in the league. If there are no season-ending injuries, UNC has the talent and, yes, the potential to make it to the ACC finals and the NCAA Elite 8.

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