2013-2014 Season Preview: No. 12 North Carolina Tar Heels

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All month long, CBT will be rolling out our 2013-2014 season preview. Check back throughout the day, as we’ll be posting three or four preview items every day.

To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here. The rest of our Top 25 Countdown can be found here. For a schedule of our previews for the month, click here.

Last Season: 25-11, 12-6 ACC (3rd); Lost to Kansas in the Round of 32

Head Coach: Roy Williams (11th season at UNC: 282-79 overall, 117-45 ACC)

Key Losses: Reggie Bullock, Dexter Strickland

Newcomers: Nate Britt, Isaiah Hicks, Kennedy Meeks

Projected Lineup

G: Marcus Paige, So.
G: Leslie McDonald, Sr.
F: P.J. Hairston, Jr.
F: James Michael McAdoo, Jr.
C: Brice Johnson, So.
Bench: Nate Britt, Fr.; J.P. Tokoto, So.; Isaiah Hicks, Fr.; Kennedy Meeks, Fr.; Joel James, So.; Desmond Hubert, Jr.

They’ll be good because …: The Tar Heels certainly don’t lack the talent. Of the 11 players that figure to have a shot at seeing time in the North Carolina rotation, 10 were four-star recruits coming out of high school. Three — P.J. Hairston, James Michael McAdoo and Isaiah Hicks — were five-star recruits. There aren’t many programs in the country that can boast that kind of talent, and what’s more is that the Heels have a nice blend of veterans — senior Leslie McDonald, juniors Hairston and McAdoo — and promising newcomers.

One of the issues last season was that freshman Marcus Paige was the only point guard on the roster, and he wasn’t a natural fit for the kind of system that Roy Williams likes to play. Not only does he now have another year under his belt, but he’ll be joined in the back court by Nate Britt, a talented freshman with the quicks to really push the ball up and down the floor.

Oh, and how could I forget: Hairston didn’t actually get booted off the team after a summer spent running afoul of the law. He only got suspended, which was huge news for a team that doesn’t have a ton of perimeter depth.

source:
AP photo

But they might disappoint because …: They have so many question marks up front. Last season, North Carolina made their run late in the season when they switched to a smaller lineup, using McAdoo as their center and playing Reggie Bullock and Hairston, bigger wings that can score on the perimeter, at the forwards spots. It made UNC a difficult team to defend. But with Bullock off to the NBA and a front line that goes six-deep, the Heels will likely revert to using a more traditional lineup.

But what do we really know about those big men? McAdoo has all the talent and potential in the world, but he’s yet to really define himself as a player. He’s not a back-to-the-basket scorer but he’s not a face-up four man. Is he simply an athlete that can do some impressive things in transition? Brice Johnson reportedly put on about 20 pounds this offseason, but he’s still only about 207 pounds. Kennedy Meeks and Joel James have the ability to be the low-post threat that makes North Carolina so dangerous, but can they run the floor? Are they in good enough shape to really be effective? Is Isaiah Hicks ready to contribute as a freshman, or is he just an athlete as well? Would UNC fans really feel comfortable with Desmond Hubert as their starting center?

Outlook: Last year, North Carolina was able to turn their season around by going small and playing even faster than they already do. But that wasn’t a long-term answer to what ails them. It was a quick fix, a band-aid that covered up a bigger problem. When Roy Williams’ teams are doing what his system is designed to do, the two most important pieces he has are: a) a point guard that can distribute the ball and push it up the floor, either via the dribble or via the pass; and b) a big man that can beat people down the floor in transition and has to be double-teamed when he catches the ball on the block. Think about it: Ty Lawson, Ray Felton and Kendall Marshall. Sean May, Tyler Hansbrough and Tyler Zeller.

Do the Heels have that this year? James and Kennedy can score in the post, but they might struggle to beat the UNC beat writers down the floor. Johnson, Hicks and McAdoo can get out and run, but do any of them scare you on the block? And what about the point guard spot? Paige wasn’t a great fit last year, and while having Britt will help, he’s still a freshman. There are a lot of good basketball players on this team, and they’re led by a head coach that’s won two national titles since 2005, but I’m having trouble seeing how all these pieces come together.

Jordan Mathews three sends No. 1 seed Gonzaga past No. 4 West Virginia

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Jordan Mathews hit a three with less than a minute left and West Virginia missed a pair of threes on the final possession of the game as No. 1 seed Gonzaga won a dogfight, 61-58, over No. 4 seed Gonzaga in the Sweet 16 on Thursday night.

No. 3 Oregon advances after thriller with No. 7 Michigan

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Oregon is returning to the Elite Eight for the second consecutive season following a thrilling, 69-68, victory over No. 7 Michigan in the Sweet 16 in Kansas City on Thursday night.

In a game in which neither team could fully grasp control of the game, it came down to the wire. Michigan held a 3-point lead with two minutes to play. Jordan Bell, who was unquestionably the deciding factor in this contest, came up with the first of several critical hustle plays down the stretch. He knifed in on a missed free throw, for lay-in, cutting the deficit to one.

On the ensuing Michigan possession, Bell didn’t block it but affected Derrick Walton Jr.’s shot enough to force the miss. Tyler Dorsey, the other hero for the Ducks, continued his stellar play this month with a go-ahead layup after he spun through the Wolverine defense. Bell’s close out on D.J. Wilson sent his 3-point attempt way off the mark. Bell would corral another offensive rebound on the other end of the floor, and while Dylan Ennis left the door open for Michigan following another missed free throw, Bell, deservedly, rebounded Walton’s miss as time ran out.

“Do whatever you can to win,” Bell told reporters after the game. “Me, get every rebound, offense or defense, help my team out as much as possible.”

Bell had 16 points and 13 rebounds. Tyler Dorsey poured in 20 points. Walton Jr., who front-rimmed a potential game-winner at the buzzer, ended his collegiate career with stat-line of 20 points, eight assists, and five rebounds. Zak Irvin added 19.

Before the start of the Pac-12 Tournament championship game on March 11, Oregon announced that Chris Boucher would miss the remainder of the season with a torn ACL. How would this effect Oregon’s defense days before it began its quest for a Final Four?

Bell has helped answer those questions on Thursday night. He’s a big reason why Oregon outscored Michigan, 34-16, in points in the paint. But his greatest impact was how he slowed down the two-headed monster of Moe Wagner and D.J. Wilson, two forwards whose increased production is a big reason why Michigan’s unlikely run extended into the second weekend of the tournament. The duo scored a combined 19 points off 7-of-20 shooting.

The other key reason is the continued offensive tear of Dorsey. In six postseason games, the sophomore two-guard is averaging 23.0 points per game. Playing at this level, Oregon has another go-to scorer, one who has no issue taking a big shot late in the game. In either matchup in the next round, that should come in handy. Dillon Brooks, one of college’s toughest matchups, will either be busy with Purdue’s massive frontline or locked in an all-out war with Kansas’ Josh Jackson the perimeter.

“I’m really fortunate to have Jordan for three years and Tyler for two and Dillon Brooks,” Oregon head coach Dana Altman said. “We’ve just been really fortunate. We’ve got good players and guys that are unselfish. They want to win. They’re competitive. We got down four there and guys could have gave into it. They didn’t. They fought their way back. Shows you what kind of competitive spirit they’ve got.”

The Ducks, the No. 3 seed in the Midwest region, will face the winner of top-seeded Kansas and No. 4 Purdue on Saturday night at the Sprint Center.

“We know Purdue is really big and Kansas is Kansas,” Altman said.

WATCH: Steve Alford end practice with half-court shot

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UCLA head coach Steve Alford ended practice on Thursday by drilling a half-court shot on the first attempt.

According to the Associated Press, this has been a season-long battle between the UCLA coaching staff and the players.

“Truth be told, we’ve been getting slaughtered. We’ve got guys like Lonzo (Ball) literally takes a jump shot from the timeline. We were just lucky that they only got one shot at it. I think coaches are down about eight on the half-court shots this year. I told them, though, that the coaches are ahead at the Sweet 16. I don’t think they’re buying it.”

No. 3 seed UCLA is set to play No. 2 seed Kentucky in the Sweet 16 on Friday night in Memphis. The Bruins defeated the Wildcats, 97-92, in a non-conference matchup on Dec. 3.

Florida State guard Xavier Rathan-Mayes to enter NBA draft

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) Florida State point guard Xavier Rathan-Mayes is entering the NBA draft.

The 6-foot-4 junior made his announcement on Instagram on Thursday and also informed the school of his decision. He did not say whether he intends to hire an agent, a move that prevent him from returning to school.

Rathan-Mayes averaged 10.6 points per game this season and averaged 4.8 assists, which was sixth in the conference. His assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.6-to-1 was third in the ACC.

The All-ACC defensive team selection helped Florida State (26-9) reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2012. The Seminoles advanced to the second round before a 91-66 loss to Xavier.

Rathan-Mayes averaged 12.4 points in his three seasons with the Seminoles and is the 46th player in school history to reach 1,000 points.

More AP college basketball at http://collegebasketball.ap.org and https://twitter.com/AP-Top25

Rutgers guard Corey Sanders to enter NBA Draft

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PISCATAWAY, N.J. (AP) Rutgers sophomore guard Corey Sanders is entering the NBA draft.

In making the announcement Thursday, the university said Sanders will not sign with an agent.

Sanders will be able to attend workouts scheduled by NBA teams and will be eligible for invitation to the league’s combine next month. Players have until 10 days after the combine to remain in the draft or return to school, as long as they don’t sign with an agent.

Sanders started 31 of 33 games this season, averaging 12.8 points and 3.2 rebounds.

Rutgers coach Steve Pikiell said Sanders needs to make an informed decision on his future.

“My dream has always been to play in the NBA,” Sanders said. “I look forward to determining where I am in that journey.”

More AP college basketball: http://www.collegebasketball.ap.org and https://twitter.com/AP-Top25.