Top 25 Countdown: No. 20 North Carolina Tar Heels

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Throughout the month of October, CollegeBasketballTalk will be rolling out our previews for the 2012-2013 season. Check back at 9 a.m. and just after lunch every day, Monday-Friday, for a new preview item.

To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here. To look at the rest of the Top 25, click here. For a schedule of our previews for the month, click here.

Last Season: 32-6, 15-3 ACC (1st); Lost to Kansas in the Elite 8

Head Coach: Roy Williams

Key Losses: Kendall Marshall, Harrison Barnes, Tyler Zeller, John Henson

Newcomers: Marcus Paige, Brice Johnson, Joel James, JP Tokoto, Luke Davis

Projected Lineup:

G: Marcus Paige, Fr.
G: Dexter Strickland, Sr.
G: Reggie Bullock, Jr.
F: Brice Johnson, Fr.
C: James Michael McAdoo, So.
Bench: Leslie McDonald, Jr.; PJ Hairston, So.; JP Tokoto, Fr.; Joel James, Fr.; Desmond Hubert, So.

Outlook: Roy Williams has been here before.

After he won the national title in 2005, Williams watched Ray Felton, Sean May, Rashad McCants and Marvin Williams all make their way to the NBA, leaving him with an unproven and youthful roster to work with the following year. That team, led by freshman All-American Tyler Hansbrough, had some ups-and-downs that first season, but eventually grew into a national champion four years later. That 2009 title team lost quite a bit of talent as well, with Wayne Ellington, Ty Lawson and Danny Green joining Hansbrough in the NBA.

Williams didn’t win a national title in 2012, but that wasn’t due to a lack of talent on his roster. Harrison Barnes, John Henson, Tyler Zeller and Kendall Marshall are all making seven figures this season as first round NBA Draft picks, meaning that, once again, the Tar Heels are going to be heading into a season having to reload.

While there is some talent on this roster, including a potential lottery pick in sophomore forward James Michael McAdoo, there are a couple of question marks as well, the biggest being the smallest guy on the roster — Marcus Paige.

Paige, a freshman from Iowa, is the heir-apparent to Marshall at the point guard spot. I’ve said it before and I’ll probably say it again quite a few times before the season starts, but I believe that Marshall is one of the two most difficult players to replace this season (the other being Anthony Davis, for obvious reasons). North Carolina’s system thrives on point guard play, and what made Marshall so valuable wasn’t only his unreal playmaking ability (he averaged almost 10 assists per game) but how good he was at hitting ahead in transition. He made the Heels’ fast break just that much more deadly, and there’s certainly no questioning how much better he made his teammates — specifically Barnes — simply by being on the floor. Remember what UNC looked like before he took over for Larry Drew in 2010-2011? Remember what they looked like when he was injured in last season’s tournament?

The bottom-line is this: that role is going to fall into the hands of a freshman — a talented one, but still a freshman — who will be backed up by a transfer from Gardner-Webb, Luke Davis, and a senior combo-guard, Dexter Strickland, coming off of a torn ACL. With so much youth and inexperience on this roster, how Paige handles the pressure at the point could end up making or breaking North Carolina’s season.

The good news is that Paige will have plenty of perimeter talent surrounding him. Strickland, a senior that doubles as UNC’s best perimeter defender, should be back to 100% by the time the season starts. Leslie McDonald should be as well; he tore his ACL before last season even began. One of the more interesting subplots of UNC’s season will be seeing how Williams divvies up minutes on the wings. Strickland and McDonald are the vets that have earned their playing time, but both PJ Hairston — a sophomore — and Reggie Bullock — a junior — are bigger and more talented scorers, and that’s before JP Tokoto, a talented freshman, is factored into the equation.

McAdoo will be UNC’s anchor up front. A top ten recruit coming out of high school, McAdoo spent much of last season watching Zeller and Henson from the bench. He averaged just 6.1 points and 3.9 boards in less than 16 minutes as a freshman, but some impressive play during the postseason — McAdoo averaged 10.6 points and 4.8 boards in the final seven games after Henson hurt his wrist, including a 15 point performance against Kansas and Thomas Robinson in the Elite 8 — combined with his size, strength and athleticism has many predicting McAdoo to become an all-american candidate.

The question is who joins him up front? Will it be athletic-but-slender freshman Brice Johnson? Will it be burly freshman Joel James? Or seldom-used sophomore Desmond Hubert? Will Williams be willing to use a four-guard attack given the size of Bullock, Tokoto and Hairston?

Predictions?: UNC unquestionably has talent on their roster, as always. But there are also question marks. How good is Paige? How good is McAdoo? What happens in the front court? Who makes the leap from role player to secondary scorer? The Heels will still make the tournament and should finish in the top three in the ACC — and they could be even better than that — but given the youth, the inexperience and all the new faces in new roles, this is a tough group to project.

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @robdauster.

Comparing Kentucky to other champs who replaced everything

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Now the all five of Kentucky’s underclassmen stars are officially headed to the NBA (along with senior Darius Miller), it’s time to marvel at the production coach John Calipari must now replace.

Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Terrence Jones, Doron Lamb, Marquis Teague and Miller represented93 percent of the Wildcats’ scoring, 94 percent of their rebounds, 95 percent of their blocks, 96 percent of their steals and 96 percent of their assists. Those are simply staggering numbers, per Kyle Tucker of the Louisville Courier-Journal. (He has a complete listing of those totals and by player.)

It’s not anything new for a champion to lose a hefty amount of production. In just the last 10 years, at least four teams have been in the same position.

The 2005 Tar Heels lost their top seven scorers (Sean May, Rashad McCant, Ray Felton, Jawad Williams, Marvin Williams and Jackie Manuel), but those players “only” accounted for 84 percent of the team’s scoring. (David Noel and Reyshawn Terry managed to get on the scoreboard.) Those seven did account for massive amounts of rebounds (93 percent), but nothing else was above 83.

When Tyler Hansbrough, Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington, Bobby Frasor and Danny Green, it wasn’t nearly the same amount of attrition.

Kansas lost 80 percent of its scoring from its 2008 title team (Darrell Arthur, Mario Chalmers, Brandon Rush, Darnell Jackson and Sasha Kaun), but returned a sixth man in Sherron Collins and a big man who played a key role in the Final Four in Cole Aldrich.

Even the back-to-back Florida champs didn’t have replace as much even though it also lost its six top players (Joakim Noah, Al Horford, Taurean Green, Lee Humphrey, Chris Richard and Corey Brewer). Those six accounted for 83 percent of the scoring, 77 percent of the rebounds, 81 percent of the assists, 81 percent of the steals and 87 percent of the blocks. (Having Marreese Speights, Walter Hodge and Dan Werner helps).

Kentucky will probably be similar to ’06 UNC and Kansas. Both of those teams made the NCAA tournament the following season (Kansas was 27-8, won the Big 12 and reached the Sweet 16; UNC was 23-8 and second in the ACC). Florida (24-12) and the 2010 Tar Heels (20-17)  were in the NIT. The Wildcats’ incoming class – which will likely still add another impact newcomer – has elite players ready to step in at every position. And we’ve already learned that Calipari excels at replacing entire rosters.

It’ll undoubtedly look different, though. When you’re replacing everything, that can’t be helped.

You also can follow me on Twitter @MikeMillerNBC.

Seven stereotypes that explain why Syracuse is so elite

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Last week I had the pleasure of seeing the No. 1 team in the country up close and personal. It may have only been two games, but to watch this team from the baseline, to listen to coach Jim Boeheim speak after the game, and to see what fuels this team left no doubt in my mind they’re truly elite.

Assuming Butler doesn’t cut through another slew of elite programs, discerning between the handful of teams we’ve identified as “title contenders” suggests no clear favorite. If you can get to the final game in New Orleans, anything can happen.

With that, here’s the most compelling case for Syracuse to be one of two teams left standing by April 6, with seven stereotypes often found on National Championship winning or runner-up clubs, based on my in-person observations from the past week.  

The unassuming star: Brandon Triche

          Similar to: Nolan Smith (Duke, 2010); Jamar Butler (Ohio State, 2007)

If Planet Earth is invaded by aliens or a meteor threatens humanity, I’m hunting down Triche and following his lead. He’s incredibly calm – unwavering really – and efficient on the offensive end. “We have a bunch of go-to guys, not just one,” Jim Boeheim said after his team’s win over Providence.

That may be true, but Triche is at least the Orange’s go-to guy when they need a bucket most, and he’s head and shoulders above his peers in terms of basketball IQ.

The upperclassman leader: Kris Joseph

          Similar to: Kyle Singler (Duke, 2010); Brandon Rush (Kansas, 2008)

Arguably the game’s best senior, KrisJo has enhanced his offensive skill set since last season, improving his 3-point percentage (42.6) even though he’s shooting more of them per game. He’s the center of every team huddle, and has the biggest smile on his face whenever the opportunity presents itself.

Every championship winning team has a face that camera’s can’t pan away from. Joseph has the most raw talent on this roster, and he seems to be having the most fun out  there. He’s revel as a leader come March.

The super sophomore: Dion Waiters

          Similar to: Arron Afflalo (UCLA, 2006); Gilbert Arenas (Arizona, 2001)

Filling out the Orange’s talented backcourt rotation is Waiters, who appears to be the only NBA Lottery pick of the bunch. In person, Waiters almost impossible to contain for multiple possessions. Where Triche and Scoop Jardine have little problem beating their man off the dribble, Waters can do that and also slice through the second layer of defense to get a lay-up or dump pass to a big man.

At third in the conference in steals, despite committing only 1.5 fouls a game, Waiters is also a savvy defensive player. Unless there’s an injury, Waiters should never start a game.  For the only “Major Contributor” on this team to come off the bench must frighten opposing coaches.

The sophomore who’s growing up: Fab Melo

          Similar to: Joakim Noah (Florida, 2006)

Alright let’s all admit the Melo is sort of an awkward dude. He has a propensity to foul, looks like Eeyore, and always seems to run with extreme caution. But for Syracuse’s patented 2-3 zone to be effective, it must be long down low. His success is integral to this team’s success, especially as Boeheim shortens his rotation and limits Rakeem Christmas’ minutes.

The maturation of Melo is still in progress, but you rarely get a polished seven-footer right out of high school, so I’d say the Brazilian is actually meeting realistic expectations.  

The freshman that would start for any other team: Michael Carter-Williams

          Similar to: Marvin Williams (North Carolina, 2005)

In only five minutes of play against Providence, Carter-Williams scored four points and looked very comfortable in a road atmosphere. Then Brandon Triche hit four consecutive shots  to open the second half, and MWC wasn’t seen from again. He didn’t even step on the floor against Marquette.

“Michael played so good in the first half he probably thought he’d be in there in the second half,” Boeheim said after the Providence win. “But when you’re on the road and you got a guy like Brandon Triche and he makes four in a row, well, it just seems like a good idea to leave him in the game.”

It’s not an issue of talent. Carter-Williams really could start for a bunch of teams in the country. For now, though, he’s the subject of a bar room argument, the player fans point to when explaining to people just how historically this team is.

The fan-favorite bench player: Mookie Jones

          Similar to: Mark Titus (Ohio State, 2007); Wes Miller (North Carolina, 2005)

Once thought of as a soon-to-be-transfer after being buried on the Orange bench, Mookie Jones has stuck around Syracuse and developed into a lovable player that doesn’t really play. Every teammate of Jones has a personalized handshake with the senior forward during the starting line-ups, and Jones himself has publically said he feels like a celebrity on campus.

Basically, he’s your quintessential off-court glue guy who doubles as the human cigar.

The polarizing player: Scoop Jardine

          Similar to: Durrell Summers (Michigan State, 2009); Billy Edelin (Syracuse, 2005)

Last year, Jardine’s decision making was arguably the biggest reason Syracuse did not advance past the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament. While he’s turning the ball over at a bit higher rate this season, I only counted two (JUST TWO!) ill-advised shots from Scoop during the Providence and Marquette games.

This guy doesn’t have to score for Syracuse to win,  there are too many weapons on offense he can defer to. Every bad shot taken by Scoop is one less opportunity for a good shot a teammate could take later in the possession. Considering the Orange are averaging seven more points a game this season than last, and Jardine is averaging four less points a game, I think this kid is finally coming around –  looking to facilitate first, and score second.

That alone could be the difference that allows this team to win the 2012 National Championship.

Nick Fasulo is the manager of Searching for Billy Edelin. He did not go to Syracuse. Follow him on Twitter @billyedelinSBN.