Even for a tradition-rich program like North Carolina, this was a big week.
A trip to Las Vegas (one Roy Williams would rather forget) was followed by hosting the undefeated Wisconsin Badgers and a trip to Lexington to face the top-ranked Kentucky Wildcats. If that doesn’t test your team, nothing will.
It’s all part of the Tar Heels’ larger plan this season. They returned all five starters – most of whom will be starters in the NBA — from an Elite Eight team with national title aspirations in 2012. If that happens, it’d be their third since 2005. Not too bad.
But first, they have to prepare. So T.H. from Carolina March talked me through some of the looming question marks surrounding UNC this season and how they’d match up against Williams’ other two title teams.
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Q: North Carolina was the consensus No. 1 to start the season. But with the nagging injuries and occasionally tepid play, are the Heels better off to *not* be the team to beat for a while? Does that make it easier to work out the kinks before the games really matter?
A: Honestly, I don’t think it matters in the scheme of things. I doubt any team is going to come at UNC any differently because there’s not a number one next to their name, and the media attention won’t let up any time soon. Not having an undefeated season on the line might help in the postseason, but I don’t know whether that would have been an issue or not.
Q: What’s the fan base expecting for this season? Is anything less than a national title a failure? And is that fair?
A: “Expect” is kind of a loaded word. Probably the best way to put it is that everyone realizes a national title is within reach, and that players stuck around in part to win one. There’s always going to be a letdown right after a tournament loss, but I can definitely see scenarios where fans just accept that it wasn’t in the cards, and other scenarios where falling short is a source of anguish for years to come.
Q: Biggest obstacle to UNC winning it all? Or are there multiple issues to resolve?
A: An excellent three-point shooting team will always give Carolina teams a bit of a scare, but I’m worried right now about how many teams are holding their own inside against the Heels right now. If they allow themselves to be pushed around and beaten on the boards, like UNLV and to a lesser extent Michigan State and Wisconsin did, they’re only going to get so far in March.
Q: Does it seem like the Heels are more experienced than the roster really shows? I think it’s easy to forget savvy guys like Harrison Barnes and Kendall Marshall are still just sophomores.
A: They’re sophomores with a year of starting experience, and who were pretty preternaturally composed to start with. So yes, they seem more experienced than your typical underclassmen. You could really see the difference in defense against Wisconsin when the freshman were on the floor as opposed to Marshall and Barnes. McAdoo and Hairston were the only ones leaving their feet on pump fakes.
Q: Compare this season’s squad to Roy Williams’ other “loaded” teams in 2004-05 and 2008-09. Would they match up well with those national champion teams?
A: I think so. They’re a little younger than the core of the other two teams, and they don’t have quite the outside shooting confidence as the others did yet. On the other hand, they’ve handled more adversity than the 2009 squad and are deeper than both, I think.
Q: Williams got a little miffed at some UNC boosters who sold their tickets to UNLV fans during the Heels’ loss in Vegas last week. Would that have still been a big deal if UNC had won the game? Or is that just something that Williams will always talk about, win or lose?
A: Well, he complained about the same thing after a blowout win over Presbyterian, so yes, I think he will. He’s very protective of his team and their families in that regard.
Q: Who’s the most popular Heel on this roster? Do the fans go nuts for anyone?
A: I think they’ll go nuts for any and everyone, given the opportunity, but Barnes is probably going to get the most attention, for obvious reasons.
Q: Dream scenario for March: How does Carolina finish and who do they beat in the Final Four?
A: I’d like something similar to the UNC-Illinois championship game – a title game where they win close over another number one seed. I’d prefer Ohio State, as this trend of Big Ten opponents seems to be working out well for the Heels. As fun as the win over Michigan State was a few years back, I’ve had enough of five and eight seeds in the tournament. Round the Final Four out with another 1-seed (Kentucky?) and a mid-major that was criminally underseeded at a four and I’ll have a very happy weekend.
Having Duke exit in the round of 32 would be nice, too.
You can read more at Carolina March and follow T.H. on Twitter @carolinamarch.
You also can follow me on Twitter @MikeMillerNBC.