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.
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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
– 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.