*College basketball is here (unlike the NBA), and this year might be one of the best in recent memory. The powerhouse is back, while the Cinderellas believe. That’s a deadly combination. We know some of y’all have been asking for some previews. We have you covered – we’ve previewed each of the top 16 teams in the country. Today is the final one. After we broke down contenders Ohio State and Kentucky yesterday, we’ll finish this off with the best team in the country, No. 1-ranked UNC (ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll).*
Harrison Barnes got his driver’s license this summer at the relatively ripe age of 19. As is fitting for one of the more polished players at the college level in recent years, this gifted reporter’s tailor-made narratives had Barnes “in the driver’s seat” for preseason No. 1 North Carolina.
But for a team that Roy Williams hopes follows in the footsteps of his two previous UNC national champions, sophomore point guard Kendall Marshall is actually – one might venture to say – the one behind the wheel.
Here’s how this year’s UNC squad falls in line with Williams’ championship blueprint:
I’ll admit to not having been particularly enamored with Marshall the first time I saw him play live, at the 2010 Jordan Classic. Juxtaposed against Kyrie Irving, Marshall appeared a step slow. He had eight assists, six turnovers and no points in 24 minutes. But time has shown that the frenetic, unstructured pace wasn’t a true canvas for his abilities. (Josh Selby, on the other hand, excelled.)
Dime’s Sweet 16: Our Countdown Of The 16 Best Teams In The Nation
3. Ohio State
1. North Carolina
The turning point for UNC last year came right before Larry Drew took his basketball and hip-hop stylings to the West Coast. Marshall had usurped Drew in the starting lineup four games prior, and in the first game he didn’t have to share the point with Drew, Marshall broke the ACC freshman record with 16 assists in a win over Florida State.
While Marshall isn’t as fast as predecessors Ty Lawson or Raymond Felton, his poise and court vision make him effective on the break, and he improved at the rim as teams consistently played off him. With Marshall in the starting lineup, UNC won 17 of their final 20 and captured the ACC regular-season title, eventually bowing out to Kentucky in the Elite 8.
Williams has said he’d like Marshall to improve his shooting touch – though he shot a respectable 37 percent on threes last year – and has said he’ll closely monitor Marshall’s minutes with no real depth at the position. But if Roy’s teams typically go as far as their point guards take them, you have to like their chances with Marshall at the helm.
UNC would have contended for a championship simply by virtue of retaining walking double-doubles John Henson and Tyler Zeller, but the return of likely top five NBA Draft pick Harrison Barnes took expectations to another level.
After starting slow, Barnes was good enough to score 40 in an ACC Tournament game. But he admits that some key misses in the Kentucky loss haunted him, so he showed up in Chapel Hll this autumn having added an extra 15 pounds of muscle, ready to take his precision inside-outside game to another level.
Renowned for his acute focus, Barnes returned to UNC to take aim at an assortment of lofty but surely attainable achievements. Barnes was the unanimous preseason pick for ACC Player of the Year, and a la Tyler Hansbrough, he returned to school with a national title in his sights. Not to mention, Barnes is a perfectionist when it comes to his draft status: “As a competitor, you always want to be No. 1 more than No. 2 or No. 3.”
With the NBA locked-out and Irving gone from Durham, the spotlight and magazine covers belong to Barnes, who has never made a secret of his desire to cultivate his personal brand. Carolina is chock full of talent, but things are lined up for Harrison Barnes to singularly shine – just the way he likes it.
Williams’ national title teams in 2005 and ’09 each had a freshman big man that provided a game-changing element off the bench. Williams has mentioned James McAdoo’s name in the same breath as Marvin Williams and Ed Davis, but cautions not to heap plaudits on him before he figures out the college game.
“James Michael is going to be a really good basketball player,” Williams said at ACC Operation Basketball, “but right now there’s so many things up there [in his head] swimming around and bumping into each other, it’s hard.”
More resembling Marvin than Ed, McAdoo obviously has the pedigree and was explosive in high school. Relatively under-the-radar after being limited early by tendinitis, McAdoo is free to develop at his own pace into a player that could be a powerful supplement to an already loaded team.
UNC has its entire starting five back, supplemented by high-level recruits McAdoo and P.J. Hairston and a hopefully healthy Reggie Bullock. The loss of Leslie McDonald does sting for a team that was just 248th in the country in three-point shooting, but that’s a rare weakness for a squad that stepped up its defensive efficiency to the tune of sixth in the country.
You know the drill: Anything can happen in the unforgiving NCAA Tournament. But this may be Roy Williams’ most complete team. They’re battle-tested, and the sky appears to be the limit.
“Coach always says that’s the best feeling in the world, when you can do something that people think you can’t do,” Henson said last week. “That’s what we did last year. [Kentucky] was a tough, tough loss for us.
“But I think it put a chip on our shoulders for this year to come back and try to win it all.”