Midnight Madness is over, and with it went the smoke machines, dunk contests and laser shows that kick off the season. College basketball begins now, and while the excitement still remains it’s time to peel the hype back and see who the nation’s best truly are. That’s why Dime has you covered with individual previews of the nation’s top 15 teams and a few others just outside, all over the course of the next few weeks. Today, North Carolina.
Four players, four picks, all in the top 17 selections of last June’s NBA Draft. Maybe it’s a sizable compliment of the Roy Williams’ ability to mold successful teams that coaches picked North Carolina to finish third in the ACC. He’ll have the same kind of talent that always flows through the pipeline to Chapel Hill, after all. But maybe because of that same talent and coaching reputation, it’s simply blind faith in a team with no discernible identity after losing John Henson, Tyler Zeller, Harrison Barnes and Kendall Marshall to the pros. Will the faith produce the evidence to believe in come March?
Sophomore James Michael McAdoo is so talented and played so well in the season’s final month that he was actually being considered his team’s best athlete among four NBA picks. NBADraftInsider.com has him at No. 2 on its 2013 Draft “Big Board,” while DraftExpress.com places him fifth. Mind you, he’s started just three games in college. Now one of 50 on the Wooden Award watch list, the 6-9, 230 forward McAdoo is very comfortable jumping passing lanes for steals, and can finish at the rim easily. He’s not the best in that regard on this team, though — not even close. J.P. Tokoto has been compared with Vince Carter for his bounce — just hit the jump to see the evidence why.
Dexter Strickland is the best defensive player on this roster and locking down a wing player never hurts in the ACC (he’s also an incredible shooter, but I’ll get to that in a second). McAdoo has a 7-1 wingspan and even at 6-9, should be more aware defensively this season to increase his rebounds per game from 3.9 per game. Guard Reggie Bullock is actually the team’s leading returning rebounder at 5.1 per game, which was a bonus last season among the Tar Heels’ Henson and Zeller but this season he can’t be the best (look for help from 6-9 sophomore Desmond Hubert and 6-10 freshman Joel James there). As far as shooting goes, Bullock was a 38-percent shooter from three last season, while Strickland offers the most eye-popping stat on the entire roster — 57 percent shooting from the floor last season.
Nine lettermen were lost from last year’s team, just two starters return (Bullock, Strickland) and just four other players return who played last season. A fifth comes back in McDonald, who averaged 7 points per game in 2010-11 before missing all of last season with a knee injury, but the point remains: Forget how the new pieces will fit, how the returners mesh is just as big a question. Strickland, a former high school teammate of Kyrie Irving for one season, will be essential in being a Roy Williams on the court by directing traffic and giving freshman starting point guard Marcus Paige direction. McDonald has stated that he is active in creating bonds with his teammates, instead of the division of 2010, but those seeds are still being planted right now.
It’s a two-part question involving something older, something new. McDonald was a part, with Strickland, of the last team to have this much upheaval around UNC. The 2010 Tar Heels lost 17 games and wound up in the NIT, the only Williams-coach Tar Heel team to miss the NCAA Tournament. After knee surgery kept him out all of last season how quickly he can get comfortable is crucial. Then there’s the man leading the show, Paige. The starting point guard duties, so crucial on the best North Carolina teams under Williams with the likes of Ty Lawson and Raymond Felton, will be the southpaw standout’s now after he averaged 28 points per game as a senior in high school. He will be just as big a factor into the team’s success or failure as starting point guard. Will he be more akin to Bobby Frasor, the frosh who started on a surprising 2006 team, or Larry Drew II, who was a flop in 2010?
Williams loves the secondary break, an approach that has broken down defenses for the Jayhawks and Tar Heels for decades. Running that this season will not be a problem with the wealth of guards he has even if some haven’t been major players in college before. Finding out who can offset McAdoo in the post offensively will be a challenge, however. The fifth starter, at center, is but one of many questions Williams has to answer before a Nov. 27 tilt against No. 1 Indiana, which precedes another brutal run in the ACC.
What do you think?
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