After the North Carolina Tar Heels fell one step short of the Final Four, Roy Williams entered the offseason uncertain about what his team might look like for 2011-12. Now, he couldn’t be more pleased. Each member of Williams’ starting frontcourt — Harrison Barnes, John Henson and Tyler Zeller — passed up a chance to enter the NBA Draft. Their decision to stay in school means that the Tar Heels return their top seven scorers from last season. Throw in a recruiting class that includes top-flight freshmen James McAdoo and P.J. Hairston, and UNC is a favorite to win its third NCAA college basketball title in the last eight years.
“I’ve had five or six teams that I thought had a chance if they get lucky, if things go well, to win a national championship,” Williams says. “That’s the same kind of thing I think with this team. But you never know what’s going to happen.”
UNC’s starters up front will contend for All-ACC first-team status after the trio combined for 43.1 points per game last season. Barnes got off to a slow start amid unreasonably high expectations for his freshman season, but he established himself as a fearless shot-maker in the clutch. He spent the offseason working on his ball-handling, which he hopes will enable him to drive more to the basket rather than relying so heavily on his jumper.
Henson, with his long reach and leaping ability, has become the ACC’s most dominating defensive force. He still needs to improve his offense, but he led the league in blocked shots (3.2 bpg) and finished third in rebounding (10.1 rpg) last year as a sophomore. Zeller, meanwhile, proved how effective he could be when healthy for a full season. The senior remains a perfect fit for UNC’s transition game — “He’s as good a runner as I’ve ever coached,” Williams says — and he has refined a right-handed hook shot as his go-to move in the post.
McAdoo figures to rotate in as the team’s third big man, and sophomore Reggie Bullock can spell Barnes at small forward after missing the final nine games last season with a knee injury. Senior Justin Watts is undersized as a backup forward, but he compensates with explosive leaping ability.
Tar Heels Key Stat: 19.7
Harrison Barnes averaged 19.7 points over the final 18 games of his freshman season. He averaged 11.8 in his first 19 games.
The Tar Heels won 17 of their final 20 games last season, a run that began when Kendall Marshall became their starting point guard. Marshall took over the starting role after outplaying incumbent Larry Drew II for the first half of the season, and he received heavy minutes after Drew quit the team in early February. Now a sophomore, Marshall is comfortable in his leadership position. He isn’t UNC’s top talent, but he is its most indispensable player because of the team’s lack of depth at his position.
Ultra-quick junior Dexter Strickland struggled with his shooting for the second year in a row, but he found his niche as UNC’s best perimeter defender. He will continue to start at shooting guard while also serving as Marshall’s primary backup at the point.
The Tar Heels shot just 32.8 percent from 3-point range last season, an area they must improve to fulfill their national championship aspirations. Junior Leslie McDonald was expected to provide some outside shooting off the bench, but he suffered a torn ACL over the summer. His loss will put more pressure on Bullock and Hairston to deliver some scoring from the perimeter.
The Tar Heels face different expectations from the ones they encountered a year ago. Then, UNC basketball rallied around the idea of clawing their way to the top of the ACC after they fell out of the Top 25 early in the season. Now, they will open the season at the top of every major poll because of their unequaled combination of talent, depth and experience.
Anything less than the ACC regular-season title and a trip to the Final Four would be a disappointment for UNC players, coaches and fans alike. There are no guarantees in the single-elimination world of the NCAA Tournament, of course, but the Tar Heels have as good a chance as anyone of cutting down the nets in New Orleans — coincidentally, the site of Dean Smith’s 1982 and ’93 national titles.
“We have the opportunity to win it all, and we have the opportunity to completely fail,” Barnes says. “It’s just a matter of whether we continue to stay humble and continue to take the right steps and get our way back up to the top like we did last year.”
ACC Prediction: 1st
NCAA Tournament Prediction: National Champs