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College Basketball Countdown: No. 14 North Carolina Preview


Visit the online store for North Carolina and other editions of the 2012-13 Athlon Sports College Basketball annual.

The first practices of college basketball season begin in mid-October, and Athlon Sports 2012-13 preview annuals are starting to arrive on newsstands all over the country.

To prepare for the start of college basketball season, we will preview one team each weekday, counting down to the first official day of basketball practice on Oct. 15, or for some teams on Oct. 12.

We continue our countdown with a preview of No. 14 North Caroilna.

Through the course of the offseason, North Carolina had more on its mind than building or rebuilding, national championships and NITs. In the end, coach Roy Williams received some good news when a tumor removed from his right kidney in September was found to be non-cancerous. Further tests need to be done, but the Tar Heels coach may feel a little more at ease.

When Williams receives a clean bill of health, he’ll get back to the task of working with his new-look basketball team. A year after losing four of the top six vote-getters for the All-ACC team, the Tar Heels head into 2012-13 short on proven talent. It’s an unusual — although not unprecedented — scenario for one of the nation’s most consistently successful programs.

Gone are stalwarts Harrison Barnes, John Henson, Kendall Marshall and Tyler Zeller, who were selected in the first 17 picks of the NBA Draft. The Tar Heels faced a similar situation after their 2005 NCAA championship, when they produced four of the first 14 NBA draft picks, and finished the next season ranked in the top 10.

The rebuilding effort after North Carolina’s NCAA title in 2009 didn’t go so well, with the Tar Heels landing in the NIT after losing three first-round selections. That failure is fresh in the minds of guards Dexter Strickland and Leslie McDonald, the lone remaining members of the last North Carolina team to miss the NCAA Tournament.

“I feel like we’re going to be an underdog just a little bit,” Strickland says. “I think we have something to prove.”

The Tar Heels will face the challenge with an inexperienced roster. Only three players on the entire team — Strickland, swingman Reggie Bullock and forward James Michael McAdoo — have started a game at North Carolina. Strickland has 59 of those 80 starts.

“You only get experience by experiencing it,” Williams says. “I’m sure Mark Twain probably said that at one time.”

The Tar Heels must replace their three leading scorers from each of the last two years in Barnes, Henson and Zeller. Much of the burden will fall on McAdoo, who has first-round potential himself. McAdoo blossomed late during his freshman year after a tentative start, showing promise that could make him a consistent double-double threat in 2012-13.

“James Michael really played well the last 10 games of the season,” Williams says. “If you take his number off and do some things to hide who it was and watch him those last 10 games, there’s nobody in the world who would say it’s the same kid.”

McAdoo will get help up front from freshmen Joel James and Brice Johnson. James is a big, bulky post player with physicality, while Johnson has the lean, athletic frame associated with North Carolina’s fast-paced style. The Tar Heels are hoping for development from Desmond Hubert, who is limited offensively but can contribute rebounding and shot blocking.

The Tar Heels have experience on the perimeter, but they face two key questions. Can they adequately replace Marshall, who set an ACC record with 351 assists a year ago, at the point? And can McDonald and Strickland regain their form after ACL surgeries sidelined them last season?

Strickland, a defensive stopper who has served as North Carolina’s starting shooting guard the last two years, will get more time at point guard than in the past. He could open the season as the starter at the point, but the job figures to go to freshman Marcus Paige eventually. Paige is left-handed and wears No. 5 — just like Marshall — but he has more of a scoring mentality than his predecessor.

The Tar Heels are loaded with shooters on the wing, but they need those shot-takers to become shot-makers. Bullock, McDonald and P.J. Hairston love to hoist 3-pointers; as a group, 60 percent of their career field goal attempts have come from 3-point range. Freshman J.P. Tokoto, a superior athlete who is working on adding range to his jumper, also will be in the mix on the wing.

The ACC isn’t as strong at the top — or from top to bottom — as it used to be. So this North Carolina team, even with the talent it lost, can contend for the conference championship. A trip to the Final Four, where no player on the current roster has been before, seems less likely.

But if the Tar Heels get strong play at point guard, improve their outside shooting and avoid the serious injuries that have short-circuited recent seasons, they’ll find themselves in the mix just as the 2005-06 North Carolina team did. If they come up short in those areas, they could produce a result closer to what the 2009-10 team did.

“Everybody is thinking that we won’t be as talented and we won’t be able to accomplish the same goals that we accomplished last season,” Strickland says. “I think that just gives everybody more motivation to do even better.”

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Athlon College Basketball Countdown So Far:
20. Florida

19. Notre Dame

18. Memphis
17. Baylor
16. Missouri
15. San Diego State