Friday, April 22, 2011

Too much is never enough

Call it luck or fortune or coincidence. Some may deem it too much of a good thing or an abundance of riches. However it is sliced, one thing is for sure. Roy Williams’ North Carolina Tar Heels will be the best team in the nation for the 2011-2012 NCAA basketball season.

Following a nice run to the Elite Eight in the NCAA tournament, the off-season was going to be full of wonder. This currently constructed Tar Heel roster was packed with young talent, only having one senior who made any kind of contribution all season long. The regular starting five was comprised of two freshmen, two sophomores and one junior. If everyone was going to come back to school, UNC would be a force to be reckoned with.

First came the announcement that star seven footer Tyler Zeller and conference defensive player of the year John Henson would both be returning to Chapel Hill. There was some debate whether both could be lottery picks in this summer’s NBA draft. There was no debate that each would have gotten chosen in the first round of said draft. But rather than pursue professional money and fame, they chose to return, to come back to campus in hopes of winning a National Championship after coming oh so close this past season.

Then came the recruitment announcements. Roy Williams had collected an impressive crop of freshmen to join his team, perhaps topped only by Kentucky coach John Calipari. Made up of two of the top 15 high school players in the nation (according to both Top 150 Prospect Ranking and ESPN’s ESPNU 100), power forward James McAdoo would be joined by shooting guard P.J. Hairston, giving North Carolina two more potent weapons to add to their already impressive display.

McAdoo is an excellent rebounder and shot-blocker, already with a more polished offensive game than new teammate John Henson. Conversely, Hairston is a shooting guard through and through. He has deep range and likes to prove it. He should provide for Roy Williams what he was hoping to get this past season out of Reggie Bullock and Leslie McDonald.

Lastly, and most recently, news trickled out that last year’s first ever freshman AP preseason All-American, Harrison Barnes, would be returning to school. He didn’t let it linger like many projected lottery picks in the past. He could have entered himself in the draft and not hired an agent. Instead, he made it clear he had unfinished business to attend to at Chapel Hill. Making the Elite Eight wasn’t good enough. Barnes wanted to come back.

He would most assuredly have been a top five selection in the NBA draft. He could have gone number one even, depending on who wins the lottery and what their feelings on him were. However, a weak draft and a probable top pick to his name were not enough to persuade Barnes, especially with the CBA uncertainty hitting the NBA as soon as this season comes to a close.

So all the dominoes fell and they all landed where Roy Williams wanted them to. His entire starting lineup would be returning, aided by more experience now coming off the bench and two top recruits would be joining the fray.

Perhaps overlooked in all the will-he-or-won’t-he business with the front court players was the fact that point guard Kendall Marshall was definitely coming back to run the show full time. After Larry Drew III transferred mid-season, Marshall took over and took charge, getting the best out of his teammates, especially Barnes. A freshman point guard without a single senior in the starting five with him, led his team to a regular season ACC title and the final eight of the NCAA tournament.

With the graduation of Nolan Smith at Duke, Malcolm Delaney at Virginia Tech and the departure of Boston College’s Reggie Jackson, it could be argued that Marshall is actually the best point guard in the Atlantic Coast Conference now. Just imagine what he will be able to do with this team around him, actually getting the reins from day one.

The only foreseeable problem for Williams and the Heels may be the aforementioned embarrassment of riches. Who is going to start for this team? Which star players aren’t going to get the minutes they desire and how will they react to it? Who works best as the sixth man and who can make shots cold off the bench with any consistency? All these and more will be questions the coaching staff will have to deal with and figure out.

You would expect Williams to employ the same starting five that carried him so far this spring. Marshall, Dexter Strickland, Barnes, Henson and Zeller are all familiar with each other. However, what if it becomes clear McAdoo is better than Henson or Strickland isn’t talented enough to ward off the incoming freshmen and sophomores? Could we actually see a lineup at some point that includes 6’8” Barnes, 6’8” McAdoo, 6’10” Henson and 7’0” Zeller all playing together with Marshall running the show? Only time will tell if the abilities would mesh but it would be quite the formidable front line.

The good thing is that Roy Williams almost famously goes at least 10 deep on his bench. He routinely shuffles in entire lineups on substitutions, occasionally even using players 11-15 to send a message if his stars aren’t working hard enough.

All of the lineups and the minutes and the roster breakdown are up in the air for now though. What we do know is that North Carolina will have a gigantic team with size all over the court. They will have all kinds of shooting coming off the bench with the freshman Hairston, and Bullock and McDonald returning. Perhaps the biggest weakness will be ball handling and having a backup to Kendall Marshall at the point. It is quite possible that Strickland can make that transition, filling a hole as well as opening a spot in the starting five.

It is much too early to know what the pre-season polls will look like. However, it is more than speculation to claim that North Carolina will have a very low number next to their name come November. Also easy to predict is the worry coming from rival programs around the nation.

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