College Preseason Top 25: No. 6, North Carolina
Roy Williams and Co. don’t rebuild, they reload.
There are few programs in the country that could lose their top four scorers to the NBA and still be competitive the next season, let alone find themselves in a lot of preseason top 10 rankings. Of course, most teams don’t stockpile the kind of talent that the Tar Heels do, featuring wave after wave of former McDonald’s All-Americans on their bench ever year. This season should be no different. While much of the early focus will be on who isn’t back (Tyler Hansbrough, Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington and Danny Green) the attention will soon turn to the crop of returners who will be joined by yet another elite recruiting class brought in by Roy Williams.
Few teams in the country this season will feature the kind of talent and depth that Carolina will boast in the frontcourt. Let’s start with who will be back, the super long trio of Deon Thompson, Ed Davis and Tyler Zeller. The senior of the group, Thompson, will finally have an opportunity to take more of a leading role as an inside presence, after sharing the court for the last three seasons with Hansbrough. Think of Thompson as a very good quarterback who spent his first three years on the sidelines behind a Heisman winner, now it’s his turn to take the reins. He posted career bests in scoring, rebounding and shooting last year and while his numbers may not scream All-American this year due to the number of weapons he has to share the basketball with, there is no question he will be counted on to perform at a high level. The 6-8 big man was at his best early in the season with Hansbrough out due to injury, posting averages of 15.4 points and 7.6 rebounds in his first ten games, recording a pair of double-doubles and two 20-point games. Thompson is a consistent finisher both in the post and on the offensive glass. He is equally adept scoring the basketball on either block, though he tends to favor setting up on the left side a little more often. He also excels for a big man in transition, doing an excellent job of trailing plays, then crashing to the basket for open looks from teammates.
Zeller is certainly the most difficult of these three players to try and predict in terms of his performance this season. The former high school All-American missed nearly three months with a broken wrist last season and upon returning saw very little playing time to speak of. Despite being a sophomore this season, fans will have to treat Zeller like a freshman in many ways. Sure he’s seen the ups and downs of big time college basketball, but he has exactly 117 minutes of playing time under his belt, so there may be some growing pains in the early part of the conference schedule. Still, it’s hard not to be impressed with what Zeller has shown in flashes and what he brings to the table. A legit 7-footer, the Indiana native is a face up big man with good athleticism and the ability to run the floor very well. He has a soft touch on his shot, both around the basket and from mid-range, to the point where he can work the hi-low set up very well potentially with Thompson.
Then there is Davis; the stud, the budding star, the big man on campus. Despite being a likely top-5 pick had he entered the draft, the super long, super athletic power forward opted for another season in Chapel Hill and the other ACC teams couldn’t be more unhappy. The youngster made a tremendous impact defensively and on the glass last season, averaging 6.6 rebounds and 1.7 blocks in just 18.8 minutes per game, an absolutely phenomenal rate of production in both categories. With his length and raw athleticism, Davis has the potential to emerge as one of the elite interior defenders in the country this season. The impressive thing about the sophomore is his ability to excel in both the up tempo, fastbreak game that has been the staple of UNC’s game the last several seasons as well as the slow down half court offense. Last year Davis got the majority of his touches in the post where he showed the ability to finish consistently from any spot in the lane. He still needs to get stronger in order to hold his position against stronger frontcourt players, but is still able to elevate over defenders for easy looks at the rim. In transition it is very easy to see why Davis is such a threat, able to eat up massive amounts of court with each stride and knowing how to run the lanes well. If Thompson is the trail option in the Carolina break then Davis is the big man who will get out and beat the defense down the floor for easy looks. If the youngster puts it all together this season, his first getting starters minutes, he could emerge as one of the best players in the country.
For most teams that would probably be more than enough talent to fill their frontcourt rotation, but Roy Williams locked up three additional frontcourt players to join his team this season, all of whom were McDonald’s All-Americans. The spindly John Henson was considered by many recruiting services to be the top power forward in his class thanks to his size, length and versatility. His lack of bulk and strength are going to be a concern early on, but the youngster presents an intriguing skill set for his size, able to handle the ball away from the paint, shoot consistently from mid-range and run the floor exceptionally well. His real presence will likely be felt on the defensive end early on in the season, much as Davis was able to do last year in his rotational position. Then there are the Wear twins, Travis and David, a pair of 6-10 power forwards out of California power Mater Dei. Both have fairly solid frames, packing around 225 pounds and like Henson, bring versatility to the position. The Wears have nicely developing post games, certainly more advanced than most big men are at their stage, and while they aren’t threats to operate on the perimeter on a regular basis, they will knock down open threes when trailing the fast break. Given how much UNC is already bringing back inside it is questionable whether or not these three will see big minutes on the floor this season, though Henson is the likely candidate to see the most playing time. Regardless, to have as many talented bigs as the Tar Heels do has to be a major comfort for the coaching staff.
Carolina definitely took a bigger hit in their backcourt and none hurt more than the loss of Ty Lawson, one of the most explosive guards in the country and one of the best offensive facilitators as well. The individual who will be charged to pick up the slack at the point guard position will be sophomore Larry Drew II. The former McDonald’s All-American has playmaking in his blood, as his father dished out over 3,700 assists during a ten year NBA career, and as a freshman last year, Drew averaged nearly two assists per game in less than ten minutes. The California native doesn’t have the same solid build as Lawson, nor does he have the same kind of second gear (very few in college did), but he does possess good quickness and the ability to change speeds very well. Drew is very much going to be a past first player, not that he isn’t capable of putting up points, but his scoring prowess isn’t at the same level as his playmaking is. He is a streaky perimeter shooter, lacking a consistent release on his shot at this point in his career, and while he can get to the basket and finish, it will be difficult to do in traffic with his smaller frame.
The return of redshirt senior Marcus Ginyard will be a huge plus for an otherwise youthful backcourt. The swingman missed almost all of last season after an extended recovery period from offseason foot surgery, but will help anchor this team on the perimeter, specifically on the defensive end. He is long, quick and athletic, and has been the Tar Heels top on ball defender during his tenure with the team. Offensively he has never been a big time threat, tending to get his points in transition and with hustle plays; with a bevy of scorers back again this year don’t expect that to change. Ginyard is the kind of player who is needed in order to have success in the postseason; a veteran who has been there and has a knack for playing lockdown defense.
The Tar Heels also added a pair of standout freshman to their backcourt as well, giving them a total of five newcomers who ranked in the top 40 in the ESPN national rankings. New Jersey product Dexter Strickland is a 6-3 shooting guard who has been playing at a high level for years after serving as the top scoring option for national power St. Patrick’s. The youngster has a tremendously smooth feel for the game and just has a nose for the basket. Strickland is a great athlete with good handles and his ability to finish consistently in transition will make him a perfect fit for the up tempo style that Carolina likes to play with. Leslie McDonald, another shooting guard, is much more of a thinking man’s kind of player. He has good athleticism, but not nearly at the same level as Strickland. What McDonald does have is a smooth jumper and a very high basketball IQ. He just seems to know how to read defenses and hit them where they are at their most vulnerable. This two-guard is the kind of cerebral scorer who is good to have in the lineup when the fastbreak game isn’t there and it’s time to slow it down to a half court offense.
There are definitely going to be some growing pains for an extremely young UNC team this season, but it isn’t anything Roy Williams hasn’t dealt with in the past. No team, not even Carolina, bounces back completely after losing the kind of talent they did after last year’s national championship. With that said, the roster boasts enough talent and athleticism for the Tar Heels to potentially roll through the regular season and be the toast of the ACC once again. Don’t, however, be shocked if the youngsters make a rather unexpected early exit come the postseason where experience clearly plays a much more significant role than it does during the regular season. Regardless if UNC cruises to another number one seed or takes a little bit longer to start clicking on the court, it is going to be a fun team to watch develop over the course of the season.