by David Cassilo / @dcassilo

portraits by Atiba Jefferson / @atibaphoto

I’ll admit it, Carolina fans. When I drove down to Chapel Hill from Washington, DC, to write the cover story, I had to make a pit stop in Durham. I had to see Cameron. I was too much of a college basketball junkie not to check it out.

I double parked the car, put the blinkers on and then walked inside the arena. I roamed the court, sat in the bleachers and ogled the trophy case.

After about 30 minutes there, I jumped back in the car and drove to Chapel Hill. I perused the campus bookstore (there are Carolina-blue Jordan slippers for babies!), lost myself in the basketball museum and then reached the Smith Center.

That building deserves its own paragraph. The numbers hanging from the rafters are a who’s who of college basketball. And being surrounded by that shade of blue—I can only assume that is similar to the blue in heaven. UNC Tar Heels

You see things are different in North Carolina. College basketball is religion. Mark my words: I’m probably the last person in the state to have said heaven has Carolina-blue (or Duke-blue for those fans further north).

Lockout or no lockout, we needed to put North Carolina on the cover this year. This is the team to watch in the year to watch college basketball. There won’t be any Butler and VCU miracle runs this year. The Cinderellas are dead. The powerhouses are back.

Where are your pros for the 2011-12 season? They are playing college basketball.

Need a public enemy No. 1 like LeBron James and the Miami Heat to root for? Set your sights on Austin Rivers and Duke.

Kevin Durant and the OKC Thunder more your type? Try the young guns down in Kentucky led by Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.

How about the old school smoothness of Tim Duncan and the San Antonio Spurs? Watch Jared Sullinger work in the paint for the Ohio State Buckeyes.

And then there’s those Tar Heels. They are your Los Angeles Lakers, fully equipped with the history, the legendary coach (Roy Williams), the star (Harrison Barnes) and the all-league type player at every position.

Just two seasons removed from the NIT, the Tar Heels are back atop the NCAA as the season is set to begin. Barnes, John Henson, Kendall Marshall, Dexter Strickland and Tyler Zeller could be the most electrifying starting lineup since the Fab Five. This team is that good.

Is the national title a formality? The field is too good this year to hand anyone the trophy, but I will say this much: When I finished my initial draft for this article it came out to be 2012 words. Strange coincidence or just another reason to think they’ll be cutting the nets next March?

Watch them, and you’ll understand why college basketball is such a big deal in North Carolina. It’s only fitting that the Tar Heels are on the cover to start this season because this is the season you’ll get a chance to feel the same way about college basketball as their fans do.

Have fun.

Ed’s Note: We’re good, huh? OF COURSE we’d rather the lockout be over, but we’re also pretty proud that we plotted this cover about six weeks ago and it drops today?! Reminds you that we know what we’re doing. Besides the college game, which we cover thoroughly in this issue with the UNC cover story, pieces on Ashton Gibbs, Jared Sullinger and profiles of both the top-five freshmen to watch and a Sweet 16 of other collegians you must see play this year, the best thing basketball has had going for it during these dark days is the shoe companies. Much like adidas helped us rock with Derrick Rose last month (still coppable in most of America, so get it if you haven’t!), this month’s issue boasts great, detailed stories and interviews with Carmelo Anthony (h/t Jordan Brand) and John Wall (h/t Reebok). There’s also a Jrue Holiday feature, an Impact League feature, lengthy and informative stories on Robert Traylor and Muggsy Bogues, exciting high school players and all sorts of dope sneaker coverage. Oh, and you know Shawn Bradley’s in there, too. *Sigh.*—Ben Osborne