Can I tell you a dirty little secret? This year’s North Carolina Tar Heels are better than the team that lost to Kansas in the Elite Eight last year. Please don’t misunderstand me; this team is in no way superior to last year’s team when Kendall Marshall and company were healthy. In fact, those guys wipe the floor with this year’s team.
But it has been well-documented that last year’s team was a ship lacking a rudder when Marshall went down, which is why this year’s team can, excuse me, will advance further than last year’s group. How will they do it? Simple.
1. Guard Play
This team has guards for days. From top to bottom, there are impact players just waiting to light it up in Roy Williams’ fast-paced attack. Returning from an ACL injury is junior combo guard Leslie McDonald, who will figure to be a key reserve thanks to his experience and a lack of any glaring weakness.
Joining McDonald off of the bench will be sophomore sharpshooter P.J. Hairston. Ask any Tar Heel fan what last year’s team lacked, and they will lose their mind telling you how poor of an outside shooting team the Heels were a year ago. I’m serious. Don’t ask the question if you don’t want the answer screamed back at you. Hairston figures to be part of the solution to this problem as he attempts to regain the range that made him a McDonald’s High School All-American.
Back in a starting role is Dexter Strickland, who returns from a late-season ACL tear ready to insert himself into ACC Defensive Player of the Year contention. When Strickland went down a season ago, Kendall Marshall’s inability to stay in front of quicker guards went from small issue to glaring weakness. With Strickland back in the lineup, Carolina suddenly becomes rather stout defensively, a luxury Roy Williams has never had in Chapel Hill.
Strickland’s backcourt running mate, Marcus Paige, comes into the season with much fanfare, as the Carolina faithful hope to have found a Kendall Marshall clone featuring an improved jump shot. If the freshman guard can provide even a portion of what Roy Williams’ crew lost with the departure of Marshall to the NBA, fans on Franklin Street should be thrilled. The nation’s No. 1 point guard recruit has shown flashes of brilliance early this season, which is promising given his age. Look for Paige to improve with each game under the tutelage of Roy Williams and new assistant Hubert Davis.
2. The Emergence of Reggie Bullock
While a lot of other guys will be busy stealing headlines early this season, Reggie Bullock will be content proving himself as an All-ACC selection all year long. Carolina fans were treated to glimpses of Bullock’s potential during last year’s NCAA Tournament when Bullock put up a couple of stellar performances. The then-sophomore was particularly effective in an overtime win over the pesky Ohio Bobcats, putting up 17 points and grabbing 10 boards.
Still, No. 35 in Carolina Blue averaged just 8.8 points and 5.1 rebounds per game a season ago. Is he really prepared to be a top player in the nation’s best conference?
In a word, yes. At 6’7" and 205 pounds, Bullock has all of the tools to be a force on both sides of the ball. A noted three-point specialist, Bullock pleased coach Roy Williams and Tar Heel fans alike with a growing commitment to defensive excellence. Bullock’s true transformation into a defensive stopper came just as UNC was losing its top perimeter defender in Dexter Strickland.
Now, with both men back in the lineup, the quicker Strickland can harass opposing ball-handlers while the longer and more physical Bullock can use his size to make scoring a chore for even the most skilled of opponents. Factor in a growing offensive repertoire and a long-range shot that is as pure as ever, and Reggie Bullock appears ready to be one of the breakout stars of this college basketball season.
3. James Michael McAdoo
Speaking of breakout stars, ladies and gentlemen, I present to you your ACC Player of the Year. Carolina fans should enjoy him while they can because James Michael McAdoo is ready to step out from the shadows of last year’s frontcourt and have the best season for a UNC big man since Tyler Hansbrough.
How can so much be expected from a role player on last year’s Elite Eight team? Even in the star-heavy ACC, McAdoo possesses a rare combination of size, skill and athleticism that will make him a matchup nightmare throughout the conference.
Don’t believe me? In UNC’s four tournament games from a year ago, McAdoo averaged just south of 12 points and four rebounds in less than 20 minutes per contest. Now consider that McAdoo did most of his damage as a third, fourth or even fifth option for a team stacked in the frontcourt.
This year, McAdoo figures to be Carolina’s top option and average closer to 30 minutes each night, allowing him more touches and more opportunities to prove his worth. If the first two games of this season are any indication, Mr. McAdoo is ready to do just that.
No team brought more talent to the table last year than a healthy North Carolina. Because of injuries upon injuries, that UNC team fell short of the ultimate goal. Now, in a year with no clear front-runner, the new-look Tar Heels will look to play the role of dark horse and take the college basketball world by surprise. I say they will, and I say you should look forward to seeing this team in Atlanta.