With Harrison Barnes returning to North Carolina for his sophomore year, I have found myself wondering just how significant is his return to the team and just how good will this team be with Barnes returning.
Barnes’ return, along with the returns of Tyler Zeller, John Henson and Kendall Marshall, means all five starters from last year’s Elite Eight team will be returning as starters again this year. It means that four potential first round draft picks passed on the bag of green for a shot at basketball glory. It means that North Carolina will most likely be ranked No. 1 in the preseason polls.
Those are all obvious observations, but when everything is said and done, this team has the potential to be remembered as one of the deepest and most prolific teams in college basketball history.
The way this team turned their previous season around was remarkable. After starting the season a mediocre 7-4 (at least for their standards), the Tar Heels went on to win 22 of their next 26 games, three of those loses coming against two elite teams, Duke and Kentucky.
The addition of Kendall Marshall to the starting line-up and the emergence of Barnes elevated North Carolina’s play into near elite status entering the NCAA March Madness tournament. North Carolina surprised most (including me) by fighting their way into the Elite Eight before eventually being eliminated by Kentucky in a close game.
The purpose of this article is to take a very deep, objective look into how successful this team could really be next season.
Elevated Play During the NCAA Tournament
What was most fun to watch during North Carolina’s run to the Elite Eight was the elevated play of their entire starting five: Zeller, Barnes, Henson, Strickland and Marshall. Here is the stat line for these five players during the NCAA tournament:
In essence, each of these players improved on every single one of these aspects of their game in comparison to the regular season/ACC tournament, with the exception of Henson averaging fewer assists per game.
Now I’m not ignorant enough to believe that these five players will put up these sorts of numbers throughout the entire season next year (imagine if they do, though), but I do definitely believe that they will improve on their numbers and skill levels a good amount with one more year of experience underneath their belts. This should mean major trouble for the rest of NCAA.
The second objective factor I want to take into consideration, in regards to how special this team could truly be, is the individual accolades that were awarded to some of the members of this team after last season. Not to ignore the fact that Henson was a unanimous choice to the ACC All-Defensive Team and Barnes and Marshall were both selected to the ACC All-Freshman Team (Barnes unanimously), but I really dug into how many Tar Heels could finish on the All-ACC First Team next year.
As selected by the 75 members of the Atlantic Coast Sports Media Association, Zeller, Henson and Barnes all made the All-ACC Second Team last season, with 161, 148 and 145 points respectively. Kendall Marshall was named to the All-ACC Third Team with 45 points.
What’s evident here is that not one Tar Heel was selected to the All-ACC First Team, so what makes me believe that any of them will finish on the All-ACC First Team this upcoming season?
Six of the other 11 members on the All-ACC teams were seniors last season, so they will obviously not be returning to their respective schools. In addition, four more members have declared for the NBA draft, leaving only one member of the All-ACC teams that’s not a Tar Heel returning to school next season (although all four of the players who declared for the NBA draft have not hired agents yet).
That one member is Malcolm Grant, who finished just above Marshall on the All-ACC Third Team with 62 points. However, if Marshall had started for North Carolina the entire season and had his minutes been up all year the way they were in the second half of the season, he would have most likely received more points than he did and would have probably finished with a higher ranking on the All-ACC Third Team, or maybe even on the All-ACC Second Team.
Taking everything into consideration, North Carolina could potentially have four members on the All-ACC First Team next year. Yes, there are some good freshmen that will join various ACC teams, including three five-star players, according to the ESPNU 100 recruitment rankings, but freshman have a tendency to struggle parts of their freshmen year, which could lose them some points during the voting for the All-ACC teams.
Austin Rivers, with the departures of Nolan Smith, Kyle Singler and Kyrie Irving, is expected to carry the offensive load for Duke and could steal a spot on the All-ACC First Team. If Jordan Williams and Reggie Jackson decide to return to their respective schools, they too have good odds at making the All-ACC First Team. However, besides these three players, no other ACC players are serious threats at taking All-ACC First Team spots away from the four North Carolina players.
Of course, that last statement is not taking into consideration the emergence of young or experienced players from the various ACC teams, but the potential for improvement all four of the Tar Heels possess also has to be taken into consideration.
If Strickland plays really well, or one of the other two North Carolina shooting guards (Reggie Bullock and Leslie McDonald) step up to take over the starting spot at that position, one of them could potentially rack up enough points to land a spot on the All-ACC Third Team. One of them could even find himself on the All-ACC Second Team.
Better yet, imagine the All-ACC First Team featuring five North Carolina players! It’s always fun to dream!
The final objective factor I want to take into consideration is the ESPNU 100 recruitment rankings of some of the North Carolina Tar Heel players.
Zeller was ranked as the sixth best recruit entering college basketball in 2008. Henson was ranked the sixth best recruit, Strickland the 27th and McDonald the 32nd in 2009. Entering college basketball in 2010 was Barnes, the number one recruit, Bullock, the 18th ranked recruit and Marshall, the 22nd ranked recruit. Finally, entering next season are James McAdoo, the fifth best recruit in the country, and P.J. Hairston, the 12th best recruit.
In comparison, Duke’s roster next year will feature just five players who ranked as the 32nd best recruit or better entering their freshman year of college basketball, as will Kentucky’s roster.
So what does this have to do with the success of North Carolina on the basketball court next year?
Simple answer: nothing.
However, it does prove how truly deep this team will be next season and how much talent is featured on this team.
Not only have these players been ranked high prospects coming into the NCAA, but they have all lived up to their expectations thus far. Barnes, Zeller and Henson all had really good seasons last year, living up to their five-star ranking. Marshall stepped his game up a lot last season during the second half and looks to have a bright future ahead of him for the Tar Heels. Strickland, McDonald and Bullock all had solid season last year, and all have the potential to start on this team the upcoming season. If McAdoo and Hairston perform up to their high ratings, then this team will be flat out scary.
If only the Wear twins and Larry Drew II didn't transfer over to UCLA, this team would have 12 players on their roster this upcoming season that all ranked in the top 40 on the ESPNU 100 recruitment rankings.
No reason to get upset over this, though, as nothing I do or say will change the fact that they transferred.
All I could do is look forward to November, when college basketball starts up again, during which time I will be able to hopefully see the Tar Heels dominate all their opponents.