As the North Carolina Tar Heels (14-5, 4-1 in ACC) prepare to host the North Carolina State Wolfpack (12-8, 2-4 in ACC) this afternoon, and with 11 conference games left in the season, what can we expect out of this young Tar Heels basketball team?
The season began with a lot of hoopla with a recruiting class that included first-team All-American Harrison Barnes, as well as highly touted guard Kendall Marshall, and Kinston-born guard Reggie Bullock. Even after the transfer of the Wear brothers left the Tar Heels undermanned at the post, despite the addition of Alabama transfer Justin Knox, the Tar Heel faithful began the season expecting a big turnaround from last year's team. The 2009-2010 team failed to qualify for the national tournament, and despite a run to the NIT championship game, was widely seen as an underachieving bunch. It will long be debated whether the 2009-2010 team had serious chemistry issues that caused the team to severely under-perform in ACC play.
Regardless, this year's team began the season ranked in the Top 10, and quickly dropped out of the Top 25 after losing to then-unranked Minnesota and Vanderbilt in Puerto Rico. Despite losing at Illinois and Texas, at Greensboro, the Tar Heels defeated Kentucky at home to round up their non-conference schedule with an unimpressive 10-4 record. After five games of conference play, the Tar Heels have been inconsistent at times, but besides being routed at Georgia Tech 58-78, they have managed a respectful 4-1 conference record.
After all of this, what do we make of the 2010-2011 version of the Tar Heels? For those that have been watching Roy Williams-coached teams, the biggest thing they will notice is that the tempo is not quite what Coach Williams would like. A lot of that can be attributed to overall talent, and although some will point out that this may be due to overall youth, let's not forget that the Williams-coached team that followed the 2005 NCAA Men's Division I Basketball Championship team pushed the tempo quite a bit (that team averaged 79.4 PPG compared to this year's 76.9).
One interesting stat for a team that is basically playing with two undersized (under-massed would be a better term) post players in Tyler Zeller and John Henson, and Justin Knox is that the Tar Heels actually have a plus-5.9 rebounding margin per game.
On the other end of the spectrum, perhaps the two most head-scratching statistics for this team are the 32.9 three-point FG percentage, the lowest of a Tar Heel team since the 1999-2000 version, and the hideous 64.8 FT shooting percentage, the lowest for any Tar Heel team since 1996-1997. To put this in better perspective, the three-point shooting percentage ranks 233rd in the nation, ninth in the ACC, and 196th national rank in FT shooting percentage, fifth in the ACC.
For a team that can be expected to play a lot of close games, improving in both of those areas seems like a must if the Tar Heels are hoping to make a run at the national tournament.
Individually, there has been a lot written about Harrison Barnes and his struggles, and while he has not been first-team All-American material, he has hardly been the bust some claim he has been. Beyond his late-game heroics last Wednesday night against Miami, Barnes has scored more points (225) than anyone on the team besides Tyler Zeller (262). He is also tied for second in three-point field goals (23), fourth in assists (27) and third in rebounding (99). In other words, Harrison Barnes has played like a very good freshman (see team-leading 43 turnovers) on a very young team.
The play of Kendall Marshall, who took over the starting point guard slot after the Georgia Tech loss, has been a joy to watch. Marshall leads in the team in assists, averaging 4.5 per game, to go with 1.7 turnovers per game. The jury is still out on Marshall, but the future is terribly promising for Marshall.
Similarly, Tyler Zeller has put together a very good season, leading the team with 13.8 points per game and ranking second with 7.2 rebounds per game. Despite his FT shooting woes, John Henson has seen a vast improvement in his game. He continues to familiarize himself with the post position, while also putting some bulk to his lanky frame, and adding an impressive 2.8 blocked shots per game to his 10.5 points per game and 8.1 rebounds per game.
In the end, the season will be remembered by how the team fares down the stretch, in particular whether this team can erase the humiliation of the 32-point loss of last year's team against the Duke Blue Devils, and whether the team can return to the NCAA national tournament. A decent showing in ACC play, followed by a decent showing in the conference tournament should give the young Tar Heels a taste of national tournament play. However, expecting much more than a win, or two at the most, from this squad come national tournament play seems like a stretch at this point in time. That said, the future seems bright for the Tar Heel faithful.