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October 5, 2011Heading into the upcoming hoops season, Roy Williams once again finds himself in charge of a team that a lot of people think has an excellent chance to win a national championship.
While nothing's ever a given in March Madness, it can be reasonably assumed that UNC is going to be in excellent position to earn a No. 1 seed that time of year coming off what will likely be another 25-plus win regular season and a possible run to an Atlantic Coast Conference title during the winter.
Carolina brings back every major contributor from the 2010-2011 season with exception of Larry Drew II, who of course transferred, and Leslie McDonald, who will miss the season with a knee injury.
With over 85 percent of the team's scoring and almost all of its rebounding coming back, as well as a freshman class that fills many of the gaps that last year's team had, there's no question that this team can be pretty darn good.
But just how good can the 2011-2012 Tar Heels be?
"Honestly I don't even know how to answer that question, you know," said junior guard Dexter Strickland. "I think we're so good, and our potential is so high, it's hard for us to have a weakness, but if I had to pick one, it would probably be the lack of experience the freshmen have. They don't have that experience yet."
"I think we have a chance to be special, but at the same time we have a lot of work that we need to do, and we have a long ways to go in order to improve," added senior Tyler Zeller.
"I think we've got to continue growing off what we had last year. Continue to score better and then play defense better. I think those would be the two big categories, but I think this team has got a great opportunity, especially with the freshmen coming in."
"I think a reasonable expectation is to have a memorable season," said sophomore point guard Kendall Marshall. "I'm not going to sit here and guarantee a national championship. I'm not going to sit here and guarantee a Final Four. You have to be a great team and you have to have great players, but along the way you have to have some luck too."
Marshall---who knows his UNC basketball history---is keeping perspective about the postseason while imploring his teammates to enjoy the journey leading there.
"I remember Carolina in '09, they ran up against LSU in the second round, which was a very good team with Marcus Thornton," Marshall said. "Tywon (Lawson) was still hurt, and if he doesn't play that game, maybe they don't get past that round."
"And in '05 when they played Michigan State in the Final Four. Shannon Brown, Maurice Ager---that was a great team. Maybe they don't get past them, and that's another national championship we don't have. So we're not focusing on 'Winning it All or Bust.'
"We're just focused on making shots throughout the year and just enjoying the season as we go along," Marshall added.
"Last year was kind of the opposite---we were pushing to get further than we thought we could---but I think everybody in here is very level-headed and I don't think they'll let all the expectations get to them. I think we'll stay within the team and we'll make our own expectations," added Zeller.
The arrival of rookie James Michael McAdoo cannot help but bring back memories of Marvin Williams and Ed Davis, a pair of highly-rated big men who served as valuable sixth men as freshmen on North Carolina NCAA title teams back in 2005 and 2009, respectively.
While McAdoo probably won't crack the starting lineup with Zeller and John Henson back, he's likely going to be Williams' first option off the bench as the top frontcourt backup.
And there's no question that he's going to be in position to make a substantial contribution.
McAdoo has an inside-outside game and he's particularly deadly along the baseline. Look for McAdoo and his former AAU teammate Marshall---who have extensive familiarity with each other's games---to connect multiple times this season on the alley-oop, with Marshall at the top of the key and McAdoo running the baseline.
P.J. Hairston, a multi-talented player who can play the 'three' and the 'two' at times, is another Tar Heel newcomer who is in position to make a major impact.
Hairston could definitely help improve UNC's team average of 32.8 percent on its three-point attempts, and he'll also do a lot of the little things like draw charges and get offensive rebounds to extend possessions.
Carolina's other three scholarship newcomers---Desmond Hubert, Stilman White, and Jackson Simmons---all bring different but potentially effective things to the table.
Hubert, a long 6-9 power forward provides, shot blocking and rebounding capability, while Simmons brings a scorer's mentality and a hard-working, overachiever's reputation from his high school days.
White will be Marshall's top backup at point guard, and his presence will be critical in that regard.
"I think these guys (the incoming freshmen) will do a great job," said Zeller. "We've got a lot of work left to do, and we (the retuning players) definitely can't do it alone."
"The first couple of games they'll probably have butterflies and all that stuff, but as the year goes on the butterflies will go away and they'll start playing to their potential, and everybody will be on that level," added Strickland about the freshmen.
The rookies should greatly compliment all the returning talent, which is admittedly a pretty formidable group of talent.
Four Tar Heel starters---Marshall, Zeller, Henson, and Harrison Barnes---were named to the preseason Wooden Award List.
Just 50 players around the country are named to the list.
That Barnes, Zeller, and Henson all chose to return to UNC instead of heading to the NBA certainly was welcome news to Tar Heel Nation, but it wasn't news at all to the guys who know them best.
"Talking with them (Barnes and Henson), it made it a lot easier to decide to come back, just because I knew they'd be here to play with," said Zeller.
"I'm not surprised at all (all three came back). I know what kind of people they are, and they're very unselfish people. They think 'Team First.' They care about winning. So to see all three of them come back, it didn't surprise me," said Marshall.
And now Marshall will benefit not only in his ability to 'drive and dish' outside to players like Barnes and Hairston, but he'll also have the workhorses in the middle at his disposal.
He'll also have the luxury of getting out in transition and running with Strickland.
"Him leading the fast break dunks to me, Harrison, 'Z', or John, I think he does a great job of running the team at point guard," said Strickland of Marshall.
Depth? Check. Scoring? Check. Rebounding? Check. Ability to run the floor? Check.
Ability to consistently shoot the three-ball? We'll see.
Consistency with outside shooting and free throw shooting appear to be the two areas where this team has to prove itself---not to mention the inexperience of the freshmen that Strickland alluded to---but there's no doubt that this team has arguably every piece to make a major dent in the ACC and beyond.
One of the problems, though, is that the 2008-2009 Tar Heels---a similar mixture of talent and depth---made it look so easy on its way to winning the national title in Detroit that a lot of people already think it's a foregone conclusion this team will do the same.
It's just not that simple, but the Tar Heels are confident that they're going to be in position to win, and win a lot.
"First of all, winning, that's the biggest thing for me. That's all I'm thinking about this coming. And of course my goal is winning a national championship. We want to get to New Orleans," Marshall said.
"It's not easy. They (the 2008-2009 UNC team) made it look easy, but over the course of the season they had their problems and they had their challenges. And you've just got to make sure you keep pushing through them and keep improving over the course of the season. You can never get satisfied," Zeller added.
"Hopefully we'll be able to pull it off."