It’s a familiar situation for Roy Williams: the core of a national title-winning (or contending, in the case of last season) roster gone to the NBA. Just like in 2006 and 2010, Carolina has lost most of its scoring from a year ago (55.2 points per game) and returns some complementary players to go with a lot of freshmen. But the question remains: will this team be more like the 2006 Tar Heels (23-8) or the 2010 Tar Heels (20-17)?
Carolina by far has the most experience at guard with senior Dexter Strickland, juniors Reggie Bullock and Leslie McDonald and sophomore P.J. Hairston returning. All have seen significant playing time, but haven’t been “the guy”. Bullock in particular will have to step up: at 6-7, he’s still a matchup nightmare on both ends, but will he continue to be Carolina’s best defender while having to take on more scoring? McDonald hasn’t played basketball in over a year after tearing his ACL in July of 2011, but the redshirt junior had begun to come into his own at the end of his sophomore season and could be Carolina’s breakout player this season.
Point guard is still the biggest question mark, by far. Kendall Marshall likely would have broken every assist record in Carolina history had he stayed, but he moved on to the NBA. And now, freshman Marcus Paige - just six feet tall and 157 pounds soaking wet - has to try to fill his shoes. Some have already compared the freshman to Marshall, but it’s hard to imagine that his size won’t be a factor. He’s going to take a physical pounding, and teams are going to try to rough him up. But everyone seems to trust his decision-making and instincts.
It will take time for him to adjust to college basketball, though. As he goes, so the Tar Heels go. Strickland will back him up, but the senior is not a true point guard. Williams has all but said this is Paige’s team now. Sophomore Gardner-Webb transfer Luke Davis could also see some time at the point guard: he practiced at that spot most of last season while he sat out. Sophomore P.J. Hairston is never afraid to shoot it, and if he can make a few three-pointers, it will help the Tar Heels considerably. Athletic freshman wing J.P. Tokoto wowed the NC Pro-Am spectators this summer with his array of dunks, but he’s still very raw.
James Michael McAdoo might be entering the season with the most preseason hype on the team, but the 6-9 sophomore is still largely unproven. He had a great stretch of basketball late in the year and appeared to gain a lot of confidence. His physical skills are off the charts, and the offense will certainly go through him, but is he ready to be the guy? He’s good enough to do it, but that remains to be seen.
He’ll need help, though. Against Shaw in Carolina’s exhibition, sophomore Desmond Hubert (6-9, 220) started opposite him and struggled, potentially opening the door for freshmen Joel James (6-10, 260). The big rascal, as his head coach calls James, is surprisingly mobile for his size. It was just an exhibition, but James and fellow freshman Brice Johnson (6-9, 187) combined for 21 points (on 10-of-13 shooting) and 13 rebounds in 30 minutes - certainly a good sign. Sophomore Jackson Simmons (6-7, 205) will see some time as well, but he will likely be just a warm body off the bench to provide depth rather than a significant contributor.
Carolina's freshmen won't have much time to adjust to college basketball over the non-conference slate. Just three games into the season and Carolina will be at Long Beach State on its way to Maui, which will be a sneaky-difficult game. The Maui Invitational field isn't spectacular, but solid enough with teams like Butler, Marquette and Texas. As soon as Maui ends, Carolina’s next game is at No. 1 Indiana for the ACC/Big 10 Challenge.
The young Tar Heels won’t reveal much about what kind of team they’ll be until the final stretch of the non-conference slate, though. They will travel to Texas (No. 24 in the preseason USA Today poll) on December 19th and host McNeese State on December 22 before hosting No. 18/19 UNLV on December 29th.
Carolina’s ACC schedule has some tough early tests, but the Tar Heels had better gain confidence as the year goes on because they close the year with NC State at home, at Clemson, Florida State at home, at Maryland and Duke at home. Carolina’s earliest ACC game to watch? At Florida State on January 12th. Everyone remembers what happened in Tallahassee a year ago, but both teams obviously look a lot different now.
Roy Williams said at Carolina’s media day that this team is more like 2006 than 2010, and that appears to be true. The biggest key for this team will be how quickly can they get it together? The 2010 team had a very difficult non-conference slate that hurt its confidence early. Will the Tar Heels take a bad early loss or two? And if so, can they bounce back in time for the ACC schedule? This seems like a team that will get better throughout the course of the year, but don’t expect big things early. The 2012-13 Tar Heels will need to make a name for themselves defensively, and some of Carolina’s best individual defenders from last year are back to try to do just that. Someone is going to have to step up and make three-pointers consistently to open up the middle for James Michael McAdoo, who will also have to adjust to increased defensive attention down low. Once Paige gets over his growing pains and someone steps up in the post to help McAdoo - both of which will take time - Carolina will be a very good (but not great) team. They’ll likely make the Tournament and advance a round or two, but that’s probably it.
James Michael McAdoo needs to prove he can be an effective fantasy player while being the first bullet point on every opponent's chalkboard. I anticipate seeing McAdoo's numbers jump above our projections to something like 13 ppg and 7 rpg with the potential to do much more.