Star-Watching

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By Michael Scotto
mike.a.scotto@gmail.com

Friday, December 9, 2011

North Carolina Tar Heels
Last Season: 29-8 (14-2)
Key Losses: None
Head Coach: Roy Williams

Projected Starting Lineup
PG: Kendall Marshall 6-3 So.
SG: Dexter Strickland 6-3 Jr.
SF: Harrison Barnes 6-8 So.
PF: John Henson 6-10 Jr.
C: Tyler Zeller 7-0 Sr.
Key Reserves: Reggie Bullock 6-7 So. SG, P.J. Hairston 6-6 Fr. SG, Desmond Hubert 6-10 Fr. PF, James Michael McAdoo 6-9 Fr. PF, Justin Watts 6-4 Sr. SG

In this day and age, it's not common for an Elite Eight team to return nearly every single player on its roster, including its top seven leading scorers. In this day and age, it's not common for four possible first round NBA Draft picks to all pass on the draft and return to school. But this is the case at North Carolina. Kendall Marshall, Harrison Barnes, John Henson and Tyler Zeller were not happy with a loss to Kentucky in the Elite Eight and collectively decided to return to Chapel Hill to be the favorites to win the National Championship.

The Tar Heels struggled for the first half of last season and looked like a complete flop. But then Roy Williams decided to bench Larry Drew II and start Kendall Marshall at point guard. From that point on, the Tar Heels elevated themselves to a Final Four-caliber team, especially after Drew elected to transfer.

Marshall is a 6-foot-3 sophomore with pure point guard skills. He's not the most athletic or fastest player on the court, but he has great court vision, basketball IQ and ball-handling skills. He averaged 6.2 points and 6.2 assists in 24.6 minutes per game last season.

Barnes, a 6-foot-8 sophomore small forward, could have been a top-3 pick in the NBA Draft but passed on that opportunity to return to Chapel Hill. Barnes is a supremely talented player with all-around skills. He can handle the ball like a guard, shoot from the perimeter, post up down low, and bang down low. He averaged 15.7 points and 5.8 rebounds per game last season but really turned on at the end of the year, including a 40-point performance in the ACC tournament.

Down low, the Tar Heels sport one of the top big man duos in college basketball with Henson and Zeller. Both are extremely long, wiry players that can clean up on the glass and make a serious impact on the defensive end. Henson is especially one of the top defensive players in college basketball. He averaged 10.1 rebounds and 3.2 blocks per game to go along with his 11.7 points per game. Zeller, who is a dominant post player, averaged 15.7 points, 7.2 rebounds and 1.2 blocks per game.

Marshall, Barnes, Henson and Zeller are essentially the "Big Four" for the Tar Heels, but the fifth member of the starting lineup is Dexter Strickland. The 6-foot-3 junior guard is a good perimeter defender and can step in at point guard when Marshall is on the bench. Strickland averaged 7.5 points per game last season.

A key player off the bench will be Reggie Bullock, who missed part of last season with an injury. Coming in as a freshman last year, Bullock was regarded as a very talented scoring wing. But he underwhelmed prior to his injury with just 6.1 points per game on 36.7 percent shooting from the field and 29.6 percent from 3-point range. If Bullock can find his stroke this year, he will be a key to the Tar Heels' success.

Losing Leslie McDonald to an offseason ACL tear in a summer league game is a huge loss for the Tar Heels, but that just means Bullock, Justin Watts and freshman P.J. Hairston will have to step up even more. Watts, a 6-foot-4 senior, averaged 1.9 points and 1.9 rebounds in 9.2 minutes per game.

Hairston, Desmond Hubert and James Michael McAdoo make up a talented freshman trio. Hairston is a strong, physical guard who can score from anywhere on the court. He can use his strength to score around the basket but can also stroke it from deep. Hubert and McAdoo both need to add muscle, but Roy Williams is used to having slender big men come to campus. Hubert is a shot-blocking machine. McAdoo is a talented big man with terrific potential who may be considered a lottery pick in the 2012 NBA Draft.

Without a doubt, UNC is the consensus No. 1 team in the country. But although they have a wealth of talent, reaching the Final Four and winning the National Championship won't be easy. There are a handful of teams with stacked rosters that can easily compete with the Tar Heels. Even in their own conference, Duke has the talent to challenge them for an ACC title. The key will be staying healthy. If the Tar Heels have no injury problems all year, there's no reason they won't live up to expectations and be sitting in New Orleans with a chance to win their third National Championship in eight years.


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