College Basketball

Tar Heels face more questions because of less talent this season

Tar Heels will face more questions because of less talent this season

acarter@newsobserver.comOctober 12, 2012 

— There is talent at North Carolina. The Tar Heels never seem short on that. But they are shorter on it entering this season than they have been in a while.

Harrison Barnes, John Henson, Kendall Marshall and Tyler Zeller – the players most responsible in each of the past two seasons for North Carolina’s appearances in the regional finals of the NCAA tournament – are all gone.

North Carolina returns two players who started for half the season last year, and another whose role expanded significantly during the postseason. But there’s no shortage of questions, too.

North Carolina on Friday night hosts its annual “Late Night with Roy,” a celebratory event that marks the start of practice. Then the team will attempt to start answering the many questions that surround it. A look at the Tar Heels entering the official start of the preseason:

Who’s back: James Michael McAdoo, sophomore forward; Reggie Bullock, junior guard; Dexter Strickland, senior guard. McAdoo averaged 6.1 points and 3.9 reboundsas a freshman, but much more will be expected from him after he averaged nearly 12 points in the NCAA tournament. Bullock, the Tar Heels’ best returning 3-point shooter, must become a go-to player and a consistent scorer after averaging 8.8 pointslast season. Strickland, North Carolina’s best perimeter defender, is returning from a knee injury that forced him to miss the second half of last season.

Who’s not: Barnes, Henson, Marshall and Zeller were selected among the top 17 picks in the NBA draft. Combined, they averaged 55.2 points, 27.3 rebounds and 13.1 assists. For the sake of comparison, all of North Carolina’ returning players combined to average 25 points, 13.5 rebounds and 3.8 assists last season.

The talent exodus is similar to ones North Carolina faced after winning the national championship in both 2005 and 2009.

Who’s new: Marcus Paige, a 6-foot-1 point guard from Marion, Iowa, is expected to start from day one. Size is a concern – he weighs just 160 pounds – but his veteran teammates have raved about how well he has grasped coach Roy Williams’ offensive system. J.P. Tokoto, a 6-foot-6 forward from Menomonee Falls, Wis., possesses a leaping ability and athleticism that has drawn comparisons to former Tar Heels star Vince Carter.

Joel James (6-10, 260) and Brice Johnson (6-9, 210) will the chance to contribute immediately to a depleted frontcourt.

Practice priorities: Though Paige has impressed teammates during off-season conditioning work and in pick-up games, his transition to the college game officially begins now. Making sure he understands the offense, and the strengths and weaknesses of his teammates, should be the first priority.

Second, North Carolina is likely to spend a lot of time addressing questions in the frontcourt. Outside of McAdoo, the Tar Heels don’t return a proven forward or center. James and Johnson, the two freshmen, will vie for playing time – including a starting role – along with sophomore Desmond Hubert.

Finally, North Carolina will need to successfully adapt to the return of Strickland and Leslie McDonald, two guards who are back from knee injuries. Strickland will contend for a starting position, but he’ll also have to strengthen his point guard skills to serve as second option to Paige.

What they’re saying: “They lost so much, so they’re going to have a lot of adjustments to make with new personnel, and most of their players – they’ve had this kind of thing before where they’ve had players step up into bigger roles. So that’s not going to be as new. But the amount of players that are having to do it is going to be a little bit new, at least of late … McAdoo is going to have to become a star player. He showed he could do it at the end of last year. He was a different player. He was a star at the end of last year. So returning as one where you’re more reliable and relied upon in that role – that’s not easy. But he’s more than good enough to do it.” – ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas

Carter: 919-829-8944

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