ACC Tournament Team Preview: North Carolina Tar Heels


The North Carolina Tar Heels have had a magical, yet frustrating ride this season.  What made it the most frustrating has been the national media hate throughout the season.  It was almost as if they graced UNC with the preseason #1 ranking and since they didn’t go undefeated and blow everyone out and they were punished for it all year.  Whether they were punished by being ranked inexplicably lower than teams with more losses week after week (Kansas, Michigan State).  One of which they beat rather easily on a neutral court (Spartans).  Or whether it was the inexcusable absence of Kendall Marshall from the All-ACC first team.  The team has faced heat all year long.

Never mind that the Tar Heels were one of two teams, Syracuse being the other in the Top 25 to NOT lose to any team that went unranked.  Never mind that the Heels had the four best players in the conference and arguably the most talented team in the nation. But despite that hate and unfair criticism, the Tar Heels are rising up at the most critical time of the season.  UNC had to take that #4 final ranking in the Top 25 by dominating the rest of their ACC play after losing to Duke in devastating, last minute fashion.  They put their stamp on it by blowing Duke out of Cameron Indoor Stadium during the rematch.  Some justice was restored when Tyler Zeller won the conferences player of the year award and John Henson won the defensive player of the year honor.

But make no mistake, the Tar Heels must have a very strong showing in the ACC Tournament to get that #1 seed on Selection Sunday.  Anything short of winning the conference tourney, and UNC would likely need a lot of help, starting with Duke also not winning the tourney to have any chance at a #1 seed.  Carolina came back to win the regular season conference title outright and come in with the #1 seed in the tourney.  They will face the winner of the Maryland vs Wake Forest opening round game.  Let’s take a closer look at the Tar Heels heading into Tourney time!

Roster Breakdown: The Tar Heels roster is as talented and complete as any in the nation.  This despite losing two of their best wing men in Dexter Strickland and Leslie McDonald to season ending injuries.  Tyler Zeller won the ACC Player of the Year award after a stellar senior season in Chapel Hill.  Harrison Barnes received all the preseason attention the last two seasons as the favored All-American.  But it was Zeller who became the Tar Heels rock and most consistent player.  UNC is represented with three All-ACC first team players and one on the second team.  Zeller, Barnes and John Henson the conferences defensive player of the year all earned first team honors and Marshall was stuck with the second team.

Henson blossomed as more than just a shot blocking, lop pass catching big man this season and became the complete player.  Leading the conference in both blocked shots and rebounds, Henson improved what was already the strongest part of his game.  The most impressive part of his evolution has been on the offensive end of the floor.  Henson developed a nice mid range jump shot that he can use effectively facing up or with a quick turnaround.  More importantly, he developed a nice post up game complete with quick, confident moves to the basket.  He showed the ability to finish with either hand and work well on both sides of the block.  If it weren’t for Zeller, Henson would be my vote for ACC POY.

Marshall set the Tar Heel and ACC single season records for total assists.  As a sophomore it has been amazing to watch his evolution into the games top floor general.  A finalist for the Bob Cousy award for the nations top point guard, Marshall is the engine to everything the Tar Heels do offensively.  His defense, or lack thereof has been under fire, especially since Stricklands injury.  It will be key in both tourneys that Marshall play the type of defense he did against Duke in the regular season finale.  Marshall is a smart player who I think can become a crafty defensive player and make up for his lack of explosive quickness.  Marshall’s lack of scoring also came under criticism and is probably the reason why he didn’t end up on the all conference first team.  Marshall only scored in double digits a few times this season but lit up NC State and Duke for 20 or more points in two of the seasons last four games.  He doesn’t need to be a big time scorer on this roster, but simply knocking down open shots and making defenses respect him could mean a world of difference in opening things up for the team.

When Strickland went down several players were tapped initially to take on his diverse role.  Reggie Bullock was called upon to become the new starting shooting guard.  Freshman Stillman White would fill in as the backup PG.  And PJ Hairston would see more minutes off the bench and would be counted on to be the top wing off the bench for Carolina.  For the most part, the next in line has stood up and done his part in Dexters absence.  Bullock has done a nice job in the starting lineup, especially defensively which was the main concern.  Bullock’s offensive game is starting to come around and he’s been rebounding better in the last five games or so as well.  White has done a better than expected job of backing up Marshall for a couple minutes per half.  It’s been Hairston that has not lived up to expectations and as result his role has been significantly decreased.  Hairston, known as a deadly shooter who started off the season shooting the ball well, is in a really long slump.  Senior Justin Watts has been called upon now to play a small role on the perimeter off the bench as result.  James Michael McAdoo the other five star recruit in the 2011 class struggled badly on both ends of the floor through much of the year.  The Tar Heels were getting by with very little production off the bench for a large chunk of the season.  McAdoo has come alive as of late and though he’s not producing huge numbers, he is providing solid minutes off the pine.  UNCs bench play will be huge in the NCAA Tournament, especially as it wears onto the latter stages and the competition gets stiffer.

What the numbers say: The Tar Heels are an extremely impressive team on paper.  They rank first in the nation in scoring at 82.3 points per game and have enjoyed the top spot in the nation for much of the year.  It’s hard to lead the nation in a category all year like Carolina has in scoring and have that department not be your most dominate.  But that’s exactly the case for the Heels who are also the nations best rebounding team at 45.7 per game.  The conferences top assist team at 17.5 per game ranking them fourth nationally.  The Tar Heels weakness would have to be their shooting, their FG% of 46.2 is second in the conference but just 61st in the nation.  UNC has the only player in the conference who averages a double double every time out in John Hensons 14 points and 10 rebounds.  With Henson, Barnes and Zeller the Heels have a very balanced scoring attack with each averaging at least 14 per game.

Ceiling/Floor: Point blank, the expectation and goal of this team is to cut down the nets in New Orleans in early April.  The ceiling is winning the national title and I firmly believe if this team continues to evolve and can improve through the ACC and NCAA tourneys.  They can rip through the NCAA Tournament just like the 2009 national championship team did.  The floor for this team would be getting upset in the ACC Tournament early and losing out on a #1 seed in the NCAAs.  Even if that happened, this team would still command a #2 seed and be in a decent position to win it all.  So only losing early, before the final four would be the true floor for this team.

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