Roy Williams has faced a few unique challenges since returning to North Carolina as its head basketball coach.
In 2006, Williams had to replace the top seven players from a national championship team, and, led by David Noel and a freshman named Tyler Hansbrough, that Tar Heels squad won 23 games. And how about the fractured psyches of the players Williams inherited from the Matt Doherty fiasco? Williams masterfully turned them into national champions.
In 2010, however, UNC struggled with a bunch of new faces and a ton of injuries following a national title and mass exodus, winding up in the NIT.
This season, the Tar Heels will be without four players selected in the first round of last summer’s NBA Draft. Only one of them, Tyler Zeller, was a senior.
The 2012-13 Tar Heels have a broader range of experience than the ’06 and ’10 teams did, but they just may be the smallest team Williams has ever coached at either UNC or Kansas, where he was for 15 seasons before taking the North Carolina job in 2003. Williams’ time-tested recipe for success has always been rebounding and running an offense through a potent post player. Obviously, that will change some this season.
“I really do want us to run and I want us to run even more, I really do,” Williams said. “Defensively, I’m a little whacko maybe, but I think we’re going to be alright. It’s just can we score, and if that’s the problem then I want to run even faster because I want to score more baskets against a team before they get their defense set.”
North Carolina isn’t without talent. It’s just that none of it measures seven feet tall.
Actually, no Tar Heel taller than 6-foot-9 (sophomore forward James Michael McAdoo) should be a major factor. That’s quite a change from last season’s lengthy bunch that led the nation in rebounding margin, averaging nearly 11 more boards per game than their opponents.
McAdoo would have been a lottery pick had he bolted after his freshman season last spring, but he opted to return and will be UNC’s focal point on offense. Supremely athletic, McAdoo played very well late last season after struggling with consistency and confidence for much of the campaign. The Virginia native finished averaging 6.1 points and 3.9 rebounds, though he averaged 10.6 points per game in seven postseason games, including 15 in the Midwest Regional Final loss to Kansas.
But the collection of talent on the perimeter is going to determine the Tar Heels’ season. Four players with considerable experience return to go with two freshmen and a transfer who are all capable of playing minutes in the ACC. So the pressure is on: Can they rebound?
“It’s definitely guard-oriented, but one of the things we want to do better this year is rebound from the wings,” said 6-foot-7 junior wing Reggie Bullock, who started the second half of last season after Dexter Strickland went down with a torn ACL. “We are much smaller this year, so we have to rebound from the perimeter.”
Bullock and 6-foot-5 sophomore P.J. Hairston proved last season they are adept at rebounding from the weak side, and Bullock believes the length of North Carolina’s perimeter players should help in that respect.
The Heels are small inside, but not outside.
“J.P. (Tokoto) and me, we can rebound the floor on the offensive and defensive end real well,” said Bullock, who averaged 8.8 points and 5.1 rebound last season. “He should get a lot of rebounds and I should get a lot of rebounds.”
Another change from the norm is that North Carolina should be a terrific 3-point shooting squad and may rely on much more frequently than many of Williams’ past teams. Bullock, Hairston, McDonald and Tokoto, a freshman, are all fine marksmen. Even freshman point guard Marcus Paige is a solid shooter.
Smaller Heels also means faster and quicker Heels.
It’s hard to get up and down the court more rapidly than last year’s group, especially since Williams says he’s never coached a 7-footer who could motor quite like Zeller. But the speed this season will escalate in the three and four spots most notably, and don’t be surprised to see more trapping and ball pressure from North Carolina. It can create easy baskets that may, at times, masquerade a half-court offense that could struggle against certain defenses.
“I’m pretty sure if he sees something he will do it,” Hairston said about his Hall of Fame coach and the options at his disposal. “He will probably try it in practice first to see how it goes and then try it in a game.”
That’s what makes North Carolina so fascinating. It may struggle at first, but it can develop into an incredibly dangerous team come March.
And considering that UNC’s last five NCAA Tournament teams have advanced at least to the Elite 8, that’s the lowest point the bar is set for this team. It doesn’t matter if the Tar Heels are typically big or unusually smallish.