I’m not saying the Tar Heels will be participants in Houston for this year’s Final Four, but they will be a legitimate Top 25 team by the end of the season.
Sure, they lost to Minnesota and Vanderbilt in Puerto Rico — and sure, heralded freshman Harrison Barnes looked like just another player in the two losses. It’s just going to be a maturation process for both Barnes and his teammates.
Remember, the Tar Heels have an average point guard in Larry Drew II. He’s not Ty Lawson or even close — and that means his teammates are going to have to work for their baskets. There won’t be a ton of easy ones.
While Tyler Zeller and John Henson are both long and talented, neither has had any experience being a go-to guy. Zeller has spent much of the past two seasons on the injured list, and Henson was a role player last season as a freshman.
Two more freshmen, guards Reggie Bullock and Kendall Marshall, are part of coach Roy Williams’ rotation. So, too, is one-year transfer Justin Knox.
Maybe Barnes won’t be the National Player of the Year, as this writer predicted, but eventually he will become one of the top players in the country. And the Tar Heels eventually will work their way back in the equation as one of the Top 25 teams.
TEAM OF THE WEEK: Minnesota — The Gophers have won four games in the past week. It began with a victory over Siena and continued in Puerto Rico with wins against Western Kentucky, North Carolina and West Virginia in the championship game. Maybe the most impressive facet of the Gophers’ early success is that it’s come without starting shooting guard Devoe Joseph, who should be back from a suspension soon.
STUD (PLAYER OF WEEK): West Virginia’s Casey Mitchell. Coming out of the junior college ranks, he was considered a big-time shooter, yet he barely shot more than 30 percent from deep last season. Well, Mitchell has turned it around so far this season: He went for 31 points in a win against Vanderbilt and 27 in the loss to Minnesota.
BEST PERFORMANCE: San Diego State’s Billy White was nearly unstoppable in the Aztecs’ upset of Gonzaga in Spokane. White, once considered a big-time prospect, finished with 30 points and nine boards. He made 14 of 18 shots from the field, including 2 of 2 from long distance.
DUD: Barnes, North Carolina’s heralded freshman, will be just fine, but he’s struggling. A day after putting up 19 points in a rout of Hofstra, Barnes was 0 for 12 in a loss to Minnesota.
WEEK TO FORGET: Miami — There’s no shame in coming up short in Memphis against a young and talented Tigers team, but if you want to be an NCAA tournament team, you cannot lose to Rutgers — no matter where it is. That’s what the ’Canes did, and now they move toward the bottom of the ACC, where they have plenty of company.
MID-MAJOR TEAM OF THE WEEK: Rider — Tommy Dempsey’s team blew a 20-point lead in the first week of the season against UMass, but the Broncos reeled off three wins in the past week: a rout in Los Angeles against USC and then victories over TCU and Loyola Marymount in Massachusetts. Senior point guard Justin Robinson is leading the way and averaging 19 points.
WORST LOSS: USC getting pounded by Rider on the Trojans’ home court. Losing is bad enough, but losing by 20? Embarrassing.
SHOCKER: New Mexico getting blitzed by 25 at the hands of a young California team that was picked by many to finish at or near the bottom of the Pac-10. Undersized big man Harper Kamp, who missed last season because of injury, led the Bears with 25 points.
PEARL SUSPENSION: The SEC hit Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl with an eight-game league suspension. The timing of this one made little sense, but Pearl will be replaced by associate head coach Tony Jones for the first eight SEC games.
1) Baylor senior guard LaceDarius Dunn, a potential All-American, returns Monday against Lipscomb after missing the first three games because of a suspension stemming from an altercation with his girlfriend.
2) Kansas State will get senior forward Curtis Kelly back Monday night against Gonzaga. Wildcats coach Frank Martin sat Kelly for the first three games for violating team rules.
3) The NCAA ruled that Kansas freshman Josh Selby will be eligible after missing the first nine games and being told to repay close to $5,000 in impermissible benefits to a charity.
ON THE MEND:
1) Seton Hall will be without shooter Jeremy Hazell for the next month or so after he broke his left wrist.
2) N.C. State will be without its top returning player, forward Tracy Smith, for about three weeks after minor knee surgery.
WEEK’S TOP MATCHUPS:
1) Kansas State vs. Gonzaga, Monday at 9:30 p.m. ET — Despite the ’Zags’ loss to San Diego State, this is still an intriguing matchup, if for no other reason than to see how good the Wildcats truly are.
2) Florida at Florida State, Sunday at 7:30 p.m. ET — Great in-state rivalry between two Top 25 teams.
3) Arizona vs. Kansas, Saturday at 10:30 p.m. ET in Las Vegas — Arizona’s Derrick Williams and Kansas’ Marcus Morris are two of the best forwards in the nation.
4) UCLA vs. Villanova, Wednesday at 9 p.m. ET in New York — Intriguing Preseason NIT semifinal in which we’ll see how much the Bruins have improved since last season.
5) Wichita State vs. UConn, Monday at 3 p.m. ET — A pair of fringe Top 25-ish teams meet in the first round of the Maui Invitational.
WEEK’S TOP POTENTIAL MATCHUPS:
1) Duke vs. Kansas State, Tuesday night — If they take care of business against Marquette and Gonzaga, two of the nation’s top five teams will meet in Kansas City in the CBE title game.
2) Washington vs. Kentucky, Maui Invitational — Remember, John Calipari wound up with one-time Huskies commitment Terrence Jones and also landed former UW pledge Enes Kanter, who was ruled ineligible by the NCAA. There’s some bad blood between these programs.