No. 11 Tar Heels putting the pieces together
North Carolina coach Roy Williams knew what last year’s team
could accomplish before the season. The Hall of Fame coach has more
questions than answers this time.
”Last year we were picked first (in the Atlantic Coast
Conference) and I thought that was fine because I thought we could
be the best team,” Williams said. ”I don’t have any idea what the
ceiling could be for this team. And I don’t think we’ll know until
we get into conference play.”
The 11th-ranked Tar Heels (32-6) must replace NBA first-round
draft picks Harrison Barnes, John Henson, Kendall Marshall and
Tyler Zeller from a preseason No. 1 that went on to win the ACC
regular-season title and reach an NCAA regional final.
Left behind is a forward who struggled most of his rookie season
before coming on late in the year, a veteran guard, two players
returning from serious knee injuries and several youngsters
stepping into significant roles. That means UNC, picked to finish
third in the league, will have less room for error.
”We won games last year when we didn’t play great,” Williams
said. ”This year, we’ve got to play closer to our potential or
we’re not going to be successful.”
It has been a bumpy offseason for the Tar Heels. After the NBA
defections, they lost longtime assistant Jerod Haase, who became
head coach at UAB.
Then, a month before practice started, the 62-year-old Williams
had surgery to remove a tumor from his right kidney. Tests
eventually determined it was a benign growth – as was a similar one
on his left kidney – but Williams has had to go easy during the
first several weeks of practice as he recovered.
Now they’re preparing to find out if sophomore James Michael
McAdoo is ready to pick up where he left off late last season.
McAdoo, a 6-foot-9 forward, often looked lost through his
freshman season as a reserve. But he averaged about 11 points and
five rebounds in the ACC and NCAA tournaments when pressed into
more minutes due to Henson’s wrist injury.
The former McDonald’s All-American is a preseason all-ACC pick
entering the year. He’s the closest thing the Tar Heels have to a
proven frontcourt presence.
”I know there were certain things I just had to realize I had
to do, and that’s focus in each and every day in practice,” McAdoo
said. ”Practice makes perfect but perfect practices help even
more. I think that’s something I had to work on. It’s not something
that just all of a sudden clicked. It’s something I really started
to work on at practice in late January or early February, but it
didn’t show up until late March.”
Junior guard Reggie Bullock also returns to provide outside
shooting and long-armed perimeter defense, while he’s joined by two
guards – Leslie McDonald and Dexter Strickland – returning from
torn knee ligaments.
McDonald, the team’s best outside shooter in 2011, redshirted
last season after he was hurt during a summer-league game. While
McDonald has had more than a year to recover, Strickland was
injured in January and is still working his way back to full
If both players return to form – Strickland was the team’s No. 2
ballhandler and best perimeter defender – the Tar Heels will have
three veterans in the backcourt along with the return of sophomore
guard P.J. Hairston.
”With Kendall, Harrison, John and Z leaving, that’s the
majority of the points,” Hairston said. ”It’s up to us, the
upperclassmen and the freshmen that just came in to step up. If we
step up and do everything we’re supposed to do, it can be a good
season and we can do anything we want to do.”
Replacing Marshall at the point, however, will be the toughest
challenge, one that will likely fall to freshman Marcus Paige. The
6-foot, 157-pound lefty is a McDonald’s All-American, and Williams
has said he expects Paige would have the first shot at the starting
Freshman forward Joel James (6-10, 260) could provide some
needed bulk up front alongside McAdoo, while the Tar Heels also
brought in 6-9 forward Brice Johnson and 6-5 wing J.P. Tokoto.
The pieces are there for another strong season. And after his
recent health scare, Williams is going to enjoy putting the puzzle
”I really want to enjoy the journey a heck of a lot more
myself,” Williams said. ”I preach that every year to my kids and
particularly the fans as well. My wife tells me I always do the
worst job of it, but I’m really going to try and do a much better
job of that myself.”