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

strength.

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

job.

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

together.

”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.”