Jones: Heels could be a top-5 club next year

March 25, 2013

North Carolina's just-concluded basketball season was an anomaly of sorts. It just didn't make sense on several levels, especially when compared to the program’s fabled history.

UNC traditionally has top-flight top point guards and post players, but this season lacked significantly at both crucial positions. Freshman Marcus Paige made strides at the point over the last two months, but his performance still won't compare favorably to most of Carolina's previous lead guards.

Carolina couldn't effectively run its offense through the post, and until Hall of Fame coach Roy Williams changed to a smaller lineup, the Heels were unpredictable and often unproductive on offense — especially against the bigger and equally gifted teams. And that's really how this season should be remembered:

The Tar Heels just couldn't climb into that next echelon of teams.

How this season compares to the past reveals that quite clearly.

For example, the Tar Heels finished 25-11, posting double-figure losses for just the 10th time in the last 47 seasons. In that span, it was also the 31st time Carolina won at least 25 games in a campaign. Unlike those 30 other seasons, the Tar Heels won't finish nationally ranked this time.

The Heels finished ranked in each of the previous 30 seasons they won at least 25 games, with 28 clubs ranked among the top 10 and 20 ending up in the top five.

One can surmise this reflects the changing landscape of college basketball, where 25-win seasons don’t mean what they once did. But it might also indict the decline of the ACC. And that's where UNC's 2012-13 season makes sense.

The Tar Heels were a solid team that had some spectacular stretches, and a particularly interesting team, especially after going small. But that's the extent of it.

UNC was a more successful team after the switch, but the Tar Heels still couldn’t get over the hump and never beat an elite team. North Carolina was 2-8 in the regular season against squads that reached in the NCAA Tournament. The program's three best wins, including the NCAA tourney opener, came against UNLV, N.C. State and Villanova — with none of the clubs winning one game in the NCAAs.

The last Tar Heels team to experience that? The 8-20 bunch in 2002.

Even Matt Doherty’s final team in 2003 beat national runner-up Kansas, Stanford and Connecticut, which reached the Sweet 16.

Williams’ first club in 2004, which won 19 games, beat eventual national champion Connecticut, national runner-up Georgia Tech, Illinois and Wake Forest (twice), both of which advanced to the Sweet 16. Even N.C. State (twice) won a game in The Big Dance that year.

In 2010, when injuries and dissention obliterated a season that concluded with a run in the NIT, UNC beat Michigan State (Final Four berth), Ohio State (Sweet 16 run) and Georgia Tech (one tourney victory).

Twenty-five wins are a lot of victories, but in this case, many were tantamount to empty calories.

"I really enjoyed coaching my team. I really did," Williams said on Sunday, after the Heels were eliminated by Kansas in the Round of 32. "We had some tough, tough losses early. They kept coming to practice every single day and tried to do what we wanted them to do. Our locker room's not as happy right now, but I loved coaching my team."

The tough early losses Williams noted were somewhat spread throughout the season, though the earliest defeats were the most frustrating for the program.

UNC lost to Butler by 11 points in the Maui Classic in November, and at one time trailed the Bulldogs by 29. A week later, the Tar Heels lost at Indiana by 24, trailing by as many as 31 in the second half.

A perplexing 18-point loss at a Texas team that finished 16-18 still remains a head-scratcher.

In ACC play, UNC lost at N.C. State, trailing by 28 at one point. Carolina was rocked at Miami by 26 and lost at home to Duke by 16, though it trailed by as many as 22 that night.

And Sunday night, UNC went from leading Kansas 30-19 late in the first half to trailing 63-47 — a 44-17 outburst that may have been UNC’s worst stretch of the season.

But don't read too much into North Carolina’s future with that collapse in mind. The Heels will get better, especially if James Michael McAdoo, Reggie Bullock and P.J. Hairston return.

All three players should, but it's unlikely each will. McAdoo, a sophomore forward, tested the waters last season but opted to return. He can raise his stock to the upper half of the lottery by returning. He must improve his handle, face-up game, and learn to minimize turnovers. Doing so can make him more money down the road.

Bullock, a junior wing, has some personal responsibilities to deal with, but if he and his family can wait one more year, he can definitely grow into a first-round draft pick (three-year guaranteed contact). As it stands, Bullock projects as a middle-to-high second-round selection.

Hairston, a sophomore wing, could explode next season and make himself a ton of cash by returning to school and vying for ACC Player of the Year honors. But he's also projected to go in the same range as Bullock.

If they return, along with Paige, UNC's freshmen bigs, which should all improve, and a nice incoming class, Carolina should be a preseason top-five team, with a chance at winning a national championship.

"We have a chance to be a sensational basketball team again," Williams said Sunday, the "again" part alluding to most of his clubs at Carolina.

But that will only happen if the trio returns and UNC effectively plays a more conventional style of Roy Williams basketball.