Forgive me for failing to resist the obvious metaphor: The North Carolina basketball offices have a new look. But will we say the same for the team? A year ago, the program was rebuilding after being depleted by the graduation of two starters (Danny Green and Tyler Hansbrough) and the early departures of two more (Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellington) from the group that won the 2009 NCAA championship. Yet, UNC began the campaign ranked sixth in the AP's preseason poll. The Tar Heels started off pretty well, beating Ohio State and Michigan State en route to an 8-2 record, but from there injuries and inexperience took their toll. They went 5-11 and finished tied for ninth in the ACC, and though they missed the NCAA tournament, the Heels to their credit rallied to make the championship game of the NIT before losing to Dayton.
New offices aside, it feels like déjà vu all over again. Once again, the Heels are pitifully young -- six of their 10 scholarship players are freshmen and sophomores, and a seventh is a transfer spending his first year in Chapel Hill. Once again, they lack depth -- only this year it is the frontcourt that is thin. And despite last year's pratfall, UNC was ranked eighth in the AP's preseason poll that was released Thursday. Great expectations, indeed.
Williams was quick to remind me that last fall, he was telling everyone within ear shot that his team's high ranking was not justified. This year, however, he was not so quick to downplay their prospects. "We will have a much better ability to score than we did last year," he said. "Depth with the big guys is an issue, but I would not be afraid to put in any of our seven perimeter players. The key is for us to stay healthy. We had our top eight players miss 48 games [last season]. I don't think anybody in the country at our level can withstand those kind of problems."
I don't know if Williams is a little delusional or if he's feeling lucky, but I do know the primary source of his optimism. His name is Harrison Barnes.
The 6-foot-8 freshman swingman from Ames, Iowa, was the consensus top recruit in the Class of 2010. And make no mistake: He is the best player on this team. Still, given all this hype it will be interesting to see how the fans react to him. As I've written before, Barnes is not a LeBron-esque freak who blows by defenders and throws down monster jams in traffic. Rather, he is a smooth, efficient, cerebral glider who plays the game the way it is supposed to be played. He is that rare specimen who can put up numbers while making his teammates better. He is not spectacular, just steady. After what this program went through last year, I'd imagine most fans are ready to sign up for steady, but I can't help but wonder if too many are expecting Barnes to be something more.
As I watched North Carolina practice on Monday afternoon, I could not take my eyes off the kid. At times he looked almost casual, but he always seemed to make the right decision. There he was, executing a simple jab step against 6-4 junior Justin Watts, then stepping back to drain a feathery three. There he was again, driving into the lane for a midrange jumper, only to dump the ball at the last second to 7-foot junior center Tyler Zeller for a layup. There he was yet again, shot faking from behind the three-point line on the left wing, taking one dribble and firing a simple skip pass to a wide open Larry Drew on the opposite wing. Everything Barnes did looked easy -- because for him it was.
Coaches love it when their best player is also their hardest worker, and Williams paid Barnes the ultimate compliment by saying he was as focused and hardworking as Hansbrough was at the same stage. The problem is that everyone, including myself, is under the assumption that Barnes will be one of the top picks (if not the top pick) in next year's NBA draft. That's a shame, because as I watched this team practice, my overriding impression is that if they could keep everyone together, they would be a consensus preseason No. 1 team a year from now. Right now, however, they look too young to contend for a title.
I agree with Williams that North Carolina's lack of frontline depth -- which was created in the offseason when identical twins Travis and David Wear, who were rising 6-10 sophomores, unexpectedly transferred to UCLA, and sophomore forward Ed Davis entered the NBA draft -- is a major concern. But if they can stay healthy, then Zeller, Barnes, 6-10 sophomore John Henson and 6-9 senior Justin Knox, who transferred from Alabama and is eligible to play right away, will make for a formidable front line. (That's a pretty big "if," considering Zeller has been plagued by injuries the past two seasons.)
In my opinion, however, the greater concern for this team will be point guard play. I know Drew, a 6-2 junior, put up some decent numbers in his sophomore season (he ranked second in the ACC in assists and fifth in assist-to-turnover ratio), but it was pretty obvious that he struggled directing Williams' up-tempo attack. I don't like to make definitive conclusions from a single practice, but I saw nothing from Drew during Monday's two-and-a-half-hour workout that led me to believe he would be any better this year. If anything, it looked to me like he may have regressed.
Williams has a talented prospect at the position in 6-3 freshman Kendall Marshall, a McDonald's All-American from Virginia. But even guys like Lawson and Raymond Felton had problems during their first year trying to run Williams' frenetic offense. Is this kid ready to take the reins? Will the team's other prized freshman, 6-7 sharp shooter Reggie Bullock, be able to handle the physical rigors of ACC basketball? Will Zeller be able to stay healthy? Is Henson prepared to play as big as he is? For all its potential, this team has a lot more questions than answers. When I tried to press Williams on who his starters will be, he answered in classic Roy fashion: "We lost 17 dadgum games last year. There's nobody including the head coach whose position is secure."
• It was painful at times watching Henson try to learn the small forward position during the first half of last season. Williams' decision to stick the kid inside helped propel the Heels to their NIT run. Williams told me that he had promised Henson during recruiting that he would help him develop into a perimeter player to enhance his value to the pros, but he said that right now, "We're not playing him on the perimeter at all." When I asked if Henson was "cool" with that, Williams replied, "He hasn't said anything negative yet, so I assume so. He was not cool with the way he was playing early last season."
• Williams has already put together a fine recruiting class for next season, but it would be even better if Zeller's younger brother, Cody, a 6-10 forward from Washington, Ind., would join Tyler in Chapel Hill. Cody is also considering Indiana and Butler, and when I asked Tyler where he thought Cody was going to end up, he said he honestly did not know. "I don't think he knows, either," Tyler told me. "Obviously I'd love for him to come here, but it's his decision." I'm sure it's a tough call, but I still think Cody's gonna stay home and play for IU.
• As many of you probably know, over the summer the family of former North Carolina coach Dean Smith confirmed a report in the Raleigh News & Observer that the coach was suffering from a neurocognitive disorder that is eroding his memory. As my interview with Williams was ending, I asked him for an update. "It's a struggle right now, but he has good days and bad," Williams said. "He was in here on Thursday last week and it was a good day. It was good to see him. He hadn't been to practice yet. In my first five years he came to practice three or four times a week. Last year I think he came to about three practices the whole year. He'll be 80 in February and he's going through a lot of problems." When I asked Roy if it was difficult watching Smith go through this he said, "Very much so, but it's what life is."
Heart and soul: Barnes. This team lost a potential leader when 6-6 senior guard Will Graves was dismissed earlier this month for failing to follow team rules. Zeller would be the next likely candidate because he's a junior, but Barnes' talent is too prohibitive to choose anyone else. If Barnes has an All-America type of season, North Carolina has a chance to be a Final Four team. If he doesn't, they don't.
Most improved: Dexter Strickland. Much like Henson, the 6-3 sophomore had problems adjusting to playing a new position last season. He came in with a reputation as a pure scorer, but Williams needed him to back up Drew at the point. With Marshall in the fold, Strickland can move to his natural spot on the wing, and Williams likes what he sees based on the first week of practice. "Emotionally, he's better," he said. "Every play is not attack, attack, attack, and if he makes a mistake he's not compounding it by making three more mistakes."
Glue guy: Drew. I thought of going with Zeller here, but Zeller is more of a featured performer than a glue guy. With Graves gone, Drew is the most experienced player on this team, and it will be up to him to play well, provide leadership and play solid defense. Most of all, if Marshall does eat into his minutes and usurp his starting spot, Drew will have to handle it maturely.
X-factor: Marshall. Williams defended Drew from the blame he got for last year's problems, but I got the sense that the coach will not be shy about making lineup changes to avert another disaster. This is a very difficult offense to run if you're a freshman, but Marshall is good enough to do it. If he is in the starting lineup by February, Tar Heel fans should take it as a good sign.
Lost in the shuffle: Watts. I remember watching the Tar Heels practice this time last year and coming away impressed with Watts' physique and shooting ability. I had the same reaction this year -- and once again, I had a hard time figuring out how he can get extended minutes among the glut of perimeter players. Still, Watts is a 6-4 junior who shot 44.4 percent from three-point range last year. I think he can help.
Bottom line: As long as they can avoid injuries, the Tar Heels should be much better than they were last season. But I'll stick with my assertion that they're a year away from being a threat to win it all. If this team makes it to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament, its fans should be pleased. Anything beyond that is pure, sky-blue gravy.