Tuesday, October 28, 2008

No. 1 UNC: 2008-2009 Team Preview

2007-2008 Team Record: 36-3, 14-2 ACC (1st)

Key Losses: Quentin Thomas (3.1 ppg, 3.0 apg), Alex Stephenson (4.3 ppg, 4.5 rpg)

Key Returnees: Tyler Hansbrough (22.6 ppg, 10.2 rpg), Wayne Ellington (16.6 ppg, 40% 3's), Ty Lawson (12.7 ppg, 5.1 apg)

Newcomers: Larry Drew III, Ed Davis, Tyler Zeller, Justin Watts

Any surprise here? The Heels were a Final Four favorite at the beginning of last season, made it to the Final Four with arguably the most talented team in the country, returned everyone that mattered (including the national player of the year) and replaced the guys they lost with McDonald's all-americans. I wouldn't be surprised if this team averaged 90 ppg and went undefeated.

If you read this blog, then you should already know about UNC and what they bring back: double-double machine and floor-burn specialist Tyler Hansbrough; maybe the fastest guy in the country with a ball in his hands in Ty Lawson; sharp shooter Wayne Ellington; defensive specialists Danny Green and Marcus Guinyard. They will be deep as well. In the front court, Deon Thompson, who is one of the more under appreciated bigs in the conference, returns and will battle it out with freshmen Tyler Zeller and Ed Davis for the starting spot along side Hansbrough. Sophomore Will Graves will join Green off the bench on the wing, and senior Bobby Frasor, who is coming off of a torn ACL, will compete for minutes with freshman Larry Drew III to back up Lawson at the point.

Looking at that line up, it is pretty clear why UNC could win the national title. But what are the things that could keep this team from cutting down the nets in Detroit? For starters, the Heels were not a great defensive team last year, which won't be helped by the fact that their best perimeter defender, Guinyard, will be out until sometime in December with a stress fracture in his foot. The addition of Zeller, a long, lanky 7 footer and capable shot blocker, will provide a defensive presence in the paint, but Zeller is probably still a year or two away from being a dominant defensive force. UNC needs to be able to avoid the kind of defensive lapses that happened in last year's Final Four against Kansas (resulting in the Heels finding themselves down 40-12).

UNC is also going to have to avoid the temptation for individual players looking to "get their's". Lawson, Ellington, and Green all declared for the NBA Draft last year, withdrawing their names late in the process for a variety of reasons. For the Heels to be as good as they are expected to be, each of those three guys (maybe throwing Guinyard, a senior, and Thompson, a junior that has been and will be competing for minutes with some very capable guys, in there as well) will have to accept the role that they play within the UNC system. And they will have to play within that role, instead of trying to prove to NBA scouts what they can do and that they warrant being selected in the first round.

The last, and maybe most difficult, thing that UNC will have to deal with is the pressure of expectations and predictions. For just about any school in the country in any given year, a Final Four trip is considered a great season. Not for these Heels. Anything less than a title will be considered a disappointment. Every loss during the season will result in a string of questions all essentially asking "are the Heels for real?". How far this team goes will depend a lot on how well they can deal with that pressure.

Outlook: As I said before, UNC going undefeated would not surprise many people, even with the difficult schedule that they play. They are talented, deep, well coached, and play a style that should let a lot of players score a lot of points. Fair or not, anything less than a national title will be considered a disappointment in Chapel Hill. This is similar to the situation that Roy Williams dealt with in 1996-97, when his Kansas Jayhawk team, led by Paul Pierce and Jacque Vaughn, was considered the overwhelming favorite. That team lost in the Sweet 16 to eventual champs Arizona. Only time will tell how far this team will go.

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