Here are five North Carolina storylines I can’t wait to watch this season:
The season-opening Nov. 11 Carrier Classic against Michigan State will be memorable for its location (the deck of the USS Carl Vinson) and its audience (the majority of the tickets will go to the five branches of the military). The two rivalry games against Duke will be emotional because, well, it’s UNC-Duke. But most of the Tar Heels starters point to the Dec. 3 showdown at Rupp Arena as the game they are most looking forward to -- because they can’t help but look back.
The 76-69 loss to the Wildcats in the Elite Eight last March left UNC’s players with a nagging feeling of unfinished possibilities -- so much so, wing Harrison Barnes and forwards John Henson and Tyler Zeller opted not to leave early for the NBA in order to have another chance at the Final Four.
“That was a tough loss for us,” Henson said of the last Kentucky game, “and I think it put a chip on our shoulder to come back this year and take care of business.”
All five starters return for the preseason No. 1 team -- but whether they will be favored by the time the Kentucky game rolls around remains to be seen. The Wildcats are ranked just behind the Tar Heels in both polls and have the talent to make another run at a national title, what with forward Terrence Jones pulling his name out of the draft, guards Darius Miller and sophomore Doron Lamb returning -- plus the addition of the nation’s top-ranked recruiting class.
2. Will Harrison Barnes score 40 (again)?
Point guard Kendall Marshall said he wouldn’t be surprised if it happened.
I’d be surprised if it didn’t.
Barnes, a sophomore Naismith nominee, got off to a slow beginning last season, and didn’t really start clicking offensively until Marshall replaced Larry Drew II in the starting lineup in mid-January. Over his last 18 games, Barnes averaged 19.7 points while shooting 45.5 percent -- including an ACC tournament freshman record 40 points against Clemson.
With the pass-first Marshall pushing the break from the get-go -- plus an extra 15 pounds of strength added to Barnes’ 6-foot-8 frame, allowing him to post up smaller opposing wings -- the only thing that might slow the preseason ACC Player of the Year from posting the 18th 40-point game in UNC history is sitting on the bench during blowouts.
3. Can Reggie Bullock get his groove (consistently) back?
The 6-7 reserve guard last season showed bursts of the shooting prowess he was known for in high school -- making four first-half 3-pointers against Boston College and scoring a season-high 18 points in a victory against Clemson.
But a lack of confidence in his knee -- which never felt quite right, he said, even before he tore his lateral meniscus in late February and missed the rest of the season -- led to a lack of confidence in his game.
Fast-forward to Friday’s 100-58 preseason victory against UNC Pembroke, and it’s pretty clear by the way he exploded to the basket and buried 3-pointers that Bullock’s got his confidence back. Although he made only 4 of his 10 shots, he looked healthy as he ran the floor for 22 minutes.
That could be a good sign for the Tar Heels, who need Bullock and freshman P.J. Hairston -- who was 6-for-8 off the bench Friday -- to stay accurate, especially with the loss of top-scoring reserve Leslie McDonald to a knee injury over the summer.
4. Is Dexter Strickland ready for double duty, again?
Strickland thought last season that he’d finally be able to play just one position (shooting guard) after struggling in the backup point guard role his freshman year in 2009-10.
Then Drew opted to transfer. And there Strickland was, again -- a starter at shooting guard, but backing up Marshall for the final 16 games of the season.
Although UNC brought in another ball handler this season in freshman point guard Stilman White, coach Roy Williams has made it clear he wants Strickland back in his dual role. The 6-3 junior finally seems comfortable with it, finishing the season with zero turnovers over UNC’s final three NCAA games. But his continued improvement at point guard -- while playing shooting guard -- will continue to be key if Carolina wants to keep Marshall from getting worn down.
5. Freshman impact
As mentioned above, rookie shooting guard P.J. Hairston’s outside accuracy will be key. But forward James Michael McAdoo’s minutes will be just as important.
UNC’s past two national championship teams boasted an impact freshman forward off the bench (Marvin Williams in 2005, Ed Davis in 2009). McAdoo, the 2009 USA Basketball Male Athlete of the Year, has the tools to fit that mold.
He’ll add depth to a front line that didn’t have much last season, and his athleticism could help him follow in Williams’ and Davis’ footsteps in another way -- as a first-round, early-entry, NBA draft pick.