Friday, November 13, 2009

UNC Basketball Impressions One Week In & The Impact of Harrison Barnes

For Tar Heel fans there were two major story lines to the first week of basketball season: 1) Will a very young but talented roster perform to its top 10 ranking 2) Where was mega-recruit Harrison Barnes going to end up. Obviously we got a definitive answer to the second, which I will analyze in depth in the second part of this post. Its too early in the season to get any certain answer to the second but there may be a couple things we can gleam from the glorified scrimmages against FIU and NCCU.

The game against FIU, which I attended after being approached in the UNC dining hall an hour and a half before the game by a Carolina Fever guy giving out lower level tickets, was entertaining but didn't tell us way too much about the team. The Heels got off to a good start by overpowering the vastly outsized Golden Panthers down low with Davis, Zeller, and Thompson. Drew the Deuce also looked good and demonstrated that he has improved his scoring a bit to go along with his already solid passing and defensive games. Once the Heels built a lead the freshmen got to log some significant minutes and, SURPRISE, looked like freshmen in their first game. Strickland looked nervous dishing out 5 turnovers and Henson only put up four points. While I don't think this sloppy play will continue throughout the season (and we saw significant improvement in the NCCU game), poor decisions resulting from inexperience will most likely bite this team throughout the season and are the main reason I did not pick them to make the final four. Before I move on to the NCCU game, I want to give props to Isiah, whose FIU squad fought hard and didn't back down from a much bigger and more talented team. Isiah has come under a lot of criticism (mostly deserved) from the media and Bill Simmons but he may actually turn out to be a solid college coach. Many great college coaches have struggled in the NBA (see Rick Pitino), and with a top 50 recruit locked up for next year Isiah could use a NCAA appearance at FIU to earn him a more high profile job.

The game against NCCU was a cleaner and much more dominant performance by the Tar Heels but its hard to the win against such inferior competition too seriously. . From the first two games some things do seem to stick out about the teams. In both games the Tar Heels blocked a lot of shots and challenged many more, supporting something I have said for a while now, that UNC will be one of the best low post defensive teams in the nation. Likewise it was nice seeing a team playing tenacious perimeter defense. We will know a lot more about this team after next weeks matchups with The Ohio State Evan Turners and either Syracuse or California. With regards to individual players here are my impressions and grades for the major players through the first two games.

Larry Drew: The Duece looks good handling the ball and has racked up 12 assists to 6 turnovers. That ratio certainly could increase and while Drew can make some highlight reel
passes, he still sometimes seems to be forcing passes on occasion. Offensively he has shown an improved ability to drive and knock down occasional threes, though he still is nowhere near a Felton or Lawson.
Grade: B
Dexter Strickland: Strickland looked pretty awful during the first game, but he gets a bit of a pass since it was his first college game ever. He looked better against NCCU, knocking down several jumpshots and posting a positive assists minus turnover number. Still a work in progress right now, but Dex could emerge as a solid backup by the middle of the season
Grade: C-

Marcus Ginyard: Marcus looks like the clear leader of this team. He does everything, still performing as a lockdown defender and seems to have emerged as an offensive threat after missing last season. Apparently he practiced his shot over the time he was out and has knocked down several threes so far. His matchup against Evan Turner next week will be a good barometer of his progress.
Grade: A

Deon Thompson: Thompson came out thundering against FIU, posting a 20-10 game, then underwhelmed a bit against NCCU. Thompson looks to be one of the offensive leaders of the team, but will need to post consistent performances down low if the team hopes to keep up offensively with the better teams in the country.
Grade: B+
Ed Davis: Davis picked up right where he left off last season. He still is the best rebounder on team and his long wingspan and good timing lead to a lot a blocks and challenged shots on the defensive end. However he also seems to have picked up where he left off offensively and does not look like the dominant post scorer some expected. Ed may be a solid starter but right now he is nowhere near an all-American as some projected.
Grade: B-

Tyler Zeller: While Davis's may not have made significant offensive improvement this offseason, Tyler Zeller certainly has. The seven footer put on some weight and muscle over the offseason and now shows the confidence and aggression around the basket he seemed to be lacking last year. While much ado has been made of Henson, Zeller may be the primary sixth man on the team.
Grade: A+

Will Graves: Graves has looked solid in the starting role but is certainly not lighting it up. It seems he is acting as a solid placeholder for the starting SF spot until Henson develops a bit more and is ready to take over duties.
Grade: B-

John Henson: "That was a man yell from a baby face" might be the best announcing quote of the season and we are only two games in. Henson has only accounted for 4 points in each game, but he does look fluid out on the floor and as he continues to get used to playing the three his points will go up. Watching him play tells me that he is ideally suited for the 4 spot but with Thompson, Davis, and Zeller the SF spot is the best way to get him PT. One thing Henson already has is the ability to get blocks and his monster block against NCCU rocked the 1/3 capacity Dean Dome crowd.
Grade: B

The Wears, Leslie McDonald, and Justin Watts all looked impressive at points, but look as if they will be further down on the depth chart once Roy shores up the rotation. Regardless, this team has some major depth and tired player should never be a problem.

Now to the news that has made most Tar Heel fans giddier than a 12 year old girl in the first row at a Jonas Brother concert. Harrison Barnes, after giving a speech rivaling the Gettysburg Address in length, declared that he would sign a letter of intent to play at North Carolina. To take a page out of Bill Simmons book: "Duke Fans you may now light yourselves on fire."
Barnes has been heralded as the most polished high school prospect since LeBron and while certainly no one expects him to be as good as King James, he give UNC a ridiculously talented group coming in next year alongside 6'6 shooting guard Reggie Bullock (#2 SG in ESPNU's rankings) and 6'4 pure point guard Kendall Marshall (who has been labeled the best pure passer in the nation). Barnes, who places an emphasis on academics, also claims that he plans on staying for 3 years, though I don't think anyone would be surprised if he bolted after 1 or 2. Combined with the returning talent next year UNC has to be considered odds on favorites for another title in 2011 and look to be close to establishing a basketball dynasty under Roy Williams. Just for pure speculative fun here's what I envision as UNC's depth chart next season

PG: DrewII, Marshall, Strickland
SG: Bullock, Strickland, McDonald
SF: Barnes, Graves, Watts
PF: Henson, D. Wear, T. Wear
C: Zeller, D. Wear, T. Wear

Hold on a second I have to go change my pants after looking over that lineup.....

...okay well first off I projected Ed Davis as leaving after this season due to his high draft stock, but if he does not show improvement this season he could theoretically be back (especially given how spending 3+ years paid off for last year's juniors and seniors). In contrast, I thought Henson will probably stick around another year to develop and get stronger unless he is absolutely hellbent on leaving this season (but the prospect of playing with Barnes probably doesn't hurt the chances of his return.

As I already alluded Duke is the big loser in this sweepstakes. While I'm sure Iowa State, Kansas, Oklahoma, and UCLA would have loved to have him as well, all those schools save ISU (which was a long shot anyways) have been bringing in solid recruiting classes recently. Duke however has been in a bit of a draught and were really banking on Barnes helping turn the Devils back into perennial title contenders. Basically Roy just pwned K. And I'm loving every minute of it.

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