Thoughts on the front court
Harrison Barnes: There is little to say that wouldn’t merely repackage what I already wrote last spring, what ESPN wrote last week, and what is commonly understood around the country. Barnes is the best player in the country on a team full of best players in the country, and as the first player of his caliber to return for his sophomore season since the NBA’s one-and-done rule, he might be the best player in college basketball in several years. He is an usually mature individual who made a very strange decision to return, seemingly because he wanted to win so badly, and he reportedly has an insane work ethic. Add to that his late-game play last season, which literally made the different between winning and losing in at least five ACC games. For all of these reasons, there is no question that were he to stay beyond this season (highly unlikely), he could approach Ford-Jordan-Hansbrough status in Carolina basketball lore. Two years, even with a national title, likely isn’t enough to achieve that level of reverence, but he is at least on his way to joining the next tier in a program full of college basketball luminaries.
Tyler Zeller: Thinking back to the summer of 2008 and watching the recruitment hype of Tyler Zeller as he prepared to arrive in Chapel Hill, it is obvious to conclude that we didn’t quite get what we expected. He isn’t as effective facing the basket, was a little soft on defense early in his career, and wasn’t able to contribute as a sophomore nearly as much as expected. But he arrived late last year as one of the premier post players in the country and enters this season as an All-America candidate, finally realizing his heralded recruiting status. He may actually be one of the more underrated players in the college basketball landscape, simply because there is nothing flashy about his game (except his ability as a seven-footer to run the floor) and because he quietly raised his game to Preseason Naismith Top 50 status after having been somewhat forgotten as a freshman and sophomore. College basketball fans respect his game, but they should remember that he was a top-ten recruit four years ago, and that he was finally playing like it in the NCAA tournament last season.
John Henson: I always liked about Danny Green that he couldn’t keep himself from smiling on the basketball court, especially after triggering a run with a three-pointer or making a key defensive block. For many players smiling just isn’t their style, but as a former player and on-court smiler myself, its fulfilling to see someone experiencing such joy at meaningful success in intense competition. Henson is on a level of his own in this category, and coupled with his relatively frequent poor shot selection and the colossal mistake he nearly made at the end of the Washington game last March, he presents a conflicting persona of extremely likable but excessively goofy. I have a hunch that we will see more of the likable side this year, as Henson is a year older and increasingly comfortable with his role as a shot-blocker and rebounder. He says that he wants to expand his offense (and after seeing him drain a couple of outside shots during Cobb court pickup games, he definitely has it), but he understands that in most games this year he won’t have to. He is a more mature basketball player than he gets credit for, and with his personality and ability to make plays no one else can (ending the Washington game by deflecting the in-bound pass), he is one of the more fun to watch players Carolina has had.
James Michael McAdoo: This is a year in which Carolina fans will wish basketball was played six on six, because there will simply not be enough spots on the floor at the end of the game for players that truly should be out there. McAdoo is said to be the most polished player in his class, and there is little question that he would start for nearly every other team in the country. Comparisons of his role to that of Marvin Williams and Ed Davis on the 2005 and 2009 title teams make sense, especially in the case of Williams, who found himself on the floor to make crucial plays at the end of the Duke game in Chapel Hill and the national title game. But in that case, there was a logical person for him to replace – Williams played the same role as Jawad Williams and was more talented. On this team, it is much more complicated. Due to foul trouble, the most likely candidate from whom McAdoo will steal minutes is Henson, but McAdoo doesn’t replace Henson’s defense and rebounding. Tyler Zeller, meanwhile, as the polished senior post scorer will trump McAdoo, the polished freshman post scorer. The wild card option is playing Zeller, Henson and McAdoo at the same time, though with our back court depth and the failure of Henson as a 3 two years ago, I doubt we see this – as much fun as it would be to see us send four players 6’8″ or taller onto the court. At any rate, McAdoo is probably already the best backup big man in the country, and he should not be much of a drop off from our starters, a massive advantage over our opponents when foul trouble strikes. The crucial question is whether we see him as a sophomore, as it could represent the difference between title contender and top ten team.