Mid-season thoughts

Carolina hits the halfway point of the regular season during tomorrow’s conference opener against Boston College, and I figured it is a fitting time to look at the contrasting assumptions preseason and mid-season that underlie our outlook for the remainder of the year. Luke Winn at CNNSI wrote a similar post a few days ago focused on the national landscape, and one of his preseason assumptions that he now significantly alters was that Carolina was a tier above the rest of the teams in college basketball.

That this has changed is unquestionably true, and its true on a deeper level than is reflected simply by having fallen to #3 in the AP poll. Virtually no one actually thinks Syracuse is the best team in the country, much less the favorite to win the national title; but most of the country now follows Kentucky as the expected favorite and nearly unanimously declared most talented team. Carolina even made a list of “biggest disappointments” of the season’s first two months; their crime was falling from lofty expectations into a four-team top tier including the three teams above and Ohio State.

Those lofty expectations were certainly reflected in the tone of this blog preseason, when much of what I wrote lauded the preeminent status of our program above others as we embarked on yet another season in which Carolina was the team facing national title or major bust circumstances. I did caution that while this year’s team shared that burden in common with the 2009 team, it was not nearly as good or experienced, and that has unfortunately proven too true.

It’s worth considering what exactly has not materialized for Carolina thus far, because it truly is a case of the Heels not meeting expectations; the country expected Syracuse, Ohio State, and especially Kentucky to form the core of a strong national field, and we came down to their level rather than those teams rising to ours. The other, individual assumptions that haven’t yet been confirmed provide the answers to our relative “struggle” and offer hope for significant hope for major improvement, which many seem to think is a possibility reserved only for youthful Kentucky.

Harrison Barnes will be a man among boys as the best player in the nation. If the season ended today, Barnes would not find his name anywhere near the list of  POY candidates, leaving this assumption unfulfilled. He is our leading scorer at 17 ppg and is making nearly half of his attempts behind the arc, but he isn’t carrying our offense and our team in the manner expected of a player who is supposed to be too good for college ball. Part of this is the balanced scoring provided by the boosts in output from John Henson and our reserve guard position. Another reason may be that he just hasn’t yet had enough opportunities, and it may only take the onset of the ACC season to correct that. Barnes was a late bloomer last year, and he could make a similar mid-season surge given the chance to do what he does best, which is make game-changing plays in close contests.

James Michael McAdoo is already a top-five NBA prospect. This one has literally corrected itself, as McAdoo is in a free fall down the ESPN NBA Draft board. Carolina fans have barely seem a glimpse of a Marvin Williams, Ed Davis level contributor. Thankfully, if Zeller and Henson play to their potential and stay out of foul trouble, this team’s elite front court may not need one. But it remains true that if McAdoo finds his stride and approaches his preseason expectations, it would be a significant addition to our sometimes struggling offense.

Kendall Marshall could average a double-double. This one looks pretty laughable at mid-year (thought not because he lacks the absurd assist average necessary to pull it off). If this team has a flaw to which to attribute its diminished expectations, its the lack of offensive consistency for 40 minutes, and that stems from a lineup with two guards that are completely unreliable as scoring threats. As incredible of a year as Marshall is having passing the ball, one of the chief differences between this team and past champions is that Marshall doesn’t do what Ty Lawson and Ray Felton did.

Now for a few assumptions that have proven true, and also offer hope for improvement down the stretch:

Kendall Marshall is going to put himself on pace to shatter the NCAA all-time assist record. And the ACC single season record, and make frequent assaults on the UNC single game mark of 18. What he is doing is nothing short of ridiculous for a player averaging only 30 minutes a game. A 10.0 per game average in those minutes belongs in a video game or in the NBA.

P.J. Hairston and Reggie Bullock will transform our offense. We are actually among the league leaders from behind the arc, which was unfathomable last season, and it has made us look much more like the typical Carolina team that can run you out of the gym on offense. Bullock is a few more minutes a game from being a double-digit scorer, and Hairston appears much more versatile than previously thought. Both are potential All-ACC caliber players next season.

This Carolina team can be elite defensively, beginning with John Henson. In this week’s CNNSI Power Rankings, Luke Winn debates whether Henson or Anthony Davis is the nation’s best defender. Davis has the more gaudy block statistics, impressive since Henson’s are historically good as well. Yet its actually Henson’s less noticeable advanced defensive metrics that tell the full story on his defense: Henson bests Davis in opponent’s field goal percentage (24.2) and the percentage of his defensive possessions ending in stops (70.4). Both numbers are outstanding, and they are buttressed by the fact that Henson has the lower rate of picking up fouls. These numbers are supported by Henson’s numbers in the same categories over all of last year; much more than a block machine, Henson is a comprehensive shutdown defender with great discipline and impeccable timing. Strickland and Bullock have also been excellent defensively, and despite Barnes and Marshall as liabilities, we rank among the nation’s best.

This team can become a lot better over the next two months as our young reserves improve, Barnes and Zeller each begin to click like they did late last season, and more than likely, we become at least somewhat of a better free-throw shooting team.

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