North Carolina nearly possesses a complete team this season. The Tar Heels boast talent, experience, depth, obvious coaching acumen and a preseason No. 1 ranking that reinforces the threat they'll pose to opponents during the next several months.
But a lingering, fundamental question lurks beneath the surface: Can this team actually shoot? Last year's Heels received their NCAA Tournament walking papers from torrid Kentucky, despite the fact that Carolina outplayed the Wildcats in several other phases of that contest. So while returning all five starters carries substantial benefits, these are the same guys who constituted one of the worst-shooting teams in UNC history a season ago.
The marksmanship issue primarily resides in the backcourt. Sophomore point guard Kendall Marshall is a passing maestro and is recognized as one of the nation's finest floor generals, but he's a reluctant, if reasonably accurate, shooter. Carolina's starting wing guard, junior Dexter Strickland, has developed into an ace defender and transition scorer but is a confirmed brick-layer: He converted just 25 percent of his three attempts last season.
Sophomore forward Harrison Barnes has developed into a lethal clutch shooter, but even he doesn't boast accuracy equivalent to former wings Wayne Ellington and Rashad McCants.
So what's the answer for UNC? Ideally, the starting perimeter battery all would improve their percentages while being more proactive seeking long-range attempts. Alternatively, Roy Williams may choose to allot more playing time to reserves Reggie Bullock and P.J. Hairston, both of whom enjoyed big reputations as shooters upon arriving to campus.
Cutting Marshall's or Strickland's minutes would carry costs as well, however—and Barnes simply is too valuable as an overall scorer to play a reduced role—so at least through the early season the starters are likely to receive every opportunity to demonstrate progress.
History portends ominously. Based on NCAA Tournament results since the inception of the three-point shot (in 1986–87), few teams have achieved ultimate triumph shooting the ball as poorly as the Tar Heels did a season ago. One would expect this year's group to improve at least slightly, due to experience gains, but look at the numbers: The 2010–11 Heels hit just 33 percent from deep; the two Williams title squads, 2005 and 2009, buried 40 percent and 39 percent respectively.
And those Carolina teams weren't anomalies. Most championship teams feature at least two legitimate perimeter threats, while UNC has no one who truly is proven. For perspective, Ellington made 85 threes in 1,155 total minutes in 2008–09; last year, Marshall and Strickland made 28 threes combined in 1,912 total minutes.
All that said, UNC's prospects remain viable even if they don't receive amplified jump-shooting production. In fact, Williams' final team at Kansas advanced to the national final in 2002–03 despite extreme inaccuracy from distance. That Jayhawks club started one shooter exceeding 40 percent on threes (current Atlanta Hawk Kirk Hinrich) and two others languishing under 30 percent, and they didn't benefit from any meaningful reserve help.
If Barnes can carry the load from deep, Marshall takes a few more shots and the Heels receive even marginal assistance from Bullock, Hairston or Leslie McDonald—who could return late after recovering from an ACL tear he suffered this past summer—they may possess the requisite firepower.
Upcoming nonconference contests will help reveal the extent to which that's true. The Tar Heels host Wisconsin Wednesday, Nov. 30, as part of the ACC/ Big Ten Challenge, and then they'll travel to Kentucky for a rematch of last season's Elite Eight in likely the nation's best nonconference matchup of the season.
In a state renowned for its moral righteousness, on that afternoon the Heels' impurities will burn off brightly for all to witness, scorching either a lighter or darker shade of blue.