At UNC’s annual media day on Thursday, Williams faced the same set of questions he did toward the end of last year, and his answers were familiar. He cited injuries, inexperience and a lack of commitment all as principle factors in the club’s disastrous campaign that landed the Heels in the postseason NIT rather than the NCAA Tournament.
But while the bevy of local reporters may be trying to extract those final drops of angst from the Hall of Fame head coach, the fanbase unquestionably is ready to move on. Assisting in the process is the fact that the club will feature a new star: No. 1 recruit Harrison Barnes.
The Barnes recruitment was one of the most dramatic in the history of the UNC/Duke rivalry, as the Tar Heels capitalized on their 2009 national championship and the 100 years celebration to reel in Barnes over the long-favored Blue Devils. It was perceived as a mortal blow to Duke at the time, but in fact it was the final piece of substantial good news for UNC in 2009-10.
And now comes the part where Barnes attempts to live up to expectations. Faced with more pressure than any Carolina recruit in the past decade, even Roy Williams has challenged his prodigious freshman to become an immediate impact player.
"He's just got tremendous discipline, tremendous focus, tremendous desire and he's willing to do those little things that make him special," Williams said. "Comparing (Tyler Hansbrough) in his freshman year to Harrison right now, Harrison has more focus than Tyler."
Not only will it fail to surprise anyone if Barnes leads the team in scoring, it will be a minor upset if he doesn’t lead the way.
But the more pressing concern is up front. Tyler Zeller and John Henson each have gained muscle since last year, but only Alabama transfer Justin Knox — a senior who will have only season of eligibility — looms as a legitimate big man off the bench. Williams had planned to utilize senior Will Graves as a frontcourt reserve, but Graves was dismissed from the team earlier this month after a violation of team rules.
Meanwhile, oft-criticized point guard Larry Drew returns for a junior season that everyone hopes is better than his sophomore campaign. He’ll be joined by sophomore Dexter Strickland — whom Williams plans to play at both guard spots — and touted freshman Kendall Marshall. One way or the other, UNC’s point guard play should improve this season.
The Tar Heels again will face a difficult non-conference schedule, and chances are they’ll stumble a time or two in preparation for ACC competition. Still, most analysts have them pegged as a top-15 squad nationally. To play to that level and overcome the lingering questions, they’ll need Barnes to play at a level close to what Hansbrough and Antawn Jamison achieved as freshmen.
Fair? Of course not. But it’s Carolina basketball, and it’s back.