The overriding theme of ACC Operation Basketball on Wednesday was the emergence of N.C. State as the favorite in a league long dominated by North Carolina and Duke. Out of the 53 media ballots cast, North Carolina did not receive a single first-place vote. This is a stark contrast to one year ago when the Tar Heels were just two votes shy of being the unanimous selection to win the league.
Of course, this is not the same North Carolina squad as last year. The departed quartet of Harrison Barnes, John Henson, Kendall Marshall and Tyler Zeller comprised 67 percent of the Tar Heels scoring, 60 percent of the rebounding and 74 percent of the assists. The losses are certainly staggering, but rivals are not fooled by the perception that this is a rebuilding year in Chapel Hill.
“Carolina has a great team every year,” preseason ACC Player of the Year C.J. Leslie said. “It’s one of those situations where they are never really off the branch with anything so we expect for them to have a great team this year. I’m sure they will.”
Duke guard Seth Curry added: “When you’re at a place like Duke or Carolina, even though they've got guys on the bench that may not play as much, they still have talent. They've got McDonald’s All-Americans that are coming in this year and McDonald’s All-Americans that didn’t play as much and didn’t have as big a role last year as they will this year, but they’re still good. They’ll be talented and I’m sure they’ll have a good team.”
The lack of experience is nothing new for Roy Williams-coached teams. All five starters either graduated or departed for the NBA Draft following the 2005 national championship season and four starters left from the 2009 title team. While the ensuing seasons would have different results the parallels are obvious to the current North Carolina team.
“You simplify your system,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “You don’t give them as much to think about, because if they think too much then they’re not going to be instinctively reactive, but they can grow a lot and so what you normally give a veteran team in one or two doses, you do it in 15 doses or 20 doses throughout the year and then a lot of times they’re better at the end of the year than the old group was if you do it the right way and stay away from injury.”
Krzyzewski is certainly not in the business of offering tips to Williams, but both agree that slowing down the pace is key to get the best out of an inexperienced team. If the players do not understand what is expected of them, they cannot execute at full speed to the best of their abilities. It may take time for the young players to comprehend Williams’s system, but in the meantime North Carolina eagerly awaits all challengers.
“I feel like we still have the bull’s-eye on our back,” Reggie Bullock said. “Everybody wants to see how Carolina is going to bounce back from losing four starters to the NBA. I feel like for me and [James Michael McAdoo] it’s going to be a big year for us to step up and be able to lead the young guys.”
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