North Carolina will return to the court next month as a shell of its ‘08-‘09 NCAA Championship self, boasting just one starter from the Final Four run in Detroit – senior forward Deon Thompson. Gone are the only two players to start a game at point guard last season in Ty Lawson and Bobby Frasor. Also gone is 93.9 percent (248 of 264) of the title team’s three-point shooting.
Williams confirmed on Thursday what observers have known since Wayne Ellington, Ty Lawson and Danny Green swapped their North Carolina jerseys for professional apparel in June – that guard play and 3-point shooting are life-sized question marks floating above this program’s hopes to return to the Final Four.
“We don’t know what John Henson is going to be able to do on the perimeter,” Williams told a packed crowd in the Dean E. Smith Center media room. “We don’t know if Ed Davis has improved his inside scoring or not. We don’t know if Dexter [Strickland] and Leslie [McDonald], or Marcus [Ginyard] for example, are going to be able to shoot the 3-point shoot as well as we need to shoot it.”
Ginyard’s value has always been measured in defense and leadership as opposed to scoring (6.9 points per game in ’07-‘08), while Larry Drew assumes the frontrunner position at point guard after earning less than 10 minutes per contest last season and connecting on just 35.1 percent (20-of-57) of his field goal attempts.
Will Graves is back after a suspension-shortened sophomore campaign, but the small forward only managed a 27.8 shooting percentage (10-of-36) from 3-point territory in 11.2 minutes per game in '08-'09. Add in the freshmen duo of Strickland and McDonald, and you begin to see why Williams is willing to consider his three 6-foot-10 freshmen forwards – Henson, David Wear and Travis Wear – as options at the 3-spot.
It also helps that those three rookies are not necessarily needed early on down low, as the frontcourt is already secured by the likes of Deon Thompson, Ed Davis and Tyler Zeller.
“The depth up front this year has to be a strong point for us,” Williams said. “… It’s my job to try to get the guys that are playing the best the most minutes and to get everybody else to challenge for that. I do like the depth. I do like the versatility. I do like the fact that one, two or three of them are going to be able to play some at the 3-spot.”
Thompson, a Torrance, Calif. product, readily admits that while the post potential is rock solid, the backcourt is a little less firm.
“We’re definitely tough inside,” Thompson said. “I think we have the best frontcourt in America with myself and Ed Davis, Tyler Zeller, throw the twins and John Henson in there. I think we’re definitely going to get the bulk of our scoring inside. Outside of that, I really don’t even know. It’s up in the air. That’s the fun part about this – we just don’t know what we’re going to get.”
With five freshmen expected to factor into the rotation against Belmont Abbey in UNC’s lone exhibition on Nov. 6, the challenge over the next 21 days will be to educate while not overloading. It doesn’t help that North Carolina only has 15 or 16 practices prior to the first game this season after enjoying 23 or 24 last preseason.
“You still have to go slower and you can’t expect someone to do something well if they don’t know how to do it,” Williams said. “… So we’re going to have to go slower, but at the same time, we’ve got to get several things in at a quicker pace. So it’s a little bit of a catch-22. You don’t know how fast you can go, but you’ve got to have some things in so that things don’t surprise you during the course of the game.”
Despite the concern surrounding the Tar Heels’ perimeter production, media outlets apparently refuse to be duped again as they were back during the 2005-06 season, when UNC was picked sixth in the ACC but ultimately earned a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
“It’s unbelievable to me,” Williams said. “It really is. We lose four starters and six of our top-eight, or whatever it was. I’ve picked up three magazines and we’re No. 4, No. 4 and No. 5. I would have expected that’s where we would be picked in our league and that’s where we’re picked in the nation.”
As it turns out, that answer is fairly easy to answer. While this squad may have some unknown quantities on the roster, Ol' Roy has proven to be the surest thing going in college basketball.