Entering last season, the North Carolina Tar Heels had national title aspirations. Returning all five starters from a Final Four team, they were never challenged during the Tournament and cruised to an 89-72 victory over Michigan State en route to the school’s sixth championship. This season, the Kansas Jayhawks hope to be that team. They too return everybody from a very successful squad in 2008-09. However, unlike the Heels, they have the perceived second best team in the country in their conference. Saturday morning, we’ll see just how good #2 Texas is when the #10 Tar Heels, decimated by the loss of four starters from their title team, head to Austin.
Texas is led by senior forwards Damion James and Dexter Pittman. James, the 6-7 swingman with an outside touch, leads the team in points and rebounds, while also pacing the team by knocking down 54% of his shots from the field. Pittman has “slimmed” down to 290, making him extremely hard to stop when he gets the ball down low. He’s also a formidable shot blocker. Perhaps Texas’ biggest asset is their ability to stretch their bench six deep. The second unit is led by freshman forward Jordan Hamilton. Although he’s similar in stature to James, Hamilton is not the bullish rebounder that exemplifies Rick Barnes’ senior star. He has a nice jump shot, but considering his size and position, it would be nice to see him make more trips to the free throw line. Junior tweener Gary Johnson is also in the mix. Johnson isn’t a spectacular playmaker, but he very quietly gets seven points and four rebounds a game. Despite being a relatively short forward, Johnson does his damage inside the arc. Seeing as how James and Hamilton are capable from long, this isn’t much of a problem. Alexis Wangmene has gotten solid minutes off the bench. He’s built much like Johnson, and their points and rebounds per minute are very close. The sixth man of the ridiculously deep Texas frontcourt is Clint Chapman, who will only be playing in his fourth game after missing the first three due to injury. Chapman is the tallest player on the roster, and has chipped in solid minutes every game he’s played in so far, consistently scoring a bucket or two while hauling in around four rebounds. The incredible depth of the Longhorn bigs may prove crucial against a Carolina team that is used to having more players to choose from than their opponents.
The senior leadership comes from James and Pittman, but the standout at guard is freshman Avery Bradley. Lauded for his impeccable perimeter defense, Bradley can also score with consistency, something he doesn’t get enough credit for considering his defense. Bradley is dumping in 11 points a game, and is shooting 48% from the field. One of his backcourt partners is the pesky Dogus Balbay, a player not well known outside Big 12 circles. Balbay’s pedestrian scoring isn’t what makes him great; at 4.6 points a game, it certainly doesn’t jump out from a statistically balanced Texas stat sheet. But he dishes out over five assists a game, and at 6-1, 175, he’s not the guy you’d expect to be third on the team in rebounding. Balbay is an annoying defender, never allowing his man to shake free. The third backcourt starter is Justin Mason, the guy who was supposed to replace DJ Augustin last season. Mason didn’t exactly fill Augustin’s shoes, and most would consider Balbay the point guard, but Mason would not relinquish his role within the team. He’s not a high flying scorer or outstanding passer, but he does little things that keep him on the court. Texas, already a deep team, gets J’Covan Brown back from injury this week. Brown had been arguably the most impressive Longhorn freshman through the first six games, but suffered an ankle injury against Texas State. He has sat out the last two contests. Brown should be ready to go for the game against Carolina. Making his debut with the team is Florida transfer Jai Lucas. Lucas is small and quick, and was a solid contributor for Billy Donovan’s team two seasons ago. He seems happier with his role at Texas, and will be looking to prove himself after a year off. This Texas backcourt is without Varez Ward, who is out for the year with a knee injury.
Despite their two losses, Roy Williams has to be pleased with the way his young team has played, especially forwards Deon Thompson and Ed Davis. Thompson has nearly replicated the output of All-American Tyler Hansbrough. He has an impressive arsenal of low posts moves. Davis has consistently put up double-doubles and patrolled the interior of the Tar Heel D. Should he elect to forego his final two years of college hoops after this season and enter the NBA Draft, he could be a top three pick. After missing nearly all of last season due to injury, Tyler Zeller has looked fantastic early on. Zeller is fourth on the team in scoring coming off the bench, and the seven footer looks extremely comfortable with the ball in his hands. Will Graves is a swingman for the Heels. Graves is a solid enough rebounder, but he likes to shoot it from deep as well. He can play a little two guard, but Graves starts the game at small forward. Three freshmen make UNC's frontcourt one of the nation's deepest. They are led by the sinewy John Henson. Henson is a long 6-10. He's a very good ball handler and shooter for someone his size, and his wingspan makes him tough to shoot over. The Wear twins, Travis and David, have a solid low post skill set, but what makes them special is the range on their jumpshots. They are extremely capable of making mid range jumpers, and on occasion, three pointers.
Entering the season the biggest question surrounding this team was how Larry Drew II would step in and play in lieu of current Denver Nugget Tywon Lawson. The answer thus far? Pretty dang good. At 6.8 assists per game, the sophomore ranks third in the nation in the category, and he has been one of Roy Williams' most accurate three point shooters. Also playing well is Marcus Ginyard, who sat out last season with an injury, but is back and better than ever. Ginyard is among the team leaders in points, rebounds, assists and steals. He comfortably leads the team in minutes played. On a young team, Ginyard and Thompson have emerged as leaders. The frontcourt benefits from a trio of freshmen; the backcourt counters with Dexter Strickland and Leslie McDonald, two more new faces. Strickland showed flashes of brilliance against Michigan State, but he hasn't been able to produce consistently. He's got the potential to be a star, and he has shown that, but right now, he's a solid option off the bench. McDonald isn't as flashy as Strickland, but he's a little taller. Rounding out the unit is Justin Watts, who has to be happy with his start. Last year he was a liability coming off the bench. This year he's one of the most reliable scorers on the second unit. His points per minute and assists per turnover ratios are skyrocketing compared to his production a year ago.
Another difficult test for the Tar Heels, who are building quite the early season resume, will be their last of the non-conference season. Texas' toughest test up to this point has been Pittsburgh, a team trying to put together the pieces in a rebuilding year. The Longhorns have been sloppy, and if they can't keep it under control, UNC will make them pay. However, the home court advantage plus a bench that matches North Carolina's spells victory for the 'Horns. I like Texas, 85-80.