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November 4, 2008
Tipoff '08-'09
North Carolina Picks a Good Time to be Gimpy

by John Gasaway

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William Goldman famously coined a phrase to describe the movie business: nobody knows anything.

In college basketball of late, conversely, it seems like everybody knows everything. Last year at this time everyone was talking about North Carolina, Memphis, UCLA and Kansas. Lo and behold, every one of those teams made it to the Final Four last April.

Now as we embark on the 2008-2009 season, everyone is talking about North Carolina. They should be, even though we've just learned that Tyler Hansbrough will likely be sidelined for at least two weeks with a "stress reaction" in his right shin.

Certainly the prospect of Hansbrough missing any time at all is big news. After all, the last time we saw a North Carolina team that did not run its offense through Hansbrough, we were looking at Sean May, Rashad McCants, Marvin Williams and Raymond Felton. In every season since that 2005 national championship, Hansbrough has carried a star's share of possessions on offense for UNC.

Nevertheless, what's remarkable to me about this turn of events is the heretical thought it's triggered in my mind. I assume Hansbrough will return full-speed in the very near future, of course, but even if he didn't the Heels could conceivably win a national championship without him. I say conceivably. Would they be the favorites? Of course not. It's just that right now the competition in 2009 looks a lot more forgiving than it would have been last year or in any other recent season. In other words, losing Hansbrough would be a devastating setback, but one that came along at an ideal time.

About that competition. Somebody has to be number two, of course. It's just that based on what we think we know now, there's an unusually large gap between numbers one and two this season. Assuming a healthy Hansbrough (and Marcus Ginyard), the Tar Heels are the only, and I do mean only, team in the country that can be safely presumed excellent on both sides of the ball.

Let's take a quick glance at some contenders….

  • Connecticut. Whereas North Carolina is excellent on both sides of the ball, the Huskies are misunderstood on both sides of the ball. Thanks largely to A.J. Price's emergence, their offense was much better than commonly realized last year--the best in the Big East, in fact--but their defense was strangely mediocre. That's hard for pundits to wrap their heads around, of course. Think "Connecticut" and you think of Hasheem Thabeet swatting away shots. Indeed he does. Problem is, that's pretty much all there was to the Huskies' D last year. There were far too few defensive boards and, as always with UConn, there were effectively zero opponent turnovers. If Connecticut is to live up to their clippings, they'll have to repeat last year's performance on offense--no small feat, that--and improve on D.
  • Louisville was, of course, excellent last year on both sides of the ball and may well find that they're able to carry on just fine without David Padgett, thanks in large part to the arrival of Samardo Samuels. We just don't know that for sure yet.
  • UCLA was, of course, excellent last year on both sides of the ball and may well find that they're able to carry on just fine without Kevin Love and Russell Westbrook, thanks in large part to the arrival of Jrue Holiday. We just don't know that for sure yet.
  • Duke was stellar last year up to mid-February but faltered badly on both offense and defense after that.
  • Pittsburgh has three legitimately big names in Sam Young, DeJuan Blair and Levance Fields. However, the Panthers also face legitimately large questions regarding their perimeter shooting and interior defense.
  • Michigan State is without a doubt the deepest and most athletic team in the Big Ten, but we are yet to see how this post-Neitzel generation actually plays. Likewise, Purdue returns five starters from a team that went 15-3 in the Big Ten: can they again force a blizzard of opponent turnovers while duplicating last year's incredible outside shooting?

Amid this competition a healthy North Carolina would really stand out. For one thing they play defense. Indeed, last year when Ty Lawson missed six games with an injury they had to do so. The Heels may not carry the visual profile of a "tough" defensive team (e.g., there is no single intimidating shot-blocker) but the fact of the matter is that they force tough shots, both in the paint and on the perimeter, and clean up the misses. That'll do.

On offense, of course, Carolina is amazing: a team that, courtesy of Lawson, relentlessly rockets the ball into the paint and plays faster than opponents want to, yet does so without turning the ball over. In fact, for a team that never shoots threes to cough up the ball on just 19 percent of their possessions in-conference is remarkable. Credit Hansbrough.

Even as a freshman Hansbrough showed he could absorb the lion's share of his offense's possessions without committing turnovers. That ability has grown still more impressive with each passing season. Hansbrough's shooting from the field may be "very good" rather than "great," but he never coughs the ball up, he's fouled with mind-boggling regularity, and he makes better than 80 percent of his free throws. The sum total is one of the most efficient offensive forces in the country.

None of which is to say that the Heels, even when healthy, would be invincible across the span of an entire season. If recent history has taught us anything it's that eventual national champions lose stupid games. Last year Kansas lost at Oklahoma State. (The powers that be in Stillwater were so impressed they fired the coach.) In 2007 Florida lost by ten at LSU, a team that went 5-11 in the SEC. Carolina could lose a game even to a mid- to lower-tier ACC team. Forgive me, though, if I don't join in the what's-wrong-with-UNC? hand-wringing when that comes to pass.

In fact I think the interesting question here is just what it would take for this team not to get a one-seed. Speaking of "prohibitive," it might well be prohibitively difficult for Roy Williams' team to be seeded as anything but a one. After all, the Heels snagged a one-seed even in 2007 when they were "just" 11-5 in the ACC, a performance that left them tied with a nondescript Virginia team atop the conference. Short of alien abductions, it is really tough to conjure a scenario where this 2009 team does not get a one-seed. From there it's the shortest and smoothest of roads to Detroit.

I did my first radio hit of the season the other day and when the host asked me if "anything less than a national championship" would be a disappointment for Carolina, I was surprised at how quickly I found myself answering, "Yes." Right now I doubt that the Heels will be disappointed. Then again maybe we'll find that nobody knows anything this year after all.

John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.

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Big Deal (11/04)
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