Contender Report: North Carolina

Last March, I started a wildly popular series at Aaron Torres Sports, titled, “Why They Will/Why They Won’t,” a detailed breakdown of each of college basketball contenders, and the strengths that made them favorites to win the National Championship, and shortfalls that might keep them from winning it all.

The series is back by demand, as we start counting down the days, hours and minutes until the NCAA Tournament kicks off in mid-March. First up, the North Carolina Tar Heels:

There’s no doubt that in just six short years in Chapel Hill, Roy Williams has gotten North Carolina back into the elite of college basketball. But after winning a National Championship in 2005, and with a new cast of college All-Stars on campus, this group of Tar Heels has yet to get the hardware that their predecessors did.

North Carolina will be the favorites going into the tournament, but do they have what it takes to be the last team standing?

Why They Will: North Carolina is college basketball’s deepest and most talented team, and there’s no one else even close. All five starters average in double figures, with Ed Davis, Bobby Frasor and Larry Drew adding depth off the bench. And the rich continue to get richer, as the Tar Heels just welcomed back former McDonald’s All-American Tyler Zeller who hasn’t played since early in the year. To show you the talent on this team, power forward Tyler Hansbrough may end up as the ACC’s all-time scoring leader by the end of the season, and he’s not even this teams MVP (point guard Ty Lawson is averaging 16 points and 6.5 assists per game) or best professional prospect (Lawson and shooting guard Wayne Ellington project to be better pros). After struggling at the turn of the new year, North Carolina has won 10 in a row, and is peaking at just the right time. This team is well coached, and most importantly is hungry after losing in the Elite Eight in 2007, and in the Final Four to eventual champion Kansas last year.

Why They Won’t: For a team which plays mostly juniors and seniors, there still doesn’t seem to be the commitment to defense needed to win a National Championship. The Tar Heels currently give up 71 points per game, good for 256 out of 330 Division I teams. In their loss to Wake Forest earlier in the year they gave up 91, and even in three of their recent wins have given up at least 80. The Tar Heels can score with anyone, but when push comes to shove, and they need to make defensive stops, who’s going to make them? North Carolina is the quintessential team that when guns are blazing, and are playing at their absolute best, can only beat themselves.

Analysis: This is the best team in college basketball, and still the heavy favorite to win come tournament time. Hansbrough, Ellington, Lawson or Danny Green (a versatile 6’9 small forward who I consider one of the most underrated players in college basketball), can go for 30 any night, and the Tar Heels can score as quickly and efficiently as anyone. North Carolina is the only team that can weather foul trouble or an injury to any starter (a huge factor come March), and be able to bring in an above average replacement off the bench. But beware of the Ides of March, and the defensive lapses that come with the Tar Heels recent victories. All it will take is one hot team (like Kansas in the first half last year), to send North Carolina home again, without the National Championship this group covets so dearly.

Photo Credit: ICON Sports Media

About the Author

Aaron Torres With a B.A. in Journalism from the University of Connecticut, Aaron Torres has covered a number of different sports for several different media outlets in the northeastern United States. You can find more of his writing at and you can follow him on Twitter (

Comments (3)

  1. Ball Don't Lie

    This is a preposterous analysis. Perhaps you’re right in your conclusion, but it’s like you took a Vegas cab ride to get there.

    First, this team is not deep. At least not as deep as everyone assumed they would be at the start of the year. Ed Davis provides a reliable rebounding and shot-blocking presence off the bench, but there isn’t a scorer to be found. Bobby Frasor has not shot well, Will Graves is done for the year, Larry Drew has looked shaky handling the ball in ACC play, and Tyler Zeller has only been back for two games.

    Carolina’s defense is not as bad as everyone makes it out to be. They allow 71 points a game, but they also play at a much faster pace. Per possession, UNC is a top 20 defensive team and they outscore opponents by more than 20 points per game.

    However, they have struggled this year and in the past against teams that run a flex offense (see BC and Maryland losses). They can have trouble fighting through screens and their tendency to over pursue in the hopes of creating turnovers can leave shooters wide open behind the arc.

    The Tar Heels will win on the strength of their starting five, which is probably the best in the country. If they run into a team that can get them out of position on defense and shoot the three, the can go down in the tournament. But it will take a lot. It’s no surprise that in each of UNC’s three losses this year, at least one opposing player has had a career high in scoring.

    Also, Danny Green is 6’5″ (6’6″) at best and I think his career high is 26, making him an unlikely threat to go for 30 on any night.

    Love the blog, thanks.

  2. Ball don’t Lie made some great points. I’ll add this,

    Don’t know if turning it on and off will suffice this season. Team doesn’t ‘get after it’ all of the time. The switch is sticky or something.

  3. Ballhype, thanks for the very intelligent, well argued response, and I’m sorry for not getting back sooner.

    That being said I stand by everything I said.

    Is North Carolina as deep as everyone thought they’d be at the end of the year? No. But that being said, name me a contender that rotates more bodies with as much talent as North Carolina does.

    This time of year, teams traditionally shorten their benches, so it is no surprise to see teams like Pittsburgh and UConn really only go seven or eight deep at this point.

    But that being said, you do need capable bodies, and North Carolina has more of those than anyone.

    Frasor is a senior experienced guard that has started many games over the course of his career. How many teams bring one of those of the bench?

    As for Drew, he’s shown flashes, but you’re right, has yet to do show the McDonalds All-American potential he came to campus with.

    That being said, as fourth guard who has a better one? Donnell Beverly at UConn? Not for my money. Same with Ashton Gibbs at Pittsburgh? Cade Davis at Oklahoma is a fantastic 3-point shooter but does little else.

    As for the big guys, you’re right Zeller is a little rusty. That being said, you can never have too many capable bigs, especially come the NCAA Tournament. For this team to win a National Championship they’ll need six wins, and its unlikely that Hansbrough and Thompson will play all of them without foul trouble.

    Having capable bigs off the bench is one of the most underrated aspects of National Championship caliber play. Remember those Florida teams that won two championships? They had Marresse Speights (a future 1st round pick) and Chris Richard to help out. It was their help defense that helped against Greg Oden and Ivan Harris in their final game, as well as extra fouls to keep Al Horford and Joakim Noal out of foul trouble.

    Last year Kansas brought Sausha Kaun and Cole Aldrich in as well.

    The bottom line is, big guys get in foul trouble, you NEED guys who can play minutes. Zeller even at 80 percent is more than able to do that along with Davis.

    As for North Carolina’s defense, it is inexcusable that they give up as many points as they do. Period.

    I respect their “per minute average,” and I think your point is a fair one.

    But against the really good teams- the really good ones- they give up too many points.

    I saw it happen in 2007 when they gave up 96 to Georgetown in the Elite Eight (and yes I know they went ice cold missing 21 of their last 22 shots).

    I saw it last year when Kansas went up by close to 30 in the first of half of their Final Four game. I saw it this year against Wake.

    The bottom line is that this team just does not make enough stops. It gets them by when the teams they play don’t have the horses to match-up, but when they do watch out. And even if the opponent isnt up to North Carolina’s capabilities, all it will take is one cold night from the field and UNC is done.

    Sorry this was a bit of a long winded response, and if you think it was “preposterous” that is your opinion.

    That being said, because this team has essentially been the same for the last three years we also have a larger sample size to see their faults- which are many by the way.

    Thanks for reading, and look for more “Contender Reports,” in the future.


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