by Barry Jacobs, GoHeels.com
There's always a temptation to see the world the way we'd like it to be, rather than the way it is. So it was that, entering the 2012-13 men's basketball season, casual observers and even supposed experts foresaw immediate excellence for the current North Carolina squad despite personnel losses that would stagger most programs.
Now that the Tar Heels have a dozen games under their belts, a more complicated if predictable truth has emerged: it will take a considerable amount of work before the '13 squad is a finished product, let alone a national championship contender.
"I said in the spring, summer, fall, I said we have a really young team," coach Roy Williams said, "and who knows what's going to happen?"
A tradition of excellence isn't the only factor that convinced observers a Carolina unit with nine underclassmen, a wealth of jump shooters, and almost no proven interior players would contend for the '13 ACC title.
After all, the Heels boast Williams, a Hall of Famer with two national titles under his belt and a stunning six advances to the Elite Eight or beyond in the last eight NCAA tournaments.
The roster includes five McDonald's All-Americas: Dexter Strickland, Reggie Bullock, P.J. Hairston, James Michael McAdoo and Marcus Paige. McAdoo, a sophomore, was a preseason selection for the All-ACC squad alongside four upperclassmen.
At this point, however, no one disputes the 9-3 Heels have serious questions to answer before becoming a suitably formidable team.
Some limitations are the inevitable result of youth. All four freshmen average at least 11 minutes per game, a lack of experience that's sure to surface in wavering concentration, effort, and understanding.
"Some kids pick up quicker," Williams said. Summoning a frequent touchstone, he added, "Tyler Hansbrough was a freshman, but he picked things up pretty quick."
Seven seasons later no freshman is comparably advanced. All are feeling their way.
Paige, a playmaker with the most polished game, is as much conveyer as creator at this early stage of his career. He and Strickland both start and share ballhandling duties. The senior, who's evolved into a creditable point guard after service as a defensive stopper and second guard, ranks among the ACC's top five in assists, steals, and ratio of assists to turnovers.
Perimeter prowess was always going to be essential to this year's squad, given the presence of experienced shooters Reggie Bullock, Leslie McDonald and P.J. Hairston. Moreover, it's dictated by the lack of proven inside punch.
Carolina averages 21.4 attempts per game from 3-point range, most of Williams' decade-long tenure. More than 30 percent of the field goal tries are launched from beyond the arc, compared to 23 percent last season.
The Heels convert 37.4 percent from that range; in 2012 it was 33.5 percent. The current club ranks fourth in the ACC in 3-point accuracy; the '12 unit ranked eighth.
Most tellingly, this year's Tar Heels gain nearly 29 percent of their points from the bonusphere, contrasted with 19 percent last year.
An inside-out offensive balance is essential in a Dean Smith-Roy Williams system. But the only interior practitioner with any substantial playing experience is McAdoo, whose game is as much finesse as power.
Consequently UNC has struggled on the offensive boards, especially against better opponents, even while compiling the second-best rebound margin in the ACC (+7.2).
Williams has adapted, as a good coach must. Not only do the 3-pointers fly frequently, but the mobility of even his frontcourt players has sparked use of more trapping defensive tactics than we've seen at Chapel Hill in recent memory.
Williams repeatedly has built UNC for national title runs. The 2005 champs were fashioned from a largely inherited group he shaped into a cohesive force in a two-year span. The 2009 champs were crafted steadily from a core group that arrived in 2006, led by Hansbrough, and 2007.
Last season's squad similarly was built from a nucleus of 2010 and 2011 arrivals, along with championship holdover Tyler Zeller, the 2012 ACC Player of the Year. One can certainly argue the '12 Tar Heels were en route to another competitive peak until point guard deluxe Kendall Marshall suffered an injury during NCAA competition.
Taking the long view, then, the current team is transitional, building toward greater things down the road.
That may mean taking lumps at times in order to develop proper habits. Big men must learn the nuances of post play, for instance, even as they strengthen their bodies for the more physical action they encounter.
Certainly the most imposing young interior player is 6-10, 260-pound Joel James. After McAdoo, the most productive on a per-minute basis is slender Brice Johnson - the son of a prep coach leads the team in field goal accuracy (.620) and per-minute rebounds, with one every 2.7 minutes played. (McAdoo, the team leader with an 8.3-rebound average, gets a rebound every 3.4 minutes he's on the floor.)
The reliance on jumpers and a lack of dominating big men is reflected in only a dozen free throw tries per game. Last year UNC averaged 15. Virginia Tech, this season's ACC leader in free throw accuracy, tries nearly 20 foul shots per contest.
A long-term formula for success doesn't preclude flexibility in the present. Williams is sure to balance a determination to follow a proven path with a desire to win now.
That's why eight different players have started games so far. And that's why in the Texas loss aggressive 6-5 wing J.P. Tokoto played virtually as many minutes as James, Johnson, and 6-10 Desmond Hubert combined. Tokoto had six rebounds, compared to four for his taller teammates.
Williams insisted throughout the preseason there was no way Reggie Bullock, the burly 6-7 junior who's emerged as the team leader, would be deployed at power forward. Yet it was clear such an unconventional approach might be desirable in certain circumstances after Bullock paced UNC with 18 points and a career-best 13 rebounds in the Texas defeat, and the 6-6 Hairston led in scoring (20) and rebounding (8) against McNeese State.
"This is a team that is just still finding our way through things," Williams said the other day. "I believe at the end of the season we'll be a heck of a lot better than we are now."
Then, perhaps recalling Marshall's injury, he added, "As long as we stay healthy."