College basketball 2011: North Carolina is in shipshape condition

John Feinstein
Columnist November 10, 2011

If you want hoops hype in November, you can’t just throw two high-profile teams — in this case No. 1 North Carolina and Michigan State — in a gym.

You need to stage the game on a billion-dollar aircraft carrier: the U.S.S. Carl Vinson, the one that carried Osama Bin Laden’s body out to sea.

You need a top-ranked team that may have the best chance to go unbeaten since Indiana did it in 1976.

You need President Obama.

And of course you need Dick Vitale.

The only problem with Friday night’s much-ballyhooed “Carrier Classic” is that unless someone from Michigan State can figure out a way to heave all the basketballs overboard, the Spartans may have trouble staying on the court — and the ship — with North Carolina.

Yes, the Tar Heels are potentially that good.

Sometime this winter, North Carolina Coach Roy Williams needs to write a thank-you note to David Stern and Billy Hunter. The decision by the NBA commissioner and the head of the players’ union to go to war is one reason why it may be close to impossible to deny Ol’ Roy his third national title in eight seasons.

The Tar Heels had three underclassmen who were locks to be first-round picks last spring, led by then-freshman Harrison Barnes, who would have gone in the top three. Big men John Henson and Tyler Zeller, who both blossomed late last winter, might have been lottery picks, too.

But with everyone talking lockout, all three decided that one more year on a picturesque campus wasn’t such a bad thing. So they’re back in Chapel Hill, where they are joined by two freshmen who also might be first-round picks if and when the NBA holds another draft. One is 6-foot-9 James McAdoo, who some scouts rate ahead of Barnes as a pro prospect. The other is 6-5 shooting guard P.J. Hairston, who just happens to play the one position where North Carolina might need some help after a season-ending injury to sophomore Leslie McDonald.

Oh, there’s one more thing: the most valuable Tar Heels player may be the one least-valued by NBA scouts. That’s sophomore point guard Kendall Marshall, an O’Connell grad who became a full-time starter midway through last season when Larry Drew II, seeing his playing time diminish, stalked off in a huff and transferred. Williams owes Drew a thank-you note, too, because as soon as he was gone, Marshall became the full-time point guard and North Carolina, after a very shaky start, ended up winning the ACC regular season title and coming up about two plays short of the Final Four.

Are there teams out there that can beat the Tar Heels? Anything is possible. The list includes most of the usual suspects: Kentucky, Ohio State, Connecticut and Syracuse. If you noticed that Duke isn’t on the list, that’s because the Blue Devils have exactly zero starters left from their national championship team of two years ago and could be a little down this winter.

Kentucky Coach John Calipari has another loaded freshmen class and even returns a very talented sophomore in Terence Jones. It must be great as a recruiter to be able to go out every year and say, “No, we don’t have any starters graduating but just about all of them are leaving.”

Ohio State returns Jared Sullinger, who also would have been a top-five draft pick had he been a one-and-done last June. The Buckeyes have the talent to be a No. 1 seed again and perhaps return to the Final Four for the first time since 2007, when the player formerly known as Greg Oden was a star freshman.

Connecticut is the defending national champion. The Huskies are also on probation, placed there last winter by those tough guys in Indianapolis who, rather than making U-Conn. ineligible for postseason play, decided to suspend Coach Jim Calhoun for the first three games of Big East play this coming season. If The Big East disbands by then, will Calhoun be forced to sit out the 2013 ACC tournament if U-Conn. bolts south?

Beyond North Carolina and the Usual Suspects, there are always others worth watching: Xavier, which never seems to have a bad season, may have its best team since it reached the region final in 2004. Memphis was too young a year ago and still made the NCAA tournament under too-young Coach Josh Pastner. Coach and players are all a year older now. Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s are as dangerous as always, and the Colonial Athletic Association, which finally got three bids to the tournament for the first time ever a year ago, has another handful of teams no one is going to want to play, including Drexel, George Mason, Old Dominion and last year’s Cinderella team, Virginia Commonwealth. Teams like Florida, Baylor, Kansas, Louisville and Arizona have plenty of talent. Vanderbilt is a veteran team with a very underrated coach in Kevin Stallings.

This year, though, should be about North Carolina. If the Tar Heels can win at Kentucky on Dec. 3, the undefeated whispers will begin to get louder.

Less than two years ago, Williams stood in a hallway at Greensboro Coliseum a few moments after his team had lost in the first round of the ACC tournament, talking quietly about North Carolina’s lost season. Dick Baddour, then his athletic director, walked down the hallway.

“I better go talk to my boss,” Williams said with a wan smile. “See if he wants to make a change.”

Baddour is on the way out. Williams isn’t going anywhere — except, almost certainly, to New Orleans the first weekend in April. Dean Smith won both his national titles at the Superdome, and everyone knows Ol’ Roy always aims to emulate Coach Smith.

For more by the author, visit his blog at www.feinsteinonthebrink.com.

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