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ACC Preview #1 - UNC

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As practice begins in about a month, UNC is not only considered the favorite in the ACC but in the nation as well. And why not? The only player not returning is one-year freelancer Justin Knox and while he was useful for a thin team, he wasn't feared.

UNC returns their starting frontcourt intact, including 7-0 Tyler Zeller, who Roy Williams says might be the best running big man he's ever had, 6-10 shotblocking oddity John Henson, whose potential dwarves that of Zeller and 6-8 sophomore Harrison Barnes.

In the backcourt, they return 6-3 Dexter Strickland, who has had some injury issues thus far in his career and 6-3 Kendall Marshall, whose sensational play as a freshman raised UNC's performance overall and also chased incumbent Larry Drew II all the way back to Los Angeles, where he now tweets in relative anonymity.

As talented as the rest of the body is, Marshall is the brain of the team.  His phenomenal passing ability means that you have to guard him 94 feet. He's a brilliant passer.  Not good, not great, but freaking brilliant.  If you want to stop UNC, you have to first stop their Field Marshall. He runs that team like the 3rd Army ran through France: fast, relentless and non-stop unless you force him to run out of gas.

How good is he? In our opinion, he turned Harrison Barnes from an erratic, uncertain and frankly overrated freshman into a kid who became a possible high draft pick by the end of the season (the smartest move he made all year was to return, because he was not ready).

Barnes appeared for much of the season to be so lacking in confidence that at times he seemed to be going through the motions, running a bit behind the others, finishing breaks when they were already done and shooting threes whenever possible rather than driving.

By the end of the season, Marshall had transformed Barnes, giving him the ball where he could be both dangerous and confident, rather than allowing him to settle for three point shots. By the end of it, Barnes went from a kid who looked scared to one of the nation's better clutch shooters.

That's what a great point can do.  Duke had some experience with that too when Kyrie Irving made Mason Plumlee into a precision weapon.  He wasn't nearly as effective after Irving went down.

Marshall's refusal to allow UNC to settle for outside shots when almost no one could shoot them made the Tar Heels quite dangerous. This year, with the addition of P.J. Hairston and the healthy return of Reggie Bullock, UNC will have gunners vastly superior to any they had last year.  The outside shooting woes should be over.

This will change Barnes' role however; he will no longer be able to hide on the perimeter.

It will allow him however to get to the basket more and as we have seen, Marshall knows how to get guys the ball where they can score.

The other guy to keep an eye on is Henson.

Though he looks like he just got out of a long hospital stay, Henson has clearly gotten stronger and last season became a deadly serious force on defense.  He has the potential to become a truly great player, sort of a taller version of Tayshaun Prince, though without the range.

There's no one we know of who can get up with Henson.  He should be very effective and nearly impossible around the basket.

Zeller at this point is a known commodity: he's big, he's fast, and he's somewhat mechanical on offense. That said, he's very difficult to control, although it would be fun to watch Henson guard him.

The other guy who has to be discussed here is freshman James McAdoo.  From all accounts, this guy is the real deal.  What do you do with him?

He won't take spots from the starters anytime soon, yet he is bound to play a lot. He's going to be a major influence on UNC's prospects.

Strickland has had injury issues at UNC thus far, but has shown himself to be a highly athletic guard who still needs some polish.  He will be pushed by Hairston and Bullock, both of whom are bigger if not  stronger.

Clearly, UNC is loaded.  So how do you attack them?

Well you start with Al McGuire's advice: cut off the head.

You go after Marshall.  You make him work every step of the way, giving him nothing.  Without him, UNC is still dangerous, but seriously weakened.

Having everything else this year, UNC also managed to find a one-year point guard as Stillman White, a kid out of Wilmington, will show up to be a one-year backup before departing for his two-year Mormon mission.

Still, the best-laid plans and all of that:  a few years ago, Brandan Wright was supposed to complement Tyler Hansbrough in the post; he instead tended to push Hansbrough away from the basket.

Under Roy Williams, UNC has recruited sensationally, but at times depth hasn't worked out the way it was supposed to: guys like Drew II and the Wear twins eventually had enough and left (all three are with UCLA now); Wright and later Marvin Williams left for the NBA after a single year.

This year, UNC has lost Leslie McDonald to injury, although that may work to their advantage.

Last year, instead of ridiculous big man depth, UNC was forced to bring Knox in as an emergency backup.

It's not a perfect analogy, but in basketball as in war, things rarely go according to plan.

Yet no one starts the season in a more enviable position than the Tar Heels, and they are certainly favored to win their third New Orleans title in April.

Incidentally, for what it's worth, if they do win, Kentucky fans will be getting antsy: another title will put the Heels just behind Kentucky with six to the Wildcat's seven.  Additionally, there's a strong chance that UNC passes Kansas and moves back into second-place on the all-times wins list.

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