This past April Harrison Barnes, John Henson, and Tyler Zeller announced that they would return to North Carolina this fall for another season. And pretty much from that moment on, the Tar Heels have been regarded as the favorites to win the 2012 national championship. Not that UNC won't have competition, naturally. Kentucky, for one, looks like they'll be pretty tough. But there can only be one No. 1, and right now Dick Vitale, Andy Katz, and a lot of other people agree that the top ranking belongs to Roy Williams' team.
Of course this is hardly the first time that Carolina has faced great expectations before the season has tipped off. Just three short years ago a Tar Heel team led by Tyler Hansbrough and Ty Lawson was ranked No. 1 (unanimously!) in both major preseason polls. Observers more or less took it for granted that the Heels would win the national championship that year. (They did, winning all six of their NCAA tournament games by double-digits.) The real question with that team was whether or not they'd go undefeated. (They did not, finishing 34-4.)
So in honor of UNC's return to preseason-favorite status, I've decided to give this year's Tar Heels some much needed competition: that 2009 North Carolina team. How do the two teams stack up? Who would win a hypothetical showdown between the two? According to the categories I hold most dear, here's how these two scary-good Carolina teams would match up against each other.
I like to measure experience in terms of returning possession-minutes, and on this metric the 2009 and 2012 Carolina teams are more or less equal. If at some point this year Leslie McDonald returns from his torn ACL, this team will actually be slightly more experienced than the 2009 edition of the Tar Heels. On the other hand if McDonald misses the whole season, Carolina will be a hair less experienced than their predecessors were. (People said of that 2009 team that "everyone" was back, but in fact Marcus Ginyard logged just 37 minutes the whole year due to a foot injury.) Either way the two teams are remarkably similar in terms of seasoning. I'm calling this one a draw.
Performance the previous season
Why were expectations so high for that 2009 Carolina team? In 2008 UNC went 36-3 and reached the Final Four before losing to eventual national champion Kansas (in a game that Billy Packer famously declared "over" after 13 minutes). Of course North Carolina last year was hardly chopped liver. The Heels won the ACC regular-season title outright and reached the Elite Eight, posting a 29-8 record. But when a 36-3 team returns virtually intact the following season, talk centers on whether or not they're going to run the table. Maybe that question will arise this season for the winner of the game between North Carolina and Kentucky in Lexington on December 3, but we're not there yet.
That 2009 North Carolina team was so loaded that an NBA-track freshman like Ed Davis saw just 19 minutes a game. Who knows, maybe Tyler Zeller would have done big things that season if he hadn't been sidelined for three months with a broken left wrist. But even if Zeller had been healthy he would have had to fight for playing time. (Zeller returned to the team in February that year and averaged six minutes per contest over Carolina's final 13 games.) Conversely this season a shooting guard like P.J. Hairston is going to have every opportunity to make an immediate impact for a team that made just 29 percent of its threes in ACC play last year. And Hairston's not even the highest-rated freshman on the team. (That would be James Michael McAdoo.) I expect that freshmen will play a larger role for this team than they did in Chapel Hill three years ago. Then again I refuse to penalize that 2009 team for being so good that their freshmen couldn't get on the floor. Call this one another draw.
Speaking of "that 2009 team was so loaded," try this on for size. That Hansbrough-Lawson team was so good on offense that a performer like Wayne Ellington could be regarded as an afterthought nationally for much of the season even though he shot 54 percent on his twos and 42 percent on his threes while averaging 16 points a game. (Then again by the time the Final Four rolled around Ellington was no afterthought. In fact he was named the Most Outstanding Player in Detroit.) That year the Heels scored a scorching 1.16 points per trip against the ACC. We don't know yet how good this year's offense will be in Chapel Hill, of course. And say this for Williams' current talent: they finished strong last year, scoring 1.09 points per possession in the 13 conference games where Kendall Marshall started at point guard. That being said, a number like 1.16 is going to be really hard to top.
For years North Carolina's been underrated on defense due, at least in part, to their fast pace. With opponents posting point totals in the 70s and even 80s, commentators have traditionally had a hard time working up much enthusiasm for the Tar Heels' D. At long last, however, that seems to be changing. After UNC's 15-point win against Long Island in the NCAA tournament's round of 64 last March, I was surprised and delighted to hear precious little worrying about "a defense that gives up 87 points." The lack of concern was correct, of course, given that the game in question had 94 possessions. Even for a program that has long played good defense, however, this current group of Heels stands out. John Henson combines shot-blocking with excellent defensive rebounding in a way that's highly unusual. Last year Carolina allowed ACC opponents just 0.94 points per possession. Defense was the Tar Heels' strength in 2011. It may be again in 2012.
I wonder if other coaches envy Roy Williams. No, I take that back. I wonder just how intensely other coaches must envy Williams. This year he has what many people consider to be the No. 1 team in the nation. And this roster probably isn't as strong as the one he had three years ago. That team had the Final Four MOP (Ellington), the ACC Player of the Year (Lawson), and a four-time All-American (Hansbrough). I think most coaches would take their chances with a group like that.
Then again I think most coaches would be OK with sending the 2012 Tar Heels out on the floor. Preseason expectations are nothing new in Chapel Hill.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.