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December 6, 2010, 08:34 AM ET
Why Carolina’s so dad-gum interesting

by John Gasaway

Imagine that tomorrow space aliens landed from the planet, uh, Tempo-Freedonia. DirecTV and your live-streaming websites don’t reach their tiny distant planet, but as of October 2009 or so they started receiving text-based internet goodies. So all that the aliens know about college hoops is what they read on Basketball Prospectus, glean from Tuesday Truths, and learn from kenpom.com.

Our alien friends would be utterly baffled and bewildered, trying to figure out why in the world the earthlings all seem so interested in North Carolina. To judge by the number of press credentials granted and by the fact that this was the first game this season that CBS televised nationally, the Tar Heels’ 75-73 win over Kentucky in Chapel Hill on Saturday was a very important happening. 

But was it? Our alien visitors would point not only to last year’s 5-11 record in the ACC, but also to what we’ve seen thus far this season. Over the course of 299 possessions in four games against major-conference competition (neutral-site losses to Minnesota and Vanderbilt, a road loss to Illinois, and Saturday’s win at home over UK), UNC’s been outscored by 0.07 points per trip. Moreover, the trouble for Carolina is again on offense, just like it was last year. In those four games the Tar Heels have recorded just 0.92 points per possession. (In ACC play last year Duke scored 1.12.) No other team in the country could possibly attract this level of attention while scoring so few points.

Yes, we earthlings say, but this is North Carolina we’re talking about. Just look at them. A lot of these players are going to be in the NBA very soon.

Well, for what it’s worth you can mark me down as all-earthling. (Mom will be relieved.) I find Carolina downright fascinating, though perhaps not for the same reasons that drew CBS to Chapel Hill this weekend. 

Abandon all hope, ye who recruit one-and-done small forwards
A lot of these players are going to be in the NBA very soon, including freshman Harrison Barnes. The problem for Carolina is that right now Barnes’ draft stock looks like a much safer bet than his ability to provide correspondingly impressive assistance to the Tar Heels in 2010-11.

Indeed the recent history of recruits named the number one small forward in the US in any given year, as was Barnes last year, has not been stellar in terms of college performance. Before Barnes it was Lance Stephenson, and before Stephenson it was DeMar DeRozan. I don’t doubt that all of the above will be fine professional players, but compared to all those glittering and highly-polished freshman point guards we’re used to seeing, it would appear that the 18- to 19-year-old small forward is very much a work in progress — even if his body-type is already NBA-approved. Neither Stephenson nor DeRozan was able to provide their college team (Cincinnati and USC, respectively) with much in the way of rebounding or perimeter accuracy, though DeRozan was at least proficient inside the arc.

I’m not saying Barnes’ freshman season is doomed because of the position that recruiting evaluators listed him under. (To date he’s made 32 percent of his threes and 36 percent of his twos while functioning more or less as one Amigo in the offense alongside Tyler Zeller and John Henson.) I am saying it’s entirely possible that “NBA potential” and “ability to dominate collegiately as a freshman” are not identical quantities, though perhaps recruit rankings assume that they are.

The dad-gum fascinating John Henson (cont.)
If you number ESPN Insider or Basketball Prospectus Premium (or both) among your subscriptions, you’ve already heard me say this about Henson:

It’s highly unusual — in fact if there’s a precedent I can’t think of it — for a very slightly built McDonald’s All-American billed as a versatile scorer to emerge as perhaps his team’s premier defender. But that is more or less what has taken place with Henson.

Delete “more or less.” That is exactly what has taken place. Henson’s been an absolute freak on D, blocking 11 percent of opponents’ twos and rebounding 27 percent of those same opponents’ misses during his minutes — and he’s recorded both of those remarkable numbers without fouling. Having Henson on the floor makes North Carolina a much better team defensively.

Actually, having Henson on the court makes Roy Williams‘ team better in a lot of ways. The sophomore’s been excellent on the offensive glass, pulling down 16 percent of his team’s misses while he’s on the floor, and he’s even been sound from the field, hitting 53 percent of his twos. But, as you may have heard, he’s shooting just 35 percent from the line, a fact rich in coaching implications. One might think Williams would seriously consider having Henson simply box out under the rim on offense on the weak side Joey Dorsey-style, lest he somehow actually touch the ball in a setting where he might be put on the line. Conversely, one would suppose 35 percent FT shooting makes what should be an extremely tough match-up for opposing coaches — having to guard two players the size of Zeller and Henson — much easier. After all, how tall do you have to be to foul Henson?

Outstanding recruiting’s been a constant at North Carolina under Williams, but only in the past 13 months have we seen on-court performance, somehow, come uncoupled from that particular constant. Earthlings know those two quantities will again be brought together, the only question being when. From my chair the only question’s still an open question, even after a two-point win at home over Kentucky.   

Email: johngasaway@basketballprospectus.com; Twitter: @JohnGasaway

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