All eyes on Tar Heels in Puerto Rico
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- Whether any of the other seven teams, including last season's Final Four participant West Virginia, like to admit it or not, the dominant storyline at the loaded Honda Puerto Rico Tip-Off might be how North Carolina performs.
All eyes will be on the Tar Heels, a team that, despite having talent many teams would covet in a starting lineup, failed to find a consistent stride last season, wilting in the ACC to an NIT berth. The stunning free fall could be blamed on injuries and on high expectations that perhaps weren't warranted.
Amid a muddled collection of teams that hope to challenge Duke in the ACC, the Tar Heels stand out as the team to beat (behind the Blue Devils). And how Carolina handles this field in Puerto Rico could determine UNC's season. Michigan coach John Beilein made an interesting point Monday about how ACC and Big Ten teams play in eight-team fields like this one, then have to turn around and immediately play in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. It is a stretch of games that can make or break a season.
Michigan went 1-2 in Orlando last season and then lost at home to Boston College, an indicator that the then-preseason-ranked Wolverines weren't ready for the rapid-fire challenges. Michigan never found its footing and settled into the bottom third of the Big Ten. North Carolina will leave here after these three games and head to Champaign, Ill., for a monster showdown against Illinois, one of the Big Ten favorites, on Nov. 30.
But to assume that the Tar Heels can escape San Juan without a hit would be taking the other teams in this field lightly. That would be foolish after what we've witnessed in the first full week of the season.
If the seeds hold, North Carolina would play Minnesota after UNC beats Hofstra and the Gophers beat Western Kentucky. A loss to the Gophers and then a potential game against West Virginia or Vanderbilt (if those two teams beat Davidson and Nebraska, respectively) could mean the Tar Heels face a similar fate to the one Michigan did last season, with two losses -- and looking at three in Illinois.
That's the negative view of the Tar Heels' chances. However, there are plenty of reasons to believe the Tar Heels will come out of here as the victors.
And the indicators start with the most intriguing player to watch:
Harrison Barnes, freshman, North Carolina:
Barnes is a first-team AP All-American, a surprising choice by the electorate even though he is hyped to excel this season. He had a productive first night, scoring 14 points in what turned out to be a bit of a struggle against Lipscomb. But Barnes comes to the Tar Heels at the perfect time, much like when Tyler Hansbrough arrived after North Carolina won the title in 2005. UNC desperately needed someone to lead the program after it was gutted by the NBA draft. Losing Ed Davis early and seniors Marcus Ginyard and Deon Thompson to graduation after last season just wasn't the same. The Tar Heels have thrived with star players, and Barnes fits the bill. He not only is a super talent but also carries himself like a professional.
Barnes has the target on his back as a first-team All-American and destined NBA lottery pick.
What else or who else could steal the spotlight?
Barnes' teammates Tyler Zeller and John Henson: Zeller is finally healthy after various ailments have limited his career. He started out with a solid 15-point, 7-rebound performance against Lipscomb. Henson might be the second most talented player on the team next to Barnes, but the question that consistently dogs him is whether his slight build prevents him from being a force. He began dismissing that theory with a 17-board performance against Lipscomb. How teams handle the Tar Heels' length inside likely will determine whether they can be beaten in Puerto Rico. Questionable guard play is still an issue and one that might not be solved in these three games.
Hofstra's Charles Jenkins: If there is one area where the Pride have an advantage over the Tar Heels, it's with Jenkins. He might end up being the top guard in this event with his ability to score in a variety of ways. He's a 20-plus-point scorer, and he'll need to be for first-year Division I head coach Mo Cassara, who is coaching against a Division I team for the first time (the Pride opened with Farmingdale State) and will rely on Jenkins to perform a near triple-double again. He did in the first game with 26 points, 8 rebounds and 8 assists. And he's fully capable of putting up similar numbers in this field, especially against much-maligned UNC point Larry Drew II.
West Virginia's Kevin Jones: Mountaineers coach Bob Huggins said this summer that he fully expected Jones to take over the role Da'Sean Butler held last season as the go-to scorer. Jones certainly has that capability.
But what made Jones so effective was how he played off of Butler. Whether he can flourish when the focus is on him will be another question. John Flowers stood out in the Mountaineers' first game (16 points, 7 blocks against Oakland), but this is Jones' week to shine.
Minnesota's Trevor Mbakwe: The one-time Marquette forward who took a turn at Miami Dade College before coming back home to Minnesota has the potential to be a star in the Big Ten. He can score in the low post and face-up and, of course, can board. Mbakwe wasn't allowed to play last season while an assault case was being investigated. He eventually pleaded down to a deal that wasn't an admission of guilt. He still maintains his innocence in the case and says he was wrongly accused. Minnesota coach Tubby Smith said that Mbakwe would have been a difference-maker for the Gophers last season. That's obvious after his double-double average (12 points, 10.5 rebounds) through two games.
Western Kentucky's Juan Pattillo: The Oklahoma transfer forward already has made Western Kentucky a favorite in the Sun Belt. He's averaging 19 points and 12 rebounds after two convincing wins -- at Saint Joseph's and over Alabama A&M. Pattillo is a double-double machine for Ken McDonald's Hilltoppers. If you don't get your Pattillo fill this week, look out during his tour of the Southeast in the next month. WKU's loaded schedule includes South Carolina at home, at Vanderbilt, at Memphis, at Murray State and against Louisville.
Vanderbilt's Brad Tinsley: Vandy coach Kevin Stallings said at SEC media day that Tinsley was ready to assume the reins of the point from Jermaine Beal. He couldn't have been more prophetic as Tinsley started the season with a triple-double against Presbyterian with 11 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists. Guards Jeffery Taylor and John Jenkins get more of the headlines, but Tinsley could emerge as a star after this weekend. You could make the argument that the Commodores might have more offensive fluidity without A.J. Ogilvy. This tournament will be a good indicator to see whether that's true.
What should be the best first-round game?
If the early results are an indicator, then Western Kentucky versus Minnesota has the potential to be a dicey affair for the Gophers. Minnesota had to fight off Wofford and Siena in its first two games. You could argue (and I will) that those two teams are tougher than what Western faced (Saint Joseph's and Alabama A&M), but you can't dismiss the Hilltoppers as serious upset threats in this field.
Which team is the biggest mystery?
That's easy. Nebraska. The Cornhuskers feel as if this might be their most talented team under Doc Sadler. But a year ago, Nebraska won just two games in the Big 12. The Cornhuskers are on their way to the Big Ten next season and have a roster that resembles the old-school Big Ten way.
Sadler is going to pound it inside and has already instructed his team to rely on their two anchors, Brazilian strong man Andre Almeida and Christian Standhardinger. A name like that almost commands power and strength. If WKU versus Minnesota is the top first-round game, there is a good chance Nebraska-Vanderbilt will be 1A.
Which player has a lot to prove?
The answer might be West Virginia's Deniz Kilicli. He grabbed 10 boards in the opener versus Oakland. He has a power game and is all strength. If the Mountaineers are going to elevate themselves into a Big East contender, Kilicli has to become a low-post threat and a cleanup man on the boards. WVU has the veteran guard play in Joe Mazzulla, Darryl Bryant and Casey Mitchell. The question is whether Kilicli will become a factor in the paint. Sure, West Virginia will miss Devin Ebanks' defense, but if there is an intimidating player such as Kilicli on the back line, it will make a difference.
What should you make of Davidson?
The Wildcats are still in the midst of a rebuilding process after the early departure of Stephen Curry before last season. Coach Bob McKillop said Wednesday that his team showed its youthful nature in its season-opening five-point loss at Penn. He said rebounding against the Mountaineers will be quite a chore but understands that this event won't make or break the Wildcats. They need to figure out a rotation, gain confidence and hope they can steal a win or two to jump-start their momentum. The expectations early in the season aren't high, but McKillop is confident that the Wildcats will be a factor by February with veteran teams like the College of Charleston in the Southern Conference.
Which team is the most intriguing after North Carolina?
The answer is Minnesota for a variety of reasons. The Gophers arrive in Puerto Rico after two so-so wins against quality lower-profile teams in Wofford and Siena. This was after coach Tubby Smith suspended scorer Devoe Joseph for a violation of team rules (read into that: conduct). Smith said last month how pleased he was that there were no distractions like a year ago with Royce White's theft charge (he later left for Iowa State in the summer), Mbakwe's case and the academic ineligibility of Al Nolen. Well, now he has another hurdle. But Mbakwe is back and so is Nolen, one of the Gophers' top on-the-ball defenders. Blake Hoffarber is easily one of the best -- if not the best -- shooters in this field. Ralph Sampson III is playing with the most confidence he has in his career. Toss in the potential of scoring wing Rodney Williams, and the Gophers have a team that could contend in the loaded Big Ten. But how they perform here will be a strong indicator of their success in the league.
Sideline stardom: I'm not sure there is a field -- outside of Maui next week -- that will have a collection of coaches like this one. Carolina's Williams has won two national titles and is a Hall of Fame member; Smith has a national title; Huggins has been to two Final Fours at two schools; McKillop is one of the more respected coaching minds in the game; and Stallings is one of the most underrated coaches around after turning Vandy into a consistent winner in the SEC. Add in colorful Sadler, McDonald's success of retooling the Hilltoppers quickly and Cassara's first go as a head coach, and there is plenty to focus on from the benches as well as on the court.
Andy Katz is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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