North Carolina Postcard (cont.)
Williams has already put together a fine recruiting class for next season, but it would be even better if Zeller's younger brother, Cody, a 6-10 forward from Washington, Ind., would join Tyler in Chapel Hill. Cody is also considering Indiana and Butler, and when I asked Tyler where he thought Cody was going to end up, he said he honestly did not know. "I don't think he knows, either," Tyler told me. "Obviously I'd love for him to come here, but it's his decision." I'm sure it's a tough call, but I still think Cody's gonna stay home and play for IU.
As many of you probably know, over the summer the family of former North Carolina coach Dean Smith confirmed a report in the Raleigh News & Observer that the coach was suffering from a neurocognitive disorder that is eroding his memory. As my interview with Williams was ending, I asked him for an update. "It's a struggle right now, but he has good days and bad," Williams said. "He was in here on Thursday last week and it was a good day. It was good to see him. He hadn't been to practice yet. In my first five years he came to practice three or four times a week. Last year I think he came to about three practices the whole year. He'll be 80 in February and he's going through a lot of problems." When I asked Roy if it was difficult watching Smith go through this he said, "Very much so, but it's what life is."
Heart and soul: Barnes. This team lost a potential leader when 6-6 senior guard Will Graves was dismissed earlier this month for failing to follow team rules. Zeller would be the next likely candidate because he's a junior, but Barnes' talent is too prohibitive to choose anyone else. If Barnes has an All-America type of season, North Carolina has a chance to be a Final Four team. If he doesn't, they don't.
Most improved: Dexter Strickland. Much like Henson, the 6-3 sophomore had problems adjusting to playing a new position last season. He came in with a reputation as a pure scorer, but Williams needed him to back up Drew at the point. With Marshall in the fold, Strickland can move to his natural spot on the wing, and Williams likes what he sees based on the first week of practice. "Emotionally, he's better," he said. "Every play is not attack, attack, attack, and if he makes a mistake he's not compounding it by making three more mistakes."
Glue guy: Drew. I thought of going with Zeller here, but Zeller is more of a featured performer than a glue guy. With Graves gone, Drew is the most experienced player on this team, and it will be up to him to play well, provide leadership and play solid defense. Most of all, if Marshall does eat into his minutes and usurp his starting spot, Drew will have to handle it maturely.
X-factor: Marshall. Williams defended Drew from the blame he got for last year's problems, but I got the sense that the coach will not be shy about making lineup changes to avert another disaster. This is a very difficult offense to run if you're a freshman, but Marshall is good enough to do it. If he is in the starting lineup by February, Tar Heel fans should take it as a good sign.
Lost in the shuffle: Watts. I remember watching the Tar Heels practice this time last year and coming away impressed with Watts' physique and shooting ability. I had the same reaction this year -- and once again, I had a hard time figuring out how he can get extended minutes among the glut of perimeter players. Still, Watts is a 6-4 junior who shot 44.4 percent from three-point range last year. I think he can help.
Bottom line: As long as they can avoid injuries, the Tar Heels should be much better than they were last season. But I'll stick with my assertion that they're a year away from being a threat to win it all. If this team makes it to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament, its fans should be pleased. Anything beyond that is pure, sky-blue gravy.