The 11th-ranked North Carolina Tar Heels tip off the 2012-13 season tonight in Chapel Hill, as they play host to the Runnin' Bulldogs of Gardner-Webb.
Gardner-Webb had its share of struggles in the Big South Conference last season, going just 6-12 in league play en route to a 12-20 record overall. It hasn't fared well against ranked opponents in its history, winning just one of nine games. Give the Bulldogs some credit for a challenging early-season schedule, and they will also play DePaul, Iowa and Illinois before November is out.
North Carolina put together a fantastic season in Roy Williams' ninth year as head coach in 2011-12, going 32-6 overall and winning the ACC regular season championship outright with a 14-2 conference mark. The Tar Heels ultimately fell short of lofty expectations, as they lost the ACC Tournament title tilt to Florida State and fell to Kansas in the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament. Things have a different feel in Chapel Hill this season however, as the team moves on from its top four players from last year.
The Tar Heels have beaten the Bulldogs in all three previous matchups, most recently claiming a 93-72 victory on Nov. 23, 2009.
Gardner-Webb was not a very efficient team last season, averaging just 65.7 ppg on 41.5 percent shooting from the field (.311 from three-point range), but the good news is that it returns its top scorer from a season ago in Preseason All-Big South Second Team selection Tashan Newsome. The 6-3 senior scored 12.3 ppg in 2011-12, and he shined in the team's only game against an ACC opponent, putting up 24 points against Wake Forest on Dec. 18, 2011. The Bulldogs boast plenty of depth at the guard position with Max Landis (9.5 ppg) and Tyler Strange (4.3 ppg, 2.9 apg) also returning, and the squad welcomes newcomer Jarvis Davis (6-0, 180), who transferred from UCF. The frontcourt is a little more worrisome. Kevin Hartley (5.5 ppg, 4.1 rpg) enters his senior season but he has never been more than a role player. Donta Harper (5.2 ppg) showed some flashes last year as a freshman, but played fewer than 15 minutes per game.
As is customary with championship-caliber squads these days, UNC's outstanding 2011-12 season led to the departures of several key players. Tyler Zeller (16.3 ppg, 9.6 rpg) graduated after putting in four years of service, but Harrison Barnes (17.1 ppg, 5.2 rpg), John Henson (13.7 ppg, 9.9 rpg) and Kendal Marshall (8.1 ppg, ACC-record 351 assists) all left Chapel Hill as underclassmen, leaving the cupboard nearly bare. The team has valuable experience at guard with Reggie Bullock (8.8 ppg, 5.1 rpg) and Dexter Strickland (7.5 ppg) who will step into the starting lineup, but perhaps the best guard the Tar Heels have is freshman Marcus Paige, a four-star point guard out of Iowa who will see significant minutes from the start. With the superstars ahead of him on the depth chart now gone, sophomore James Michael McAdoo (6.1 ppg, 3.9 rpg) is ready to step in and be the go-to performer in the frontcourt. For a team that lacks size, Joel James (6-10, 260) could see plenty of minutes in his freshman season.