North Carolina heads into another basketball season in familiar territory for its head coach Roy Williams, but unfamiliar territory for most everyone on his roster.
As everyone who follows Carolina closely knows, this is not the first time Williams has faced a rebuilding project---and all things considered, this rebuilding project has a chance to be way less painful than the last one in 2009-2010, and perhaps every bit as much fun, if not even more fun, than the time before that in 2005-2006.
Of course, UNC was coming off NCAA titles the last two times Williams inherited a young team, but this year's team, coming off back-to-back Elite Eights, might have a little more hunger and burning desire to get back to the Final Four than a lot of folks may give them credit for.
"It's a fantastic group of kids and I just enjoy the heck out of all of them and they're unique, each and every one of them," said Coach Williams Monday night in his first weekly radio show of the new season at Top of the Hill Restaurant in Chapel Hill.
SOLID GROUP ALONG THE WING
Williams knows this team will have plenty of limitations compared to last year's squad, which featured four players who went on to be selected in the first round of this past summer's NBA Draft, but there's a few other things that are perhaps improved with this squad.
For example, UNC appears to have some decent depth along with the wing with returners including Leslie McDonald, Dexter Strickland, Reggie Bullock, and P.J. Hairston, as well as newcomer J.P. Tokoto.
"There's no question our personnel can't do the things we did last year," Williams said. "We are doing some things differently."
"We have more depth at the two and three on the wing so that's the strength of our team because it's experienced talent," Williams continued.
For Strickland and McDonald, who are both coming off major knee injuries, one of the big questions is can they return back to where they were before, and can their knees remain strong and withstand the rigor of another challenging season in the ACC and beyond.
"Physically they (Strickland and McDonald) have got to be able to stand a bad landing or pushing off on that leg, and responding defensively. They're doing well in practice physically but they still have to do it in a game," Williams said.
Clearly shooting is going to be a key factor that determines how well this group of wing players performs, as well as defense, which is another area where this year's team has a chance to potentially be even better than last year's UNC squad, which struggled at times on the defensive end.
WILL THEY REBOUND AND DEFEND?
With the addition of a couple capable defenders, rebounders and shot blockers in Joel James and Brice Johnson, as well as another decent interior defender in Desmond Hubert, Carolina has some ability to play well defensively inside.
If those guys play well along with the expected solid defensive play of guys like Strickland, Hairston, and Bullock, UNC could be a fairly tough team to score against.
"Joel and Brice are going to be very good players," said Williams. "I hope it's this season, and if it's not this season, I hope it's during my career. They are going to be very good players. It's just when."
"I do think we can be very good defensively," Williams continued. "Last year's team wasn't consistent with it, and I think this year's team has to be really good defensively."
While last year's UNC team may not have been as tough defending open shots or stopping dribble penetration or fast-break opportunities for opposing teams, one thing that they were clearly good at was rebounding.
As Coach Williams pointed out during his Monday radio show, Carolina led the nation in rebounding margin, dominating opposing teams on the boards.
That's been a hallmark of many of the great UNC teams over the years, and for the 2012-2013 version of the Tar Heels are going to be anywhere close to great, some guys are clearly going to have to step up on the glass.
"Last year we were the best rebounding team in all of college basketball," Williams said. "That's a high challenge for this year's team. We need to be a big time rebounding team and we have some potential, but it's extremely young."
Hairston and Bullock have shown their ability to be weapons for UNC along the offensive perimeter getting rebounds, and Coach Williams believes Tokoto can also aid in that.
"J.P. the last couple of practices has started to believe when I tell him he can be the best offensive rebounder I've ever seen on the perimeter because he can do that," Williams said.
"All of a sudden J.P. Tokoto showed up at practice (Sunday) and got eight million rebounds and did it again (Monday). He has trouble shooting the ball but defensively and rebounding he can be a tremendous weapon."
NEW MAN AT THE POINT?
Marcus Paige steps into the big shoes of Kendall Marshall this winter as Carolina's starting point guard, and how he performs will naturally shape the course of the entire team in a lot of ways.
"You don't know how freshmen are going to act until they get out there and do it, but Marcus has the ability," Williams said.
Many of those who saw Paige play on the AAU circuit and in high school the past few years talked about how similar he was to Marshall, not just as a player, but even in looks.
Paige is a true floor general like Marshall. He controls the court. He makes good decisions and rarely beats himself.
And while he may never be the pinpoint passer Marshall is---but then again, who is?---Paige can do some things even better.
"He (Paige) is similar to Kendall," Williams said. "He's left-handed. Kendall's a little taller. He (Paige) is a little more athletic. A little quicker. A little better shooter. But replacing Kendall Marshall, those are big-time shoes to fill."
Paige will have some help in the UNC backcourt with the emergence of Luke Davis, as well as Strickland, who will share some time at point in addition to his starting role at the 'two' guard.
"(Paige is going) to get some time there (at point guard). Luke Davis is going to get some time there. Luke's doing some good things for us and we feel good about making sure he gets some time," Williams said.
"We're going to have Marcus play the point, we're going to have Dexter play the point and we're going to have Luke play the point and hopefully they will all stay healthy and we'll get good point guard play out of them."
WILL MCADOO BECOME 'THE MAN'?
Another huge question that will help dictate just how good this Carolina team can be this winter is the play of James Michael McAdoo, who bypassed a chance to be a lottery pick this past summer in the NBA Draft for a chance to come back and be UNC's go-to big man.
A preseason All-America candidate, McAdoo showed down the stretch after John Henson got hurt that he had the chops to step in for UNC as a freshman and perform in some high-pressure situations.
Now the mantle is passed on to McAdoo as the next so-called great North Carolina big man. The list is long, and McAdoo knows what is expected of him.
Now, that he's going to be a focal point of opposing defenses and not just another guy to have to deal with, it's going to be fascinating to see if McAdoo rises to the occasion and fulfills the immense promise he has on the court.
"He (McAdoo) has got to be able to do it when the defense is aimed at him," Williams said. "Now they know who he is and that's who they are going to be guarding. Making that step is a huge step. James Michael has to be able to do that."