CHAPEL HILL Very few basketball seasons have started with North Carolina rated as the third best team in the Triangle, but that could be the case in 2012-13.
Thanks to a sudden surge by N.C. State under Mark Gottfried – combined with heavy personnel losses at UNC and Duke – Tar Heels coach Roy Williams said at his summer news conference Thursday that he would not be surprised to see the Wolfpack picked as the preseason ACC favorite.
“That could very easily happen and maybe should happen,” Williams said of the Pack.
“In basketball you can turn it around a lot quicker than you can in football, where you need 30 or 40 players … Mark’s done a great job. There was good talent that (Sidney Lowe) brought in and Mark’s really done a great job of getting them to be more focused … they’ve got some big-time, big-time opportunities.”
Picked for eighth in the ACC race last season, the Pack reached the NCAA Midwest semifinals before losing by three points to Kansas, which then beat UNC by 13 in the regional final.
Two of the Pack’s top underclassmen – forward C.J. Leslie and point guard Lorenzo Brown – elected to stay in school.
UNC standouts Kendall Marshall, John Henson and Harrison Barnes joined Duke star Austin Rivers in the NBA underclass pool, leaving N.C. State with what should be an edge in experienced talent.
The Heels also lost senior Tyler Zeller, leaving the roster short on frontcourt numbers.
Williams said the arrival of incoming freshmen Joel James (6-foot-10, 280 pounds) and Brice Johnson (6-9, 200) should help frontcourt returnees James Michael McAdoo and Desmond Hubert.
Wingman Reggie Bullock, the lone returning starter, knows the team’s playing style probably has to change a bit.
“We’re going to be more of a guard-oriented team,” Bullock said. “We’ll be quicker … but we’re just going to need for guys to knock down a lot of shots for us. We still have to get the ball down in the post, because that’s basically the Carolina system.”
With Bullock, P.J. Hairston and former regulars Dexter Strickland Leslie McDonald returning from knee injuries, the perimeter would be among the ACC’s best if newcomer Marcus Paige is prepared to run the offense.
Paige is also recovering from surgery for a stress fracture in his left foot.
For now, the program’s top ball-handler is 6-0 Luke Davis, formerly of Raleigh’s Ravenscroft High and Gardner-Webb University. Bullock said Davis will be an important addition.
“But we’re definitely going to go through a lot of growing pains,” Bullock said. “We’re capable of stepping up. It’s just a matter of us going out there and establishing what we can do.”
And as for the sudden challenge from the Wolfpack, Bullock hardly retreated.
“We’re not going to back down from anyone,” he said. “N.C. State’s a great team. They have a great coach and a lot great players returning. But like I said, we’re not going to back down.”