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November 5, 2011

Preseason Top 32: No. 1 North Carolina

STRENGTHS: Where do we begin? North Carolina has the nation's top frontcourt working alongside one of the game's most promising young point guards. This team was virtually unstoppable once PG Kendall Marshall moved into the starting lineup midway through last season. Now the Tar Heels get an entire season with Marshall running the offense. Harrison Barnes was one of the nation's best players by the end of his freshman season. Barnes, a 6-foot-8 forward, averaged 21.5 points over his last 10 games. He has the talent to maintain that pace for his entire sophomore season.

C Tyler Zeller (7-0/250, Sr.)
F Harrison Barnes (6-8/215, Soph.)
F John Henson (6-11/220, Jr.)
G Kendall Marshall (6-4/195, Soph.)
G Dexter Strickland (6-3/180, Jr.)
F P.J. Hairston (6-6/220, Fr.)
F James McAdoo (6-9/220, Fr.)
G Reggie Bullock (6-7/205, Soph.)
G Justin Watts (6-5/210, Sr.)

Coach: Roy Williams (9th season at UNC)
Last season's record: 29-8 overall, 14-2 in ACC (1st in league)
Postseason: Lost to Kentucky in NCAA tournament East Regional final
Final regular'season RPI: 6th
Last time didn't make NCAA field: 2010
John Henson averaged a double-double (11.7 points, 10.1 rebounds) last season and also led the ACC in blocks (3.2 per game). He had more blocks through the end of his sophomore season than any player in school history. Tyler Zeller, a 7-foot senior, averaged 25.8 points and 8.8 rebounds in the NCAA tournament. UNC's outside shooting should get a boost from the return of Reggie Bullock, who missed much of last season with a knee injury. The Heels also added two of the top 13 prospects from the 2011 recruiting class in 6-9 F James McAdoo (No. 8) and 6-6 F P.J. Hairston (No. 13).

WEAKNESSES: North Carolina ranked 11th in the ACC in 3-point percentage (.328) last season. The Tar Heels' poor perimeter shooting may have cost them a Final Four appearance last season, as they went 3-of-16 from 3-point range in a 76-69 loss to Kentucky in the East Regional final. They now must try to improve their perimeter attack without G Leslie McDonald, who likely will miss the season with a torn ACL in his right knee. McDonald led the Heels in 3-point percentage (.381) and ranked second on the team in 3-pointers (51) last season.

Although Bullock's return should help, he must improve his accuracy after shooting 29.6 percent (29-of-98) from 3-point range last season. Hairston's arrival could provide a boost. Hairston, rated by Rivals.com as the best shooter of any ACC recruit in the 2011 class, went 4-of-6 from 3-point land in an exhibition victory over UNC Pembroke.

[More North Carolina coverage: TarHeelIllustrated.com]

OVERVIEW: The comparisons to UNC's 2009 national championship team are obvious. That 2009 team won the title after Tyler Hansbrough, Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellington chose to return to school rather than entering the draft at the end of a 2008 Final Four run. Barnes, Henson and Zeller would have been drafted in the first round had they chosen to turn pro. They instead chose to stay in school and make one more run at a national championship. Their return assured UNC would have one of the nation's most talented teams this season, but it doesn't guarantee anything else. The one-and-done nature of the NCAA tournament means the best team in the country won't necessarily win the title. Defending national champion Connecticut finished ninth in the Big East standings last season, and Kansas was the best team in the country two years ago and couldn't survive the first weekend of the NCAA tournament. North Carolina sure looks like the nation's best team this season. The Heels' chances of winning the title depend on whether they can stay healthy, improve their outside shooting and avoid running into bad luck in March.

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Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.

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