The 2014 season is months away. Let's punch fate in the face and make wild assumptions about what could be the best 20 teams in the country next year.
Team: North Carolina
Important People: Joey Sankey (A); Jimmy Bitter (A); Kieran Burke (G); Chad Tutton (M); Ryan Kilpatrick (D/LSM); Evan Connell (D); Steve Pontrello (M); Duncan Hutchins (M)
Formerly Important People: Marcus Holman (A); Davey Emala (M); Kieran McDonald (D)
Final 2013 Poll Positions: Media: 5; Coaches: 1
2013 Record: 13-4 (2-1, ACC)
2013 Snapshot: Kaboom!
* * * * *
Is North Carolina ready to kick its recent history to the curb and take the step that has eluded the Tar Heels for the better part of two decades? It may make your face melt, but Carolina hasn't made a trip to Championship Weekend since 1993, crashing out of the NCAA Tournament in the quarterfinals seven times in that stretch (the Tar Heels were seeded in every one of those brackets, three times serving as a four-seed). Moreover, Carolina failed to find an invitation to The Big Barbecue eight times since 1993 -- 2006, 2005, 2003, 2002, 2001, 2000, 1999, and 1997 (the Heels have, however, made every tournament since 2007). The residue of this uneven history over the last 20 years is this: Will Carolina rest on its accomplishments that it earned in 2013 and regress in its growth, content with the progress it made from 2012 to 2013 and all the work that it entailed? Internal factors are season-specific, but there is something to year-to-year concerns impacting overall viability in forward performance. Carolina shed a lot of its historic demons last season, but the focus remains: With a bulls eye on the Tar Heels' back (and without the services of former solo captain and offensive juggernaut Holman assuring North Carolina's momentum stays in a positive position), can the Heels maintain its position in the national hierarchy and perform consistent to the status that the program asserts to the rest of the nation? Playing with purpose and conviction has been missing from Carolina's DNA on a season-to-season basis; the Tar Heels need to overcome that if it hopes to break through to where its potential indicates it can go.
A Thousand White Doves
Here's the deal: When it comes time to submit my preseason media poll ballot, I may have Carolina in the pole position. Outside of the three losses noted above, the Tar Heels return virtually everything from a team that finished 2013 as one of the two or three best teams in the nation, riding a wave of massive improvement from the 2012 season to last year. It's bonkers the volume of talent returning to Chapel Hill for 2014:
- Sankey and Bitter will anchor the attack, and will receive significant leveraging opportunities to the midfield. And that's what gives Carolina such potential at the offensive end of the field: All but Emala returns from the Tar Heels' top two offensive midfield lines in 2013, and Hutchins -- who missed the 2013 season due to surgery -- is back on the roster and should find a spot on one of these lines. This was an offense that finished last year ranked second in adjusted offensive efficiency; while the losses of Holman and Emala create a void, the offensive talent that Joe Breschi has assembled in Chapel Hill can sustain -- at least reasonably -- Carolina's position as an offensive freak show. The engine may roar in a different way, but there's still plenty of combustion under the hood.
- North Carolina's defense -- an issue for the Heels in the past -- took a major step forward last season and loses only McDonald from its front-line producers: The short-stick midfield corps returns (headlined by Ryan Creighton (who has two-way ability) and Greg McBride), the team's long-stick midfielders return (featuring Kilpatrick, who is quietly setting himself up as one of the nation's better poles if he continues to run through the box), the close defense is going to have experienced contributors in Jordan Smith and Connell, and Carolina has a strong backstop in Burke. The Tar Heels quietly finished 2013 ranked 16th in adjusted defensive efficiency following a season in which it dedicated significant efforts toward defensive improvements; with assets in place that are poised for further growth and production, Carolina is in a nice position to complement its play at both ends of the field.
- Even if the Tar Heels' offense or defense needs time to coalesce due to the graduations of Holman and McDonald, R.G. Keenan is still a breathing human being, poised to rip the souls from opponents on the whistle. Keenan is a career 57.39 percent faceoff cat, and his ability to dominate draws allows extra opportunities to inure to Carolina's offense while also controlling the level exposure that Carolina's defense faces. He's a tank, and he allows the Tar Heels wiggle room in their play (while also making things difficult for the opposition from an opportunity-generation standpoint).
The Stars, The Moon, Six Feet Under
The Stars: As one of the most balanced teams in the nation, the Tar Heels head to Baltimore for a shot at its first title since 1991; all the accumulated talent that Breschi has been dragging to Chapel Hill creates a depth that few teams can match, allowing for Carolina to maintain high performance results deep into April when other teams falter; the Heels' defense tells all the skeptics to eat a steaming pile of monkey poo.
The Moon: The ACC presents a struggle -- like it will for all members this season -- but the Heels grind their way to the league's tournament final; Sankey establishes himself as an unstoppable force, assuming the role of offensive-generator; Burke holds a 57 percent save percentage and develops into a solid eraser; top four seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Six Feet Under: The team's defense regresses after a year of growth and limits Carolina's ceiling; without Holman, the Tar Heels' offense is filled with parts but no identity, struggling to create efficiency; a boneheaded loss appears out of nowhere; Carolina can't seem to get it together in the ACC and doesn't make the conference's top four for tournament purposes.