Nike/LM NCAA Preview: No. 7 North Carolina (Men)
The Tar Heels lost some big names, but still boast the talent necessary for a postseason run come May. UNC will look to gain success by committee to help answer some of the unknowns for 2016.
North Carolina at a Glance
2015 Record: 13-4
3 Big Things
INSIDE THE NUMBERS
It sure was nice to have Jimmy Bitter and Joey Sankey the last two seasons. The Tar Heels enjoyed one of the nation's most efficient offenses throughout the graduated stars' time in Chapel Hill. Will their replacements prove as capable? One thing's for certain: Offensive coordinator Dave Metzbower is a good bet to get the most out of North Carolina's holdovers.
1. North Carolina has some unknowns — and that's not the worst thing.
There was plenty of pressure on last year's star-studded senior class to break through to Memorial Day weekend. It didn't happen, but that doesn't mean the Tar Heels are likely to fall far. "They're working as hard as any group we've had," Breschi said. "We don't have any superstars, per se, but we have a lot of really good players working hard to achieve their goals. ... I think it'll be by committee, in a good way." Expect to see plenty of engagement for all six players at the offensive end rather than some ball watching, something that understandably happened at times with Bitter, Sankey and Chad Tutton around.
2. Brian Balkam is the man between the pipes.
Balkam started seven games last season, posting a 7.61 goals against average and a 55.6 save percentage. This year, the job is his, and he'll play in front of a fairly experienced and quite talented close defense. "We have a ton of confidence in him," Breschi said. "He's going to do a tremendous job, but he hasn't played a whole season. Coming in, it's not that goalie is a question mark. It's just a new thing for him being the No. 1 guy."
3. There is depth on defense.
Breschi is quick to point out that either Evan Connell or Jack Rowlett could wind up playing long pole this season. Why? The coach believes he has plenty of options on close defense, so long as some intriguing prospects continue to improve — and, just as importantly, stay healthy. That group includes redshirt sophomore Ryan Macri, who has dealt with injuries off and on in both of his seasons in Chapel Hill. Senior Zach Powers is an all-purpose option who could see time at either close defense or long pole, while Breschi thinks Kyle Mathie could take a step as a sophomore.
Brian Balkam (So.)
* returning starters
Goldstock was a 50-goal scorer while playing alongside Jimmy Bitter and Joey Sankey. Now? He'll be the first guy on the scouting report. There are some parallels between him and Syracuse's Dylan Donahue — exceptional scorers who will draw a lot more attention after an exodus of talent from their respective programs.
One of three members of the U.S. U19 training team on North Carolina's roster (and one of two, along with attackman/midfielder Timmy Kelly, with a good shot to start immediately for the Tar Heels), Rowlett possesses tremendous feet and stick skills. He seems like a decent bet to start on close defense, but has the potential to see time at long-stick midfielder as well.
Coach Joe Breschi sells short sticks on the idea of being on the field more than any other player while making an impact on defense, the faceoff wings and sometimes offense. "Tate has embraced that role and excelled at it," Breschi said. "He loves to score and loves to play, but he wants to stay there and make that impact. He knows a defensive stop is an offensive opportunity."
Biggest Question Mark
Goldstock's a given, but who else fits in well there? Breschi played two seniors with extensive midfield experience there in the fall, but there are several candidates to ultimately claim large roles. "It's just trying to figure out the unit as a whole," Breschi said. "Who's working well and in unison? We tried various groups of guys, various combinations of guys together. In January, we'll have to make some decisions."
With just 10 points in 2015, junior midfielder Tate Jozokos is North Carolina's best-kept secret as someone who can make an impact all over the field. (Peyton Williams)
What rival coaches say about the Tar Heels
"Not sure you can replace Sankey and Bitter but they will need to do it with a combo of their young talent and the defense stepping up early on."
"Does not having Sankey and Bitter help this team offensively? May seem like a bizarre statement but it may allow Metzy to get more guys involved and have a more cohesive offense not revolving around two guys. This team must get better defensively and in the goal if they want to end this final four drought. That monkey on the back now is starting to probably feel like a gorilla for Coach Breschi and the Tar Heels at this point."
"Must re-establish an identity on offense. Not sure that Pontrello is ready to be a top attackman. Losing Burke hurts."
"Many of us felt that 2015 was the year the final four drought had to end. It had to. And then a great game by Maryland combined with a poor defensive day and no goaltending doomed the Tar Heels in the quarterfinals. With so much gone, starting with Sankey and Bitter, and a goalie that has decided to not continue playing, Joe Breschi's Tar Heels may enjoy the role of not being such heavy favorites. There is still plenty of firepower and the defensive recruiting has improved the past few years. They seemingly spent 90 percent of their recruiting dollars on offense in the past. No quarterfinals this year."
"Carolina, how could you not look at them?"
"They're resetting and regrouping, and they'll be a better team that a lot of people think. Maybe that embarrassment in the playoffs [a 14-7 blowout by Maryland in the quarterfinals] becomes a maturation thing for them."
"There will always be expectations down there, but I think it will help them this year, being a hunter instead of being the hunted. I think they're going to be better than lots of people think they are. I think it's a mistake to rank them at the tail end of the ACC."
"If I'm a Carolina fan, I'm not happy that Sankey and Bitter and Tutton aren't there, but they have enough talent to win. What they have to hope is that with a different perspective, some guy steps up and is able to be that uncommon leader that finally gets them over the hump. ... Carolina has plenty of talent, but do they have that charismatic leader who is ready in uncommon ways to seize the mantle and get them over the top. You need someone who is all in, and you might need only one of those guys."
Consecutive seasons without a trip to Memorial Day weekend. The Tar Heels had a loaded, veteran team last year and played their worst game of the season in the quarterfinals. Perhaps in a season with far less pressure, North Carolina can break through its quarterfinal ceiling this spring.
28 @ Johns Hopkins
February 28 at Johns Hopkins
Just who are the Tar Heels this season? After spending the first three weekends of the season in Chapel Hill, this trip to Homewood Field should reveal a lot. It, along with the following week's visit from Denver, provides North Carolina a high-profile chance to earn quality victories well before spending April dealing with ACC opponents.
It might not be all that different from past rosters, but look for it to be amplified. Pontrello and Patrick Kelly can play both midfield and attack, and Chris Cloutier has both the size and the standard-issue Canadian skillset to fit in at either, as well. North Carolina is clearly going to find room for freshman Timmy Kelly, and that could come at either attack or midfield as well.
North Carolina lost its biggest names, but it isn't bereft of talent. A more anonymous Tar Heel team will navigate this season, and should it answer some obvious offensive questions, it will be in the mix come mid-May and have the potential to make some postseason noise.
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