After several years of thriving with more than adequate depth under the basket, UNC heads into the 2010-2011 season with just three experienced forwards---John Henson, Justin Knox, and Tyler Zeller.
Henson is ready for the challenge to be one of Carolina's featured players at the power forward position.
"I'm going to be down probably at the 'four' spot. It will be fun," said Henson, who has worked tremendously hard over the offseason to add some bulk to his frame. "It's a little more natural down there. I can use my height and length to my advantage, so it will be fun."
It will obviously be a season where Henson looks to improve his all-around game, but in particular he's got to show growth in the paint and around the basket, where he'll be tested by larger and more experienced players in the ACC.
"I know that John has worked hard with the weights," said UNC head coach Roy Williams. "He came in at 183 (pounds)---I think he started practice at about 186, 187 (pounds). I think he's 205, 206, 207 or something like that now."
"I've probably put on about 20 (pounds), give or take (over the off season)," Henson said. "I lifted four days a week as much as I could, slept right after I ate."
Henson averaged just under 16 minutes a game last season, scoring 5.7 points and 4.4 rebounds per outing.
He spent a lot more time along the wing early in the year before the Tar Heels lost Ed Davis and the Wear twins for long stretches with injuries, which necessitated him to move and play almost exclusively in the post by the time UNC reached the end of the ACC regular season and the postseason NIT.
"I can't really explain it (what happened last season)," Henson said. "I think we were a good team but we lost a lot of confidence in certain games and I think that had a snowball effect."
Henson was decidedly out-manned physically against a lot of ACC power forwards in the paint as a freshman despite his natural physical gifts---making upper-body strength perhaps the most important area of growth for him heading into this year.
"Just overall working on my skill level---post moves, being more consistent, and just taking my time down there. And just getting stronger. I think that's all going to pay off when we play our first game," he said.
While opposing players might have been able to muscle him around the basket some when he was a freshman, Henson was able to overcome that in a lot of cases with his length and shot-blocking instincts.
Henson was second on the team last year with 59 blocked shots (approximately 1.6 per game), and this year with an increased role in the paint, that number stands to improve considerably---quite possibly to a place among the leaders in the conference.
In addition, his infectious smile and highly-spirited emotions when things are going well on the court are great for the team's confidence, which helps put Henson in position to be a leader by example for this Carolina team as well as a productive contributor.
"If it's up to me I want to be a leader. I think everyone wants to be a leader, so we'll see who can help us," Henson added.
"I think we're a lot closer this year because we're all between 19 and 20---even the freshmen are 19---so I think we're just a lot closer in age," he added.
"We've made that emphasis to kind of do things together and always be together and work out together, so that's just something we've made a conscientious effort to improve."
Scoring was a big challenge both for Henson and for the team in general last year, but with the talent infusion of the freshman class and all-around improvements from the returning players, this is a unit that could potentially put the ball in the basket like UNC teams of recent and older times.
"I think we'll be a lot better, you know. There were times in the Bahamas when I was sitting on the bench watching us and we hit three or four 'three' (pointers) and a couple of lay-ups," Henson said. "That kind of brought me back to how North Carolina plays, so I think we'll be pretty good."
Henson in particular can benefit from transition baskets and taking advantage of mis-matches in space, but in order to really raise his scoring totals he simply must make more free throws.
He was a dismal 43.8 percent (32-of-73 shooting) from the free throw line last year, and frankly his ability to make them could be the difference in some wins or losses for Carolina this year.
This is clearly a very important season for Henson as he looks to position himself someday to play in the NBA in helping this UNC team have a successful season.
Whether or not he's ready for the pros after this season will depend on a lot of things, but improving his physicality and strength while continuing to develop his natural gifts for shot blocking, rebounding, and scoring will obviously be key.