College basketball season is creeping up fast, and Athlon Sports is counting down to Midnight Madness and the start of practice on Oct. 17.
No. 6 North Carolina is looking to reclaim its status as a powerhouse program after two subpar seasons, by the Tar Heels’ standards. North Carolina has won an NCAA game in each of the last two years but hasn’t finished higher than third in the ACC. This may be the season the Tar Heels start to resemble their tradition. The roster has stabilized around All-American Marcus Paige with most of the roster returning intact for a run in the ACC.
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The North Carolina basketball program hasn’t lived up to its lofty standards on or off the court in recent years. The Tar Heels have not reached a Final Four since 2009, tied for their longest such streak since an eight-year drought from 1983 to 1990, or won the ACC Tournament since 2008. They also have dealt with unexpected transfers and major suspensions of key players during the last four years, issues that used to be few and far between in Chapel Hill.
UNC has a chance to get back on track in 2014-15 with a roster that features plenty of depth and talent. The Tar Heels return nine of their 11 rotation players from last season, have a legit leader/star in guard Marcus Paige, and welcome three McDonald’s All-Americans to the mix.
No. 6 North Carolina Tar Heels Facts & Figures
Last season: 24-10, 13-5 ACC
Postseason: NCAA round of 32
Consecutive NCAAs: 4
Coach: Roy Williams (306-89 at North Carolina, 130-50 ACC)
ACC Projection: Second
Postseason Projection: NCAA Elite Eight
In a sport that has become increasingly perimeter-oriented, the Tar Heels have an abundance of size and potential up front. Junior Brice Johnson and sophomores Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks all seem poised to take big steps forward in 2014-15.
Meeks spent the summer losing weight and getting into better shape, while Johnson continued his career-long goal of adding strength to his slender frame. Both have proven that they are talented offensive players, with Johnson establishing himself as UNC’s best low-post scorer and Meeks showcasing excellent passing and offensive rebounding skills. Both also have plenty of room for improvement defensively. Hicks, who spent last season masquerading as a small forward because of UNC’s lack of depth on the wing, should make a big impact in the paint with his athleticism.
Joel James and Desmond Hubert offer significant starting experience and specialty traits that UNC’s other big men lack. James provides brute strength and a physical style, and Hubert contributes superior defense. Undersized Jackson Simmons enters every season with a lowly projection for playing time, but he always carves out a niche for himself with a combination of hustle and savvy.
This area has transformed from a question mark into an exclamation point in the course of one year, and Paige is a key reason why. He spearheaded UNC’s midseason surge a year ago, finishing fourth in the ACC in scoring and sixth in assists while providing clutch plays against defenses geared to stop him. The good news for UNC fans is that Paige will have more help around him this season.
Paige’s preference is to play point guard, but he is a tremendous shooter who is willing to play off the ball to help the team. That selflessness will create minutes at the point for sophomore Nate Britt, who retooled his jumper from a left-handed shot to a right-handed shot in the offseason, and highly touted freshman Joel Berry.
On the wing, the Tar Heels figure to have a nice rotation after being thin a year ago. Junior J.P. Tokoto, one of the nation’s most gifted athletes, returns after establishing himself as the team’s top defender. Tokoto must continue to develop his ball-handling and shooting after making just under 50 percent of his free throws last season, but the Tar Heels will get help in both of those departments from a couple of freshmen. Theo Pinson is adept at scoring and creating opportunities for teammates, and Justin Jackson is an accomplished mid-range scorer who also can make 3-pointers.
UNC’s depth and versatility make the team dangerous on the national scene. Coach Roy Williams has personnel choices and flexibility available to him that he lacked a year ago. He can go big with lineups in which only the point guard is shorter than 6-5, or he can employ a lineup of three point guards late in games to enhance ball-handling and free throw shooting.
The challenge of re-climbing the mountain to ACC and national supremacy will be significant, especially with Louisville joining the league, but the Tar Heels have the personnel to succeed against all sizes and styles of opponents.
“We definitely have our fair share of tests with our schedule,” Paige says. “But I think that will help us out, and I really think that we are a legitimate Final Four contender if we can put all the pieces together.”
UNC welcomes a trio of McDonald’s All-Americans who can contribute in various ways on the perimeter. Theo Pinson provides scoring and playmaking ability, and his 6-11 wingspan makes him an intriguing prospect defensively. Justin Jackson is a strong outside shooter, an area of immediate need for the Tar Heels. Joel Berry is a fierce competitor and gifted passer with a strong frame that is uncommon for freshman point guards.