Paige leads veteran Heels into championship run
Roy Williams likes to say that he would rather coach a talented team than an experienced team if forced to choose between the two. What he likes best, though, is coaching experienced talent. That winning combination produced NCAA championships for Williams in 2005 and 2009, and Williams enters this season with another North Carolina team that features an abundance of both qualities.
The Tar Heels have been in a drought according to their own lofty standards, not having reached a Final Four since 2009. Recently, their program has faced uncertainty and criticism in the aftermath of academic misconduct involving past UNC athletes. This season has a chance to be a return to glory of sorts.
UNC’s rotation includes six upperclassmen, headlined by senior guard Marcus Paige, and Williams welcomes back nine of his 10 players who averaged at least 10 minutes per game in 2014-15. UNC returns 88 percent of its points, 84 percent of its rebounds and 75 percent of its assists from last season.
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As has been the case in recent seasons, the Tar Heels feature imposing depth inside. Brice Johnson is one of the nation’s best interior scorers with his long and lanky frame, and he and Kennedy Meeks are active on the offensive glass. Meeks improved as a defender last season after slimming down, but he and Johnson have room for more growth on that end of the court after being exploited by quick guards and big men alike. They also have been prone to silly fouls, especially illegal screens by Johnson, and it remains to be seen whether another year of maturity will help alleviate that problem.
Isaiah Hicks gives the Heels a capable third big man who would start on many other teams. Hicks has a slender build but excellent athleticism that helps him score points in flurries. Joel James is a bruiser who provides a mean streak that UNC’s other post players lack, and he showed surprisingly soft touch on his short jumper a year ago.
No. 3 North Carolina Facts & Figures
Last season: 26-12, 11-7 ACC
Postseason: Sweet 16
Consecutive NCAAs: Five
ACC Projection: Second
Postseason projection: Final Four
Paige returns as the team’s undisputed leader and most indispensable player. The sweet-shooting lefty fell short of preseason All-America expectations in 2014-15 as he battled a hip injury and plantar fasciitis, but he is back after offseason ankle surgery. Paige has the highest free throw percentage in UNC history, and he is just nine 3-pointers shy of breaking the school record in that category.
A key to UNC’s season is how much help Paige gets on the perimeter. Justin Jackson emerged late last season as a versatile scorer who can hit 3-pointers in addition to making his trademark floaters from mid range. He will share the wing with classmate Theo Pinson, whose defense and athleticism are needed after the early departure of J.P. Tokoto. Also in the mix is freshman Kenny Williams, a shooter who gives the Tar Heels another needed threat behind the 3-point arc.
Joel Berry II and Nate Britt return at point guard, where each will see minutes spelling Paige and playing alongside him when he shifts off the ball. Berry has breakout potential as a scorer and distributor, and Britt is a heady player who made strides last season with his shooting.
Key Loss: G J.P. Tokoto
Top Players: G Marcus Paige, G Joel Berry II, G/F Justin Jackson, F Brice Johnson, F Kennedy Meeks
Kenny Williams is the headline addition in North Carolina’s two-player recruiting class. A 6'3" guard who originally signed with VCU, Williams has a chance to contribute immediately because his biggest strength (perimeter shooting) has been one of UNC’s biggest weaknesses in recent years. Luke Maye, whose father played quarterback at North Carolina in the mid-1980s, is a good passer who could develop into a floor-stretching forward in the future.
The good news for the Tar Heels is that their best players are experienced, a rarity for top programs today. The bad news is that those players have so much experience because they weren’t good enough to leave school early as NBA Lottery picks. The question then becomes just how valuable UNC’s experience will be. The Tar Heels have not been elite defensively since the 2011-12 season, the year before the current seniors arrived on campus, and last season featured some particularly porous efforts. UNC was shredded by offensive juggernauts Duke, Notre Dame and Wisconsin in its final three losses. It’s probably unreasonable to expect shutdown defense from a group that has been merely decent in that area lately, but some improvement is possible. If the Tar Heels defend a bit better, get a healthy season from Paige and see continued development from the sophomore trio of Jackson, Pinson and Berry, they have legitimate potential to win the ACC and contend for the national title.