It’s hard to imagine the North Carolina Tar Heels "flying under the radar," but lately when the discussion turns to the elite teams and programs heading into the 2014-15 season, you rarely hear Roy Williams’ squad mentioned. This is a program that won a national championship as recently as 2009 and, after missing the tournament in 2010, made consecutive Sweet 16 appearances in 2011 and 2012.
However, the past two seasons have been out of character for the Heels. They struggled early in 2012-13 without a true low-post scorer. Williams had to adjust Carolina’s system by going small and creating matchup problems. Last season, he had to start the season with P.J. Hairston's off-the-court situation hanging over his team. He didn't know whether the NCAA would reinstate Hairston or he would be ruled ineligible for the season. The uncertainty took its toll on the Tar Heels, and although they seemed to come together late in the season, the team eventually lost in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
But I believe this year will be different.
The addition of three ESPN Top 100 prospects -- Justin Jackson, Theo Pinson and Joel Berry -- gives UNC added depth at point guard as well as a pair of bookend wings who can score. One of the trademarks of great Carolina teams always has been terrific depth, and this year’s team has the depth that will enable it to play at the pace -- offensively and defensively -- that Williams wants. Put simply, the Heels will wear down opponents.
North Carolina, with an elite guard in Marcus Paige, a deep frontcourt, athleticism and experience, possesses every tangible and intangible needed to make a championship run this season.
Paige has developed into an elite "ball guard" who is effective on and off the ball. He’s best in the second half and in late-game situations. In the final three minutes of the second half and overtime last season, Paige shot 51.9 percent on field goals, including 50 percent on 3-pointers (13-for-26) and 85.7 percent on free throws (54-for-63). Paige can shoot 3-pointers (38.9 percent) as well as attack the rim. He got to the foul line almost five times a game and shot 87.7 percent from the line. The junior is strong at pulling up in transition as well as using ball screens. He has a runner and a middle game in his repertoire. But he’s not just a shooter -- last season he averaged 4.2 assists a contest.
Paige will be joined in the backcourt by sophomore Nate Britt and freshman Berry. Britt is a facilitator and a play starter who gained valuable experience when he was rushed into action after Hairston was ruled ineligible last season. He must improve his shooting. He shot only 25 percent from 3-point range and made three perimeter shots all year. Berry has a chance to be a difference-maker, as he has the size, strength and leadership skills of an older player. He is more than capable of running a team and can score, if needed.
The Tar Heels are deep at the wing position. They return junior J.P. Tokoto, a 6-5 long, hard-playing and athletic small forward. He’s a lockdown defender who rebounds his position. More of a slasher than a shooter (just 22.2 percent from deep), Tokoto does an excellent job of running the floor and finishing. Freshmen Jackson and Pinson will challenge for time at shooting guard and small forward, respectively. Both newcomers will give Williams versatility if he wants to move Paige to the point and play a bigger and more athletic lineup. Jackson, at 6-7, is an electric athlete who can shoot the ball. He’s athletic and skilled enough to rebound the ball and initiate the break. His shot-making ability could be the key to North Carolina’s season. Pinson is more of a scorer than a shooter. He’s an explosive athlete, can get to the rim, flies around the court and is an excellent rebounder.
North Carolina has great depth in the frontcourt. Kennedy Meeks, Brice Johnson, Joel James and Desmond Hubert give the Tar Heels four experienced big men. Meeks is a true big-bodied center who has soft hands and excellent feet. He carves out space and does an excellent job rebounding the ball. He averaged a rebound every 2.7 minutes a game.
Johnson is best suited to play power forward. A 6-10, 210-pound athlete, he can run, is hard to keep off the offensive glass (over two offensive rebounds per game in less than 20 minutes a game) and can protect the rim (1.3 blocks per game). James and Hubert add depth to the position. James is a physical, wide body, and Hubert is an instinctive rim protector. Jackson Simmons, a former walk-on, brings energy and is a tempo-changer off the bench.
The X factor for the North Carolina frontcourt is Isaiah Hicks, a wiry, 6-8 skilled and long power forward. He can run, can jump and has a feel for scoring. Hicks can shoot the ball to 17 feet and uses his quickness to drive by bigger defenders. In the Tar Heels’ second exhibition game in the Bahamas, he led them in scoring with 19 points. To earn significant minutes, he must defend, play tougher and harder more consistently. But he has the potential to be a difference-maker for the Heels.
Three concerns for the Tar Heels
1. Will they be committed defensively?
UNC has the potential to be an outstanding defensive team. When engaged, the Tar Heels are hard to score against. They allowed just 95.8 points per 100 possessions in wins last season, but it was 108.7 in losses.
Johnson is a rim protector, and the depth in the backcourt should allow them to put great pressure on the ball. But at times last season they got caught up in trying to outscore their opponent as opposed to getting stops. They must be committed defensively for 40 minutes. The Heels should extend their defense, look to scramble and trap more, and use the 1-3-1 lane zone as well as the point zone. The 1-3-1 zone did a nice job of taking opponents out of their offensive rhythm last season.
2. Consistent perimeter shooting
Paige and Leslie McDonald last season combined for 129 of the 146 made 3-pointers for UNC. Paige shot 38.9 percent while making 89 of those baskets. He was the only player on the Tar Heels who shot over 33 percent. Returning players Britt and Tokoto were a combined 11-for-48 from the perimeter last season. Berry and Jackson must shoot the ball consistently to open up the floor for drives and for the UNC big men.
3. Finding the right mix
Williams has a tremendous amount of versatility with this season’s team, but he must find the right lineups. Does he play Paige off the ball and go with a smaller lineup? Does he put the ball in Paige's hands and play the big wings and Johnson at power forward? How does he balance the minutes of Tokoto, Jackson and Pinson? What will his frontcourt rotation be? How does he get Hicks in the mix? How can he get his team to be more consistent on the defensive end? What is his best defensive team? Does he platoon with a second unit?