ESPN has been doing a series on "position battles" for next season at various schools. So far they have covered point guards, shooting guards, small forwards and power forwards. For every one of these positions, UNC has somehow been included as though there is some grand level of uncertainty to the Tar Heel lineup for next season.While there are questions, characterizing a battle at every position isn't quite accurate.
The first mistake comes with declaring there will be a battle at the point guard slot which may or may not be true.
North Carolina: Nate Britt vs. Joel Berry
Thank Kendall Marshall for this battle. Marshall’s injury in the 2012 NCAA tournament sabotaged a team built for a national title run, and coach Roy Williams vowed he’d never be in that position again. In past years, Williams probably would not have added a point guard in this class considering Marcus Paige will ultimately run the show. This battle won’t be as detrimental to team success as others, but is intriguing nonetheless. Berry, the freshman, will challenge Britt, the sophomore, and the time-old notion in Chapel Hill that seniority wins out.
The problem with trying to determine who will win this "battle" is we have no idea right now if such a battle will even be necessary. The first and really only huge question facing Roy Williams in terms of the lineup next season is whether Marcus Paige is going to play at the one or two. That's pretty much it and once you've answered that question you can get a feel for how the wing positions will pan out. It will be intriguing to see who ends up with more playing time between Nate Britt and Joel Berry but I don't think the "time-old notion in Chapel Hill that seniority wins out" will be as much as factor as people think.
It is also not cut and dry given Williams' willingness of late to use different combinations and the fact the two and three in the Tar Heel lineup are mirrors of each other. In fact this whole exercise by ESPN is a little shortsighted given their need to pigeonhole things into "positions" and what not but I digress.
Meanwhile over at the wing guard spot.
North Carolina, sort of
Having lost Leslie McDonald to graduation, J.P. Tokoto may now be the closest thing the Tar Heels will have to a shooting guard in 2014-15. The good news: Tokoto is a tough, physical player who excels in transition, and he's even better on the defensive end. The downside: He can't shoot. The question here is which of the Tar Heels' incoming players can provide perimeter production. Small forwards Justin Jackson and Theo Pinson are both top-10 overall players in the incoming class, and point guard Joel Berry may be able to play off the ball a bit as well. There isn't a good way to describe this personnel in the context of just one position. Save Marcus Paige, the shape of UNC's backcourt is very much up for grabs.
What Eamonn Brennan writes here is much closer to the mark than C.L. Brown's musings on point guards. UNC's backcourt/wing situation is anchored by Paige and beyond that there is some fluidity. It should be noted that, as far as starters go, two spots are locked down. Paige is going to either be the one or the two and probably play around 30 minutes per game, even higher after January. J.P. Tokoto is going to fill one of the other slots but which slot is highly dependent on what happens with the general backcourt configuration. If Paige is at the two, then Tokoto is at the three. If Paige is at the one then Tokoto is probably at the three with Theo Pinson at the two. If Justin Jackson gets one of the starting slots then Tokoto may end up at the two and Jackson at the three.
In short, it is going to be very, very fluid on the perimeter with the potential for a variety of combinations. UNC has talent and depth which is a good problem to have. The one weakness is someone besides Paige needs to step up and hit threes. If that doesn't happen then it will be interesting to see how the offense operates and whether the focus will be on perimeter defense in an effort to compensate for UNC's lack of three point shooting.
For the record here is what ESPN's Myron Metcalf wrote about UNC's small forwards.
North Carolina: Justin Jackson vs. Theo Pinson vs. Isaiah Hicks
If J.P. Tokoto plays more at shooting guard with the graduation of Leslie McDonald, this is a situation coach Roy Williams can address with multiple young talents. Hicks played like a typical freshman last season. He struggled in minimal action, but some of the North Carolina native’s challenges were tied to his adjustment from the power forward role he played in high school to the small forward slot he manned as a reserve last season. Still, the 6-8 Hicks was one of America’s top recruits in the 2013 class and understands Williams’ system and demands. But a pair of McDonald’s All-Americans -- Jackson and Pinson -- will fight for that spot, too. Williams might use all three players in his rotation. Jackson is a shooter who could move to shooting guard. Pinson is the most natural small forward in the group, and Hicks has the size and knowledge to play bigger if necessary. One of these players, however, could get lost in the mix next season if they’re all battling for the same position.
The only comment to be made here is to point out that Isaiah Hicks is probably not touching the three. He struggled there last season and given the nature of UNC's perimeter and post depth it is completely unnecessary. UNC will have three point guards and three wing players to cover three spots. Dropping Hicks down to the three makes zero sense, especially given he will be Brice Johnson's primary backup. And about that...
North Carolina: Jackson Simmons vs. Isaiah Hicks
Or who will back up Brice Johnson? Caught in a numbers crunch, neither saw much playing time last season, but somebody will have to contribute for coach Roy Williams this coming season. Hicks, a sophomore to be, played out of position for most of last season, sliding over to the small forward spot. Meanwhile, Simmons (who will be a senior) has spent the better part of his career biding his time. It will come down to whether Williams leans on the more veteran Simmons or the more talented Hicks.
LOL...no. Seriously, this isn't a debate and the inclusion of UNC here looks the world like it was manufactured because they wanted to get North Carolina into the article. Jackson Simmons is a solid player and I love the little things he does. However if there is a legitimate battle for minutes behind Brice Johnson that would make Hicks incredibly overrated and possibly a huge bust. Yes, Hicks had his struggles last season but some of that was owed to playing out of position at the three. It was also a situation where his role was never clearly defined. That won't be the case going into this season. Hicks will have the summer and all of preseason to acclimate to playing at the four where he will see significant bench minutes. I would expect Hicks to make the same leap from freshman to sophomore as Johnson did before him.
In the end, UNC's lineup questions are far less complicated than the stable of ESPN's college basketball writers are making it. It boils down to two questions
1. Will Marcus Paige play the point guard or wing guard?
2. Based on the answer to question #1 who starts at either the point guard if Paige is on the wing or the other wing position with Tokoto if Paige is at the point?
The interior positions are locked with Kennedy Meeks, Brice Johnson and Isaiah Hicks consuming the lion's share of the minutes in the post with Joel James, Desmond Hubert and Jackson Simmons filling in some gaps here and there. That being said, I am guessing ESPN has a post coming detailing the battle between Meeks and James or Hubert or a broomstick. Regardless of positions, Roy Williams' penchant for playing multiple bodies means there will be plenty of opportunity for the top ten or so players on the roster to get on the court.