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2014-15 Basketball Preview

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Grant Halverson

Last Season: 24-10, 13-5 in ACC(tied for 3rd)
Postseason: Lost in ACC Quarterfinals to Pitt, lost in NCAA Tournament Third Round to Iowa State
Subtractions: WG Leslie McDonald(10.4 ppg), PF James Michael McAdoo(14.2 ppg)
Additions: PG Joel Berry, WG/WF Justin Jackson, WG/WF Theo Pinson, PG Stilman White


Projected Starters

Player Position Class Vitals 2013-14 PPG 2013-14 APG 2013-14 RPG 2013-14 Ortg
Marcus Paige PG/WG JR 6-1/175 17.5 4.2 3.2 120.1
Justin Jackson WG FR 6-8/193 N/A N/A N/A N/A
J.P. Tokoto WF JR 6-6/200 9.3 3.0 5.8 102.9
Brice Johnson PF JR 6-9/228 10.3 0.9 6.1 114.3
Kennedy Meeks C SO 6-9/270 7.6 0.8 6.1 111.9

Bench

Player Position Class 2013-14 PPG 2013-14 APG 2013-14 RPG 2013-14 Ortg
Nate Britt PG SO 6-1/170 5.1 2.4 1.4 88.6
Isaiah Hicks PF SO 6-8/230 1.2 0.2 1.0 87.1
Theo Pinson WG FR 6-6/195 N/A N/A N/A N/A
Joel Berry PG FR 6-0/195 N/A N/A N/A N/A
Desmond Hubert C SR 6-10/225 0.6 0.1 1.1 83.1
Joel James C JR 6-10/280 1.7 0.2 2.7 90.7
Jackson Simmons PF SR 6-7/225 1.0 0.3 1.1 115.8
Stilman White PG SO 6-0/170 N/A N/A N/A N/A

What happened last season

3:53 remaining in the game and UNC is leading Iowa State 76-68. Marcus Paige's three pointer with 26 seconds left on the shot clock misses. The ensuing run out off the rebound leads to a Cyclone three pointer starting a 17-7 run to eliminate UNC from the 2014 NCAA Tournament.

If that scenario is eerily familiar it's because it happened before. The 2007 season came to a heartbreaking halt in similar fashion. A quick three pointer while protecting a multiple possession lead where burning the clock may have been more prudent set the wheels in motion for a win to slip away. In 2007 it was Danny Green against Georgetown in the Elite Eight, for 2014 it was Paige against Iowa State during the first weekend of the tournament. Both threes, had they gone, possibly seal the respective games. Neither did and both players are left wondering "what if?"

The season up to that point had been a wild, fun yet frustrating. UNC began the season under a cloud of uncertainty following the Summer of P.J. Hairston. The Tar Heels' best player was sidelined with eligibility concerns that would eventually keep him off the floor for the balance of the season. Wing guard Leslie McDonald was suspended for nine games due to the same eligibility issues. Through the first two months of the season UNC was the very definition of a roller coaster. The Tar Heels tallied perplexing losses to Belmont and UAB then needed overtime to knock off Davidson at home. However when it came to top ten foes like Michigan State, Louisville and Kentucky, the Heels were more than equal to the task. The up and down nature of the season continued into ACC play with the Heels bottoming out at 1-4 through the first five games of the league slate.

Then came the "win streak." UNC ripped off 12 straight wins to right the ship including beating Pitt and Duke at home. During that stretch James Michael McAdoo's play finally brushed close to what people had long hoped it would be and Marcus Paige was a star on the rise pouring in clutch performance after clutch performance. Paige eventually was named All-ACC and in the end Roy Williams had squeezed every last ounce out of team that struggled with poor free throw shooting and almost zero perimeter depth. Paige's breakout season carried the Heels as far as they could go which was a first weekend exit in the NCAA Tournament.

What to look for this season

Since the 2014 season ended much the same way the 2007 season did then this team is poised for a 2008-type season right? That might be overstating it a bit. The current Tar Heel team isn't quite the collection of talent 2008 had but there is some similarity in terms of returning an experienced core following a learning curve type of season. Like 2008, UNC has the potential to reach the Final Four and will depend heavily on a preseason All-American player to do it.  Marcus Paige's emergence last season was a bit of surprise. The general consensus was Paige would end up being a solid player but not necessarily one of the best guards in the country. His 32 points versus Louisville, 21 points in the second half against Kentucky and 35 points plus a game winner against NC State announced he was every bit one of the top players in college basketball.

The 2014-15 season begins with Paige on everyone's All-American list. He's a known commodity now and while last season he spent a good deal of time blowing expectations out of the water, this season will be about meeting them. Paige's production last season stemmed from UNC needing him to carry to the team. That is how Second Half Paige came into existence. For one half he played his role as a point guard but in the second half when UNC needed one player to get the job done, Paige did it. In all goes as planned, there should be less need for Paige to find a phone booth at halftime. UNC has more balance with the personnel and enough weapons to carry the offensive production. As such, Paige might see his scoring decline but his assists go up. Still, he's a talented and experienced player who Roy Williams says is one of the smartest players he's ever coached. Whatever success this team has is still greatly dependent on his play as Williams often reminds his team.

Speaking of that help, two players who should provide significant production to assist Paige are Kennedy Meeks and Brice Johnson. Meeks' weight loss is well documented and has positioned him for a key role in UNC's success this season. The challenge for the Charlotte sophomore will be syncing his game up with his new found conditioning and mobility. The same is true of Brice Johnson but in the opposite direction. Johnson has gained weight and strength which means he needs to adjust his game to take advantage those attributes. Both players are prolific rebounders. Meeks was 10th in the national last season in offensive rebounding rate and Johnson was 83rd. On the defensive end, Meeks was 37th and Johnson just outside the top 100. Assuming there is improvement on those numbers for both players and couple them with the size UNC has on the wings, there is good reason to believe this team can dominate the boards against most opponents.

As for the perimeter, J.P. Tokoto returns to man the wing forward spot where his biggest area of improvement must be his shooting. Tokoto doesn't need to be a great shooter but good enough to keep opposing defenses honest. Tokoto has also proven to be an effective facilitator and really has a niche with being "stat sheet stuffer". His defense and rebounding will be crucial to UNC's success. The same is true for freshman Justin Jackson, the presumptive starter on the other wing. Jackson, through two exhibition games, has displayed his scoring efficiency and general savvy for the game. The question for Jackson will be perimeter scoring, something UNC sorely needs.

Off the bench, UNC has plenty of depth which is exactly how Roy Williams likes it. Nate Britt and Joel Berry give Williams options at the point guard that allows Paige to play on the wing and the ability to put better ball handling units on the floor for late game situations. However the two sparks off the bench could be Isaiah Hicks and Theo Pinson. Both players are athletic, run the floor well and will bolster UNC by giving the Heels quality depth on the interior and the wing. With UNC's tempo, the ability to rotate fresh bodies and keep the talent level high is crucial. It is those rotations, coupled with the pace that brings opposing teams to their knees midway through the second half and allowing UNC to pull away.

Overall, this is a long, athletic team with the requisite parts to properly execute Roy Williams' offensive system. The length and athleticism also make this a very tough team to guard and execute against offensively. The projected starting lineup sports two wing players at 6-6 and 6-8. While UNC does lack quickness, the length and athleticism will be highly disruptive to opposing offenses in the half court. It also opens the door for more full court press opportunities and give a higher degree of effectiveness to UNC's traditional run-and-jump defense.

Question marks

As good as the personnel looks on paper UNC still has some uncertainty. As it stands right now, Marcus Paige is the only Tar Heel on the roster with an established reputation as a quality perimeter shooter. Nate Britt and J.P. Tokoto both struggled to hit shots from the perimeter in 2013-14 and the freshman are unknown commodities at this stage. For UNC to be successful, consistent perimeter shooting must come from someone besides Paige. The resolution of this issue probably lies with one or all three of the freshmen. Jackson has shown some range in exhibition play as has Pinson. Berry has taken a number of threes but missed them and Britt hit one against Belmont Abbey. One or more of these players need to emerge as a consistent threat to balance the offense, reduce defensive pressure on Paige and open up the floor spacing for better offensive flow. Barring that, there will be more zone defenses and an increased focus on Paige to keep UNC's offense out of sync.

On the defensive end, UNC's length on the wing is going to prove beneficial but there are some initial questions regarding the post defense. As note above, Meeks and Johnson should ramp up UNC's offensive production on the interior and give UNC a significant edge rebounding. Johnson, should prove to be a clear offensive upgrade over McAdoo from last season. However McAdoo was a solid defender who excelled at defensive rotations, drawing charges and guarding on the perimeter. Both Meeks and Johnson need to prove they can handle those areas in an effective manner. That means defending in the post without fouling, rotating to the proper position as needed and handling concepts like hedging on screens while getting back in position. Johnson's ability as a shot blocker should bolster the defense providing he makes good decisions when and when not to go for the block. On the perimeter, UNC will give up some quickness but use length to compensate. Berry, Britt and Paige bring different skill sets as defenders which permits Williams to utilize the best one in certain defensive situations. Overall, UNC's defense should be solid providing the post players are up to par.

Outlook

UNC has a very tough schedule in out of conference play. The Heels travel to Kentucky, play Ohio State in Chicago and could face Oklahoma, UCLA, Florida or Wisconsin in the Bahamas. UNC hosts Iowa and travels to Charlotte to face a Davidson team that nearly beat the Heels last season. In fact UNC's first three games of his season are against teams that all won 20 games a year ago and played in either the NCAA or NIT Tournaments. The ACC slate will be a grind with Duke and Louisville on the schedule twice plus Virginia and Syracuse at home and Pittsburgh on the road. The rest of the ACC schedule will provide plenty of tough games on top of the higher caliber opponents.

Given Roy Williams' penchant for frequent rotations in the early part of the season and UNC in a mode of trying to figure out everyone's role and on-court chemistry, it wouldn't be surprising to see the Heels drop some of the tougher match-ups early. The game at Kentucky and one of their higher profile games in the Bahamas are good candidates for early losses. In that respect, this season will be a weird flip on last season. UNC should win all the games they are supposed to win and probably do so in impressive fashion. However some of  toss-up games or ones in which the Heels aren't favored will play out according to expectation. In short, UNC losses should be the "acceptable" sort.

UNC teams under Roy Williams follow a clear pattern of working out kinks early in the season with a deeper rotation but when February rolls around the team begins to gel for a deep NCAA Tournament run. This team's talent, experience and depth should allow UNC to execute Roy Williams' system without much tinkering with the lineup as has been the case over the past two seasons. There are questions, especially regarding the perimeter scoring outside of Marcus Paige, but if those questions can be answered, the ceiling should be very high.