The formula heading into the season was simple. Junior guard Marcus Paige would build off his All-ACC performance of last season and make himself a serious contender for National Player of the Year. Fellow junior Brice Johnson would move to the starting lineup and make an impact replacing the departed James Michael McAdoo along with J.P. Tokoto making modest improvements in his offensive game.
So far those expectations aren't being met and UNC has two losses to show for it.
Paige has shown some familiar flashes through seven games but there have been more suspect games than good ones. His 21 point outing with four made threes against UCLA has been accompanied by less than stellar shooting in other games. The worst of the lot came against Iowa where Paige opened the game with a made three then went 3-15 on FGs and 2-11 from three the rest of the way. Paige's shot, so reliable especially in the second half lat season, has been absent far too often and notably so in the two losses. One telling stat is Paige's two point shooting. Paige is presently shooting 34% from two after hitting 49% of shots inside the arc last season. Much of the trouble appears to be finishing at the rim which Paige hasn't done well. The three point shooting is slightly down from last season at 36% with his 3-12 night against Iowa serving as a bit of a drag on a limited sample.
Paige's play is key to UNC's success and his struggles clearly spell trouble for the Heels, something he fully understands.
"I'm the guy who needs to get these guys going." Paige said following the loss to Iowa. "If I am going to be a leading vote getter on the preseason All-American team and be the preseason ACC Player of the Year then I need to start playing like it. And it affects my teammates as well. I need to do better and then hopefully that will be contagious but it definitely starts with me."
While Paige denies he is feeling additional pressure from the preseason expectations, it is clear there is pressure to play better for the sake of his team. UNC is never going to be a great shooting team and that situation becomes even more dire if Paige isn't hitting his shots.
The same could be said for Brice Johnson. Last season, Johnson averaged over 10 points per game coming off the bench. He was highly efficient as a sophomore hitting 56% of his field goals and posting an offensive efficiency rating of 114.3. Johnson also proved to be a capable rebounder with top 100 caliber rebounding rates on both ends of the floor.
The story this season has been far different in terms of Johnson's overall production. Johnson has struggled with his shot, on defense and with foul trouble. In five games against teams in the KenPom top 100, Johnson has committed 18 fouls and been disqualified once. His shooting is almost 10% worse compared to last season and the rebounding rates are nowhere near his 2013-14 numbers. The Iowa game proved to be a lengthy illustration of Johnson's struggles culminating in two straight missed layups from "six inches" away at a critical juncture of the game.
Johnson's failure to score in that moment frustrated Roy Williams and had the junior big man realizing he needed to change his approach to match last season's effort.
"I need to stop being a baby. Just go up and dunk it like I used to. I've got to get back to what I used to do and going up there and dunking it every time." Johnson said regarding his missed layups "I am more successful when I go above the rim instead of under the rim. I am not an under the rim kind of guy. I got to go back to doing what I need to do....I started laying up and got comfortable with it and got away from dunking it."
In addition to Paige and Johnson's shooting woes, J.P. Tokoto has also struggled shooting from two point range. Last season this trio combined to shoot 53% on two point shots. This season they are at 41% through seven games. J.P. Tokoto has compensated for some of his offensive struggles by hitting 21-30 from the free throw line but the precipitous drop in shooting from Paige, Tokoto and Johnson is a significant problem for an offense that has little room for error.
The frustration here lies with the fact UNC is getting solid play from the rest of the roster. Kennedy Meeks is delivering offensive production in the middle leveraging his new physique and conditioning to produce four double-doubles in seven games. Tokoto's ability to facilitate in the offense has worked well to set up his teammates. Justin Jackson has been effective at the other wing spot and should only get better as the season progresses. Nate Britt, Isaiah Hicks and Theo Pinson are proving to be valuable role players. In addition the Tar Heels have shown legitimate defensive prowess as a team with an adjusted defensive efficiency under 90 according to KenPom. Inconsistent offensive play from key contributors has kept UNC from living up to lofty preseason expectations.
While pushing the panic button is tempting, UNC's early offensive struggles should be fixable. The predictions for UNC's success this season were predicated on Paige, Johnson and Tokoto improving on their offensive production from last season. At the very least, it is not unreasonable to expect those three to at least match last season's shooting. Johnson's recent rash of foul trouble has obviously been an issue as far as getting into a rhythm and Paige may very well be trying to do too much. Tokoto's shot selection is key for his offensive production and at times it's been less than ideal.
UNC is still adjusting to changes in the personnel and lineup. That has made the execution ragged at times. Opposing teams are also finding new and creative ways to keep the Tar Heels out of transition and disrupt UNC's half court sets. That being said, it really comes down to Paige, Johnson and Tokoto simply shooting better with the opportunities given. Their awareness of their own shortcomings is a good first step to getting then fixed.