UNC opens ACC play on Saturday with still plenty of questions as the Tar Heels look to take a run at the top of the league standings.
1. Will Marcus Paige return to his 2013-14 level of play?
To paraphrase The Architect from The Matrix Trilogy, this question is perceived to be the most pertinent but might not actually be the most relevant. Yes, Marcus Paige needs to come somewhere close to approximating his play from last season to raise the ceiling for this team. No, the UNC's success isn't completely tied to him doing that. One notable difference this season is UNC actually does have more weapons, particularly on the interior. This has permitted Paige to take a back seat in some games, especially since his shot hasn't been falling much through 13 games.
That being said, Paige is plenty vital to UNC's success in ACC play because him playing at a high level makes the Tar Heels a more balance and complete team. The question again is can he get there? Through 13 games, Paige has had just one game where he shot at least 50% from the floor and just five games where his shooting was 40% or better during a game. Two of those occurred in the last two games with 6-13 outing against UAB and a 4-10 shooting night against Williams & Mary.
At present Paige is shooting 37.7% from two point range and 34.9% from three. Both those numbers are down from last season. UNC's success in ACC play will hinge to some degree on his ability to recover statistically in those two areas.
2. How much will Paige play at the two?
This could very well be the more relevant question as it could dictate what happens with the point above. While no starting lineup change should be expected, playing Paige at the two is something you can see Roy Williams experimenting with in the latter stages of the non-conference slate. Joel Berry has played well in recent games but so has Nate Britt who nailed two threes in the win over William & Mary. Both players have excellent ORtg numbers with Britt at 122 and Berry around 114.
It has been established that Paige playing at the two makes UNC functionally better offensively since it theoretically puts the team's best shooter on the wing in transition situations. Down the stretch against William & Mary, Britt was on the court at PG with Paige on the wing. In the previous game versus UAB, the Berry/Paige backcourt finished out the first half and played extensively in the second half before Williams called the dogs off.
It stands to reason Paige will see more minutes off the ball but how much will be dictated by the production of not just Britt and Berry but also Justin Jackson and J.P. Tokoto. One of that pair will see time on the bench if Paige moves to the wing. If one or both productive then sticking with Paige at the point. Whatever the case, there is much more flexibility on the wings than a year ago.
3. Is the recent three point shooting a fluke or the start of a trend?
There is an old adage often quoted by Carolina Panthers radio man Mick Mixon which says you are what your record says you are. In this case, whatever the stats say is probably where UNC is heading for the remainder of the season. That is mostly good news, especially on defense since the overall defensive numbers are historically good for the Williams era. In terms of three point shooting, it could mean another 18 games of wondering if any threes will fall.
The past two games have shown a step in the right direction although it came against weaker teams. Jackson, who has struggled to the tune of 19% shooting from beyond the arc hit a pair of threes against UAB. Both Britt and Tokoto hit a pair of threes against William & Mary. UNC's team shooting from three has now crept up to 30% which isn't great but it's something, especially in light of Paige's shooting being down.
In an ideal world, UNC would shoot 34-37% as a team with multiple players hitting enough to make it a legitimate factor on the offensive end. Even if that doesn't quite pan out, having the possibility of multiple three point threats at least keeps opposing teams from defending the Tar Heels with all the focus on one dimension of the offense. The more threes UNC hits, the better everything works for a team that has more than enough interior scoring.
4. Will the defensive rebound improve to the level of previous Roy Williams teams?
Besides Paige's shooting, the defensive rebounding is probably the biggest disappointment so far. While UNC is on track to post the best ORB%(44.4 vs 42.1) of the Roy Williams era, the DRB% had been languishing at a historic low. At present the DRB% of 64.4 is right there with 2004's 64.3 as the two worst numbers of the Williams era.
The frustration with this number is the Tar Heels are a really good defensive team forcing opposing teams to shoot poorly. The opposing 2P%(41.9) and 3P%(25.1) are also historic lows for a Roy Williams era team. If those numbers were paired with a DRB% closer to 69-70 the defense would be even better.
As for the cause of the DRB% issues, multiple players are not performing as well in this area as last season. Paige is -2.9, Tokoto -1.6, Johnson -1.0 and Meeks -0.5. When you factor in the personnel changes from last season, Johnson is at 20.7 in the same role as James Michael McAdoo last season who pulled down 14.7 of defensive rebounds. However Isaiah Hicks is at 11.0 this season. Justin Jackson's DRB% is 7.5 which is better than Leslie McDonald's 6.2.
Based on the numbers everyone could be better but the perimeter players are the ones who can be a real factor in improving UNC's overall DRB% with particular attention on Paige and Tokoto.
5. Can UNC beat top ten ACC teams?
As this season has unfolded there are two previous years that come to mind: 2013 and 2011. In both those seasons, UNC struggled in the early part of the season and really didn't record a solid win prior to ACC play save 2011 beating Kentucky. When ACC play started both teams still struggled a bit with 2011 getting blown out at Georgia Tech precipitating the move of Kendall Marshall into the starting lineup. From there it was a run to the ACC regular season. 2013 reached a point where they won games against everyone they were supposed to but didn't beat any team that finished ahead of them in the ACC standings.
Heading into ACC play, those are the two most likely paths. UNC's wins over Florida, UCLA and Ohio State look great because of the names but not so great looking at what those teams have done even before and since. In that respect UNC is still looking for some quality wins and will have ample opportunity to get them with Notre Dame and Louisville coming to Chapel Hill next week.
UNC has been a bit of a rut the past two season not advancing past the 2nd Round of the NCAA Tournament since 2012. This team is capable of doing so but surviving the ACC slate with a solid record is important for NCAA seeding purposes, especially with one of the 1st and 2nd Round sites being in Charlotte.
UNC has the potential and the parts but putting it together and notching some solid wins on a consistent basis is the next step.