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2015-16 UNC Basketball Preview

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The Tar Heels are preseason #1 in the AP poll and looking for a run to the Final Four, possibly a national title. Do the Tar Heels have the team to get there?

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

All of this has happened before but will it happen again?

In November of 1992, the Tar Heels were coming off a double digit loss season.  The Tar Heels ended the year as a #4 seed in the NCAA Tournament after losing in the ACC Championship. In the Big Dance, Carolina dispatched an SEC team, Alabama in the 2nd Round then faced a #1 seeded Big Ten team, Ohio State in the Sweet Sixteen losing 80-73.

That 1992 team was fairly young with a group of sophomores that was briefly considered the greatest recruiting class of all time before Michigan's Fab Five stole the mantle a year later. Heading into the 1992-93 season, the Tar Heels lost Hubert Davis to graduation and would look to plug his spot with a sophomore named Donald Williams. The junior trio of Eric Montross, Derrick Phelps and Brian Reese formed the core of the starting lineup with senior George Lynch as the heart and soul of the team. The eventual 1993 NCAA Champions had talent, experience and seniors on a mission to go out on top.

The 2015-16 Tar Heels enter the season coming off a similar circumstances as 1992 right down to having watched rival Duke win the NCAA title. The Tar Heels finished with double digit losses, beat an SEC team(Arkansas) in the NCAA Tournament then lost 79-72 to a Big Ten team(Wisconsin) in the Sweet Sixteen. Carolina returns an experienced core of players who possess the necessary talent for a deep postseason run. The heart and soul role filled by George Lynch two decades ago now belongs to senior Marcus Paige. Like 1992-93 it is a season where college basketball has many good teams, the question for Roy Williams and the Tar Heels is can they get it all to click the way Dean Smith's team did in 1993?

Projected Lineup

The injury to Marcus Paige has thrown a considerable monkey wrench into the lineup question. The norm for Roy Williams is to play an extended bench at this time of year and use a variety of lineups. Missing Paige for 6-7 games will create more volatility in those lineups as Williams searches for what works.. The Tar Heel coach noted there is also some uncertainty stemming from the fact certain players will be asked to play more prominent and even different roles. How well Nate Britt, Joel Berry and Theo Pinson adjust to the temporary reality will be worth watching and key to the Tar Heels staying unscathed against a manageable schedule.

For now Justin Jackson, Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks are virtual locks to start. Theo Pinson probably gets the nod at the wing opposite Jackson leaving the point guard spot a question. Will it be Nate Britt or Joel Berry taking the helm early in the season? Given Williams proclivity to stick with more veteran players, Britt probably gets the nod but it is also a safe bet Berry sees an equal number of minutes.

Once Paige returns, the expectation is he would assume the starting point guard position flanked by Jackson and Pinson. That is unless Britt or Berry show something in the Paige-less portion of the schedule to earn a spot on the court with Paige and Jackson. Whatever the case, Roy Williams has options and has shown that he's pretty skilled at juggling personnel. Freshman Kenny Williams will also be in the mix, especially early since UNC needs wing players.

On the interior, Meeks and Johnson will be the focal point but Isaiah Hicks is poised to make his presence felt when given the chance. Joel James and Luke Maye will provide spot minutes, especially if fouls become an issue.

Defense

While much of the preseason focus has been on the lineup and now Marcus Paige's injury, the defense needs to be markedly improved over 2014-15. Last season the Tar Heels played much of the first two months in the top ten nationally for defensive efficiency.  In early January UNC's defensive efficiency was at 89.0 after a fairly solid non-conference slate. It was 89.5 when the Tar Heels faced Louisville in Chapel Hill and were effectively shredded by the Cardinal guards despite winning the game. In some ways that was the beginning of trouble

Click to enlarge

UNC Average DE 2014-15

Complicating defensive matters was the loss of Theo Pinson to a broken foot against Wake Forest in mid-January. From there the defensive efficiency averaged simply climbed. Pinson's loss wasn't the sole reason for UNC's slippage on the defensive end. Paige being hobbled by injury was a contributing factor since Carolina had issues keeping opposing guards out of the lane. Opposing teams enjoyed a FT Rate of 37.8% against UNC which was 199th nationally and uncannily shot 70% from the line. The ACC schedule saw UNC face several teams that had great perimeter shooters and outstanding point guard play. The result was a defense that closed the season with the worst defensive efficiency in the Roy Williams era.

Clearly UNC needs to take steps to fix this part of the team's game. A consistent and healthy Kennedy Meeks alongside Brice Johnson offers UNC the best combination defensively on the interior. Meeks additional conditioning work should result in him being a better defender. Johnson's defensive issues are tied to his lack of focus and the decision to go for a block rather than play positional defense. The defensive rebounding could also use a boost. Despite UNC's size, the Tar Heels were just 173rd in defensive rebound, ceding opportunities to end defensive possessions by not controlling the glass. The big men could also use some help from the perimeter players in this regard. Stopping penetration was an issue a year ago leaving UNC interior players to defend against smaller players at the rim. That led to fouls, especially against players like Notre Dame's Jerian Grant and Duke's Tyus Jones.

Simply put, the defense can take a big step forward by shutting down dribble penetration. A healthy Marcus Paige will be critical in this respect but during his initial absence Nate Britt and Joel Berry need to be able to fill the void. Britt has the quickness to stay with opposing players but had his share of lapses last year. Berry is seen as a potential defensive specialist with his strength a key in bothering drivers. On the wings, Justin Jackson's length and height will be a nightmare for some of the players he faces though his ability to keep the ball in front of him will be tested. The lynch pin could very well be Theo Pinson. He showed flashes last season that he could be a lock down defender. Pinson is very much in the mold of a Danny Green though without(right now anyway) the perimeter shooting. He can defend and has the athleticism to stuff the stat line steals, rebounds, etc. His defense, more than anything, will keep him on the floor, especially if the offense produces enough from other players.

Another key element will be forcing turnovers. A year ago the defensive turnover rate was just 17.7% which was 261st nationally. Carolina is highly efficient in transition offense and scoring off the secondary break. Turnovers go a long way towards facilitating those opportunities.

Offense

UNC was the subject of a myth last season regarding perimeter production. The story went that the Tar Heels were not a good three point shooting team and Marcus Paige was the only viable option. Paige, of course, played injured much of the season and even he didn't hit threes at as high a percentage as expected. In this era of instant analysis, narratives like this become quite powerful and has staying power despite evidence to the contrary.

What if I told you UNC was the third best three point shooting team in ACC play behind Virginia Tech and Duke while finishing ahead of Notre Dame? Would you believe that in UNC's seven postseason games the Tar Heels shot 45% from three? The issue with UNC's perimeter scoring was not the shooting percentage. Yes, that did improve over the course of the year thanks to Justin Jackson getting on track as well as Joel Berry and Nate Britt hitting shots in a few key games. However, when it was all said and done, Carolina was a good three point shooting team. The issue is the volume of shots. UNC was and still is an inside-out type of team with the focal point of the offense being on the interior.

The question UNC faces on the interior is getting night in/night out efforts from Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks. In the case of the latter, it is a weight and health issue. Meeks admits now that he allowed his eating regimen to slip during the season leading to weight gain. Meeks also suffered some undetermined illness then injured his knee against Arkansas in the NCAA Tournament. As Meeks weight went up, his numbers went down. During the first 28 games of the season, Meeks had just seven single digit scoring games. During UNC's final 10 games, Meeks had just one while also missing a game due to illness. That kind of downturn in production is not something UNC can afford.

As for Johnson, it will be about his focus and intensity every time he steps on the court. As Doc astutely noted, there is an apt comparison to Marquise Williams in the respect that when Johnson is locked in, he's an All-ACC talent. When he isn't on his game, it can get ugly and he lets his frustration show. At the same time, Johnson most certainly knows Isaiah Hicks is ready and waiting to fill the void. For UNC to make a deep run, everyone will need to play up to potential and do so consistently.

While UNC is still an interior focused team, getting more points on the perimeter would give the Heels more balance and a higher degree of efficiency. Carolina can't fall in love with the three and settle for those shots since that runs counter to how Roy Williams wants his offense to function. However getting a little more from the perimeter over last season's production will make the Tar Heels a tougher team to defend.

At the center of that, of course, is Paige who should easily hit 40% or better from three once he returns. The uncertainty lies on the wings. Justin Jackson's late season stretch of three point shooting showed he can be a legitimate threat from outside. Jackson as a reliable three point shooter makes him a match-up nightmare for the defense since he also has the ability to score anywhere on the floor. On the other side, UNC might not need Theo Pinson to be a scorer but if he ends up being a 35% or better three point shooter, this team will have scoring threats at every position on the floor with a spark off the bench from Joel Berry, Nate Britt and Kenny Williams.

The Schedule

The non-conference slate is challenging but not as tough as season's past. The first six games are winnable games even without Paige in the lineup. Maryland's visit on December 1st will be a tough out even if Paige returns. From there games at Texas and vs UCLA in Brooklyn are the toughest left before the Tar Heels hit ACC play.

Carolina will ease into ACC play with homes games versus Clemson and Georgia Tech. The schedule then ramps up as UNC will face Florida State and Syracuse on the road followed by NC State at home. The real meat of the schedule hits in February with road games at Louisville, Notre Dame, NC State and Virginia while Pitt, Miami and Duke come to Chapel Hill. UNC will close out the regular season hosting Syracuse then traveling to Duke.

In short, it's a typical ACC gauntlet and the type of schedule that should UNC handle it with a high level of success will get the Tar Heels that much desired placement in Raleigh for the NCAA Tournament.

Since 2009, UNC basketball has been on a roller coaster. The promise of 2012 was cut short by injury. Gaps in recruiting and a litany of everything from injury to irresponsible behavior left the Tar Heels missing key pieces. This season represents the opportunity to restore order in the Carolina basketball world. UNC has picked up recent recruiting momentum while the NCAA cloud should finally life at some point next spring. A sixth NCAA title and third for Roy Williams would effectively reverse the recent slide and potentially set up the program for a revival of sorts in what could be the final years of the Williams era.