It's an odd time to write a North Carolina basketball preview. After all, there's quite a bit going on off the court at the moment. It's unlikely anything will affect the "on the court" product this season though. So, let's focus on basketball for the purpose of this piece.
The Tar Heels are coming off a 24-10 season a year ago, one in which they lost in the second round of the NCAA Tournament to Iowa State. Last year's team was a flawed one that managed to overcome and find an identity late in the season. This season's team needs to continue to adapt and look for ways to answer last season's questions. What's the deal with the free throw shooting? Other than Marcus Paige, who can be a perimeter threat from behind the arc? Can Roy Williams find players in the frontcourt that can contribute both offensively and defensively?
Note: UNC plays their first exhbition game of the preseason tonight at 7:30 ET. Follow live tempo-based stats for UNC/Fayetteville State here.
Marcus Paige will be the centerpiece of this North Carolina team once again. Paige averaged over 17 points per game last season while shooting 39% from 3 point range. Paige was nearly a one-man offensive attack at times for North Carolina as their only consistent free throw shooter and 3 point threat. One early position battle should be the guard position next to Paige. Nate Britt is a returning player that should see time there. Britt averaged 5.1 points per game and made one of the more odd changes over the offseason, his shooting hand. Britt will shoot right-handed this season after shooting just 37% from the floor last season as a lefty. Competing with Britt will be freshman guard, Joel Berry (RSCI #25). Berry plays a lot like Nate Britt in a lot of ways, an inconsistent shooter at times, but good in transition and likely a little stronger than Britt. If Berry or Britt are getting minutes, it allows Marcus Paige to play off the ball a bit more, a position in which he thrived last season late in games when they needed Paige to score.
If the Heels opt to play a little bigger, look for JP Tokoto to slide to the shooting guard position. Tokoto was one of UNC's best defenders last season leading the Heels in steals per game. Tokoto is just a below average shooter, but an extraordinary athlete. Tokoto jumps extremely well off of two feet making him a good rebounder from the wing. Another option on the wing is frosh Theo Pinson (RSCI #15). Pinson is a 6'6" small forward with a 6'10" wingspan. Pinson shouldl find playing time solely due to his ability to guard multiple positions. Expect Pinson's offensive game to come along a little slower, but he'll find ways to help the team with his versatile game. Another new guy that can make an impact for North Carolina is Justin Jackson (RSCI #9). Jackson is an efficient scorer with a knack for finding the ball on the offensive glass or in transition. Jackson's mid-range game and passing ability are especially polished for a freshman.
The story in the frontcourt in the offseason was Kennedy Meeks' weight loss. The weight loss is critical for Meeks as it should allow him to play more minutes. Last season Meeks averaged over 7 points and 6 rebounds in just 16 minutes per game. The problem with Meeks was often that his impact on the offensive end was often lost on the defensive end. This was a trend that tended to radiate throughout the UNC frontcourt. Brice Johnson is another player whose impact was felt on the offensive end. Johnson had the second highest offensive rating on the team (behind Paige), and averaged 10.3 points and 6.1 rebounds per game. Johnson's rail thin frame had a tough time on the defensive side of the ball though. Desmond Hubert, Joel James, and Jackson Simmons all saw time last season and while none were that effective scoring, all were better options defensively. Isaiah Hicks is yet another option, if given the opportunity. Hicks does have the potential to both be a weapon offensively while also possessing the size and athleticism to defend.
North Carolina will play a heavy-hitting schedule once again in the 2014-15 season. The schedule is highlighted by a matchup with Kentucky in mid-December. The Heels also have a trip to the Bahamas in the Battle 4 Atlantis tourney in late November. That tourney is loaded as the Heels open with Butler and have a potential matchups with Florida, UCLA, Wisconsin, Oklahoma, Georgetown, and UAB. The Heels will face Iowa in the ACC/B1G Challenge in early December and have a matchup with Ohio State later in December. Also of note, is UNC's possible second matchup with UAB on December 27th.
In conference play, UNC gets no break having to face Duke, NC State, and Louisville twice. Notable single game ACC matchups include playing at Clemson and Miami while hosting Syracuse and Virginia.
North Carolina is rightfully considered a top 10 team in most preseason rankings. The Heels boast one of the top guards in the nation in Marcus Paige and a wealth of tatent around him. Roy Williams has one of the most versatile rosters in the ACC, allowing him to matchup defensively and attack opponent's weaknesses. The frontcourt's inability to play on both ends of the court is a cause for concern as is the lack of perimeter shooting. North Carolina can be a Final Four team if the pieces fall into place, but they will need their versatile freshman duo of Theo Pinson and Justin Jackson to answer some of the questions surrounding this Heels' team.
by Jon Pence @scacchoops
Fantasy Player to Watch
Marcus Paige averaged 17.5 ppg, 4.2 apg, 3.2 rpg, and 1.5 spg last season making him one of the top fantasy performers in the league. If things go as expected, Paige's scoring should steady or even drop this season, but look for the peripheral numbers to go up. Paige is likely to be one of the top 3 or 4 players taken in your ACC Fantasy Basketball draft.
Projected Statistics (Returning Players Only)
Explanation of Statistic Projections
Last Year's Player Statistics