ACC Team Preview: North Carolina Tar HeelsPosted by Lathan Wells on November 7th, 2013
Fans of the storied North Carolina Tar Heels basketball program always anxiously await the arrival of the coming season. This year, however, after a string of off-the-court incidents, fans and the team itself probably have more reason to cheer the first minute of game action than in recent seasons. Guard P.J. Hairston’s legal woes stemming from an infamous traffic stop in Durham and speeding tickets thereafter, coupled with wing guard Leslie McDonald’s strange licensed mouthpiece storyline and forward J.P. Tokoto’s unauthorized summer league participation, left UNC fans reading about their beloved college basketball season all summer and into the fall for all the wrong reasons. Luckily, the season is right around the corner, and not a moment too soon.
Last year’s Tar Heels found themselves in a position head coach Roy Williams rarely finds himself having to acclimate to: an unsettling lineup situation. The team played uneven basketball over the first half of the year, struggling most glaringly with ineffective post play. James Michael McAdoo had returned for a sophomore season hoping to become a star and catapult into the NBA Draft’s upper tier; instead, massive expectations and having to guide a young group of frontcourt players overwhelmed him and left him playing out of position. The team’s switch to a four-guard lineup in February helped accentuate the strength of the team on the perimeter, and helped spark the Heels to wins in their final six ACC games and a run to the championship game of the ACC Tournament. But upon entering the NCAA Tournament, the team ran into a team with too much size in Kansas in the second round and realized their small lineup’s limitations in defeat.
The Tar Heels return plenty of talent and plenty of depth. The frontcourt will feature McAdoo at the four, coming off of a season in which he averaged 14.4 points and 7.3 rebounds per game. Though he must improve his penchant for turnovers when playing too fast (which led to an ugly 41:96 assist-to-turnover ratio last year). On the wing, once Hairston’s suspension (which according to Williams and athletic director Bubba Cunningham will be for several games) is over, he’ll need to pick up where he left off last year, as a lights-out scorer with significant range who also isn’t afraid to mix it up inside. While Hairston is out, McDonald (assuming nothing more comes from his strange mouthpiece situation) can step in and also shoot the lights out, but his defense must be more consistent in this, his senior year. Swingman J.P. Tokoto, a human highlight reel who needs to improve on his fundamentals, has been one of the most talked-about players this preseason (and not just for the summer league paperwork mishap), and development from him could further help fortify the perimeter rotation. Marcus Paige returns as a much-improved sophomore at the point. While not the prototypical blur at the position Williams has enjoyed in the past, Paige improved mightily over the course of last season with his shooting as well as decision-making. A big sophomore season could be ahead if his improvement continues.
The Tar Heels will have tremendous depth in the frontcourt, but every player comes with question marks. Brice Johnson showed he can score in bunches, but needs to exhibit improved strength on what was a very wily frame last year, and an ability to become a rim-protector on defense. Joel James, another rising sophomore, has the prodigious size to be a beast in the middle, but arrived in Chapel Hill very raw and needs to improve his finesse on both ends of the floor while also showing improved conditioning. Forward Jackson Simmons is the team’s everyman, a player who doesn’t do anything exceptionally well but gives good minutes in reserve and never seems to produce bad plays. Junior big man Desmond Hubert earned valuable minutes last year but will never be an offensive stalwart; he will, however, remain a defensive specialist.
Since the team lost only defensive specialist Dexter Strickland (a shooting guard) to graduation and wing forward and sharp-shooter Reggie Bullock to the NBA Draft, there is a lot of talent coming back. But what may impact this season the most are the incoming freshmen. Five-star recruit Isaiah Hicks and four-star recruit Kennedy Meeks arrive to add even more size and depth to the frontcourt, and if Johnson and James have improved they’ll have the luxury of being brought along slowly if needed. Point guard Nate Britt arrives with no immediate expectations to start like Paige did last season, but he may play in two-point guard sets with Paige at times. All three freshmen have lofty billings, but none of them arrive needing to be an instant savior.
As per usual, the Tar Heels will embark on a non-conference schedule that would test any team, much less one with some uncertainty about player availability in the early-going. UNC will likely meet Louisville in the Hall of Fame Tip-Off Tournament, at Michigan State in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, and Kentucky at home in mid-December, among others. Yes, that’s three of the top four teams in the nation according to the preseason polls. Carolina will know very early whether their big men are ready to return to a “standard” lineup this year, and how much player absences will stunt the team’s development.
The upside for this team is very high, especially if the starters gain confidence with even one win against any of the three marquee teams they meet prior to conference play. If James and Johnson improve significantly from year one to two and Meeks and Hicks are as good as advertised, the team can move back to playing McAdoo at his preferred power forward position and Hairston (when he returns) can once again roam the wing. Paige’s development, and Britt’s ability to get up to speed quickly, will also be paramount. This is a team with the talent to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament, but with enough question marks about players’ development from last season that they could also be looking at another second round or Sweet Sixteen exit.