North Carolina’s Other Guards Looking Strong Thus Far

Posted by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) on November 18th, 2015

When Marcus Paige broke his hand on November 4 and it was announced that North Carolina’s star guard would miss the first several games of the season, the obvious positive spin on the situation was easy to anticipate. The Tar Heels would still win its first several games comfortably while the other guards on the roster would be gifted a great opportunity to improve. Upon Paige’s return, the narrative went, his backcourt mates would have greater in-game experience to support the ACC’s Co-Preseason Player of the Year in their quest for a National Championship. Sometimes spin turns out to be reality: After the Tar Heels’ first two games of the season, that plan seems to working out beautifully.

Theo Pinson has shown good playmaking skills with Marcus Paige out. (Will Bratton/WRAL)

Theo Pinson has shown good playmaking skills with Marcus Paige out. (Will Bratton/WRAL)

Last Friday night North Carolina tipped off the season with an impressive 91-67 neutral court win over Temple in Annapolis. The Heels followed that up with a lackluster performance in its Sunday home opener against Fairfield, a game in which the final score of 92-65 was not indicative of how close the game was. In both games, the Tar Heels have received great offensive production from its current backcourt rotation — sophomores Joel Berry II and Theo Pinson along with junior Nate Britt. This trio has combined to average 39.5 points per game thus far, complementing the strong production from the Tar Heels’ frontcourt. In a bit of a surprise, Pinson has been the most effective playmaker on the floor, twice leading the team in assists, including a super performance on Sunday: eight assists and zero turnovers. Meanwhile, Berry and Britt have been lighting it up from deep, combining to make 12-of-20 threes. Perhaps Paige’s absence has helped to answer one of the biggest questions about perimeter shooting going into this season.

As expected, the North Carolina big man tandem of Kennedy Meeks and Brice Johnson have had their way in the paint so far. Each has started the year with a pair of double-doubles, including Meeks’ strong showing against Temple where he led all scorers with 25 points on 10-of-14 field goal shooting. The junior center is also showing more agility after two years in a conditioning program. On Sunday, Meeks registered four steals, including a couple that he forced by defending passing lanes 30 feet from the basket. The one disappointment among the individual Tar Heels has been sophomore Justin Jackson. After a strong close to his rookie season, Jackson was expected to be more aggressive and productive coming out of the gate, but that has not been the case. He only managed four points and two boards against Temple, and looked passive for most of the Fairfield game — most of his 11 points came late in transition after Fairfield was already gassed. Perhaps he just needs to see his jumper go in a few times to get going, as he’s missed all six of his three-point attempts on the year.

Kennedy Meeks has had his way with defenders so far this season. (USA TODAY Sports)

Kennedy Meeks has had his way with defenders so far this season. (USA TODAY Sports)

Another area of concern was on the defensive end of the floor — almost everyone was back from a team that finished outside of the top 50 in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted defensive efficiency ratings last year. Sometimes veteran teams show annual defensive improvement by virtue of greater experience, but often a returning group simply may not possess the necessary skill sets or talent to play great defense. Two games without Paige is a small sample size, of course, but it is concerning that Fairfield repeatedly penetrated into the lane and kicked out for wide-open threes — the Tar Heels were fortunate that the Stags only made 10-of-35 from distance. Still, the positive outweighs the negative thus far, and this is an area where the return of Paige, an underrated defender, will certainly help.

Brad Jenkins (383 Posts)

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