55.3 Points returning: The Tar Heels return 72 percent of their scoring, but the loss of versatile guard Reggie Bullock (13.9 points per game) can’t be understated. Still, junior guard P.J. Hairston (14.6 ppg) and junior forward James Michael McAdoo (14.4) are back and should be better prepared to take on even larger scoring roles than they held last season.
• Go-to guy: Hairston would be clear choice here if not for his uncertain status. As the opener approached, it was still unclear how many games he’d miss for his off-court transgressions. The 6-foot-9 McAdoo, then, will have a chance to establish himself as go-to player from day one. He’ll play a lot of small forward, especially early, but the presence and help of other post players could help McAdoo thrive outside the lane, which is where he prefers to roam on offense.
• Impact rookie: Kennedy Meeks, a freshman center from Charlotte, is the kind of post player UNC didn’t have a season ago. He has a quick release, soft hands and is a natural rebounder. Conditioning will be a work in progress for him – though he’s already lost about 30 pounds since arriving in the summer – but don’t be surprised if he makes the greatest contribution among UNC’s three freshman.
• Best case: Even when UNC’s smaller, four-guard lineup was at its best last season, Roy Williams never seemed all that enamored with it. Williams’ best teams have been more conventional: a strong backcourt with a capable point guard, and a frontcourt with at least one reliable inside scorer.
This UNC team, then, should more resemble what Williams prefers. Marcus Paige, the sophomore point guard, made significant strides in his first season. Hairston became a reliable scorer. McAdoo struggled to become a consistent scorer in the post, but he should have more help this season.
There are plenty of questions: How much time will Hairston miss? Will one of UNC’s big guys – Meeks, sophomores Joel James and Brice Johnson – break out? The talent is there, though, for the Tar Heels to be a top-15 team. And if UNC develops the way Williams hopes, who knows?
A deep NCAA tournament run wouldn’t be out of the question.
• Worst case: UNC is potentially a top-three team in the ACC with Hairston, but without him it’s a different story. Outside of him, UNC doesn’t have a proven perimeter scorer. Beyond Hairston’s uncertain status, the Tar Heels’ greatest unknown is the frontcourt. There’s size and talent there but not a lot of experience. If UNC struggles on the inside again, that could derail the season and lead to a short stay in the NCAA tournament.
• X-factor: The development of the freshmen. UNC is counting on contributions from all three – Meeks, point guard Nate Britt and forward Isaiah Hicks. If Meeks and Hicks, especially, are better on the inside than expected the Tar Heels could exceed expectations.
• Where to attack: The Tar Heels lost their best two perimeter defenders in Bullock and Dexter Strickland, so it remains to be seen how well UNC defends against guards who can penetrate. Likewise, the Tar Heels’ haven’t had an effective shot blocker since John Henson left after the 2011-12 season. There’s more bulk on the inside than there used to be, and UNC should be better defensively on the interior, but it has to prove it.
• Magic number: 70. UNC hasn’t shot 70 percent from the free throw line since its 2008-09 national championship season, when it made 75.2 percent. Since then, the Tar Heels have ranked among the worst free-throw shooting teams in the ACC. How many close games has suspect free-throw shooting cost the Tar Heels during the past three seasons?
Nov. 8: Oakland, 9 pm
Nov. 15: Holy Cross, 8 pm
Nov. 17: Belmont, 4 pm
Nov. 23: Richmond, noon
Nov. 24: Fairfield or Louisville, 1 pm/3:30 pm
Dec. 1: at UAB, 3 pm
Dec. 4: at Michigan State, 9 pm
Dec. 7: UNC-Greensboro, 7 pm
Dec. 14: Kentucky, 5:15 pm
Dec. 18: Texas, 7 pm
Dec. 21: Davidson, 5 pm
Dec. 27: Northern Kentucky, 7 pm
Dec. 31: UNC-Wilmington, 5 pm
Jan. 5: at Wake Forest, 8 pm
Jan. 8: Miami, 9 pm
Jan. 11: at Syracuse, noon
Jan. 18: Boston College, noon
Jan. 20: at Virginia, 7 pm
Jan. 26: Clemson, 6 pm
Jan. 29: at Georgia Tech, 7 pm
Feb. 1: N.C. State, 2 pm
Feb. 4: Maryland, 8 pm
Feb. 8: at Notre Dame, noon
Feb. 12: Duke, 9 pm
Feb. 15: Pittsburgh, 1 pm
Feb. 17: at Florida State, 7 pm
Feb. 22: Wake Forest, noon
Feb. 26: at N.C. State, 8 pm
March 1: at Virginia Tech, 2:30 pm
March 3: Notre Dame, 7 pm
March 8: at Duke, 9 pm