UNC adapts to difficult circumstances, answers questions amid marquee victories

acarter@newsobserver.comDecember 17, 2013 

  • No. 14 UNC vs. Texas

    When: 7 p.m.

    Where: Smith Center, Chapel Hill

    TV/Radio: ESPN2/101.5-WRAL

    Projected starting lineups

    Texas (9-1)

    G Isaiah Taylor 11.7 ppg, 3.8 apg

    G Kendal Yancy 5 ppg, 2.5 rpg

    G Damarcus Holland 11 ppg, 5.7 rpg

    F Jonathan Holmes 12.9 ppg, 6.8 rpg

    C Cameron Ridley 10.3 ppg, 7.8 rpg

    UNC (7-2)

    G Nate Britt 5.9 ppg, 2.3 apg

    G Marcus Paige 19.2 ppg, 4.2 apg

    F J.P. Tokoto 10 ppg, 5 rpg

    F James Michael McAdoo 13.8 ppg, 5.8 rpg

    F Joel James 4.1 ppg, 4.8 rpg

    Player to watch

    J.P. Tokoto, forward, North Carolina

    After a rough start to the season that included a 4-for-16 performance from the free throw line in the loss against Belmont, Tokoto, a sophomore, has played better than he has at any point since arriving at UNC. He has scored in double figures in three of the Tar Heels’ past four games, and he’s 23-for-38 from the field during that stretch. Tokoto was especially instrumental during the first half against Kentucky on Saturday, and he finished that game with 15 points on 7-for-10 shooting. Free throw shooting continues to be an issue – he’s shooting just 37.1 percent from the line this season – but Tokoto’s recent improvement has made UNC a more versatile team.

    Observations

    Like Kentucky did on Saturday, Texas will challenge UNC’s ability to rebound. The Longhorns rank 36th nationally in offensive rebounding percentage (38.5 percent) and 32nd nationally in defensive rebounding percentage (73.5 percent). … The Longhorns’ average of 7.7 blocks per game also ranks fourth nationally. … The Tar Heels found successful balance against Kentucky, with five players scoring at least eight points. With that game tied at 46 in the second half, five UNC players made the Tar Heels’ next five shots. … UNC is shooting 61.1 percent from the free throw line, which ranks 332nd nationally.

    Andrew Carter

— Not that long ago questions surrounded North Carolina – questions that appeared daunting.

They went like this: How would the Tar Heels adapt without P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald? Who would emerge on the perimeter? How would coach Roy Williams compensate for the loss of his two most experienced guards?

Could Marcus Paige, the sophomore guard, be counted on to provide consistent, reliable scoring? Could J.P. Tokoto, the sophomore forward, play shooting guard? Could James Michael McAdoo play small forward?

There was another question too, after UNC suffered that 83-80 loss against Belmont nearly a month ago: Would UNC even be good enough to reach the NCAA tournament?

It seems silly now, with what has transpired in the past month. Nearly all of those questions have been answered in the positive.

A month and a half into the season, the Tar Heels have the best resume in the country. They have wins against then-No. 3 Louisville, then-No. 1 Michigan State and then-No. 11 Kentucky, which entered the season ranked No. 1.

Williams, whose team hosts Texas on Wednesday night at the Smith Center, was asked Saturday after the victory against Kentucky about whether his players have figured out their roles, and accepted them. He thought for a second and said, “I think they’ve accepted it.”

“I’m not sure that we’ve figured it out yet,” Williams said. “I think they’ve accepted it. J.P. knows he’s going to spend some time at the two, James Michael knows he’s going to spend some time at the three. With such a young group, and sometimes an immature group, we don’t want to give them too fat and happy kind of thing.”

A month ago, Williams might have been worried about when – or if – his team would put it together. Now he’s worried about becoming, in his words, “too fat and happy.” That speaks to how far the Tar Heels have come.

The loss against Belmont and then the victory against Louisville raised questions about which performance represented the true Tar Heels. A loss at UAB earlier this month made that question louder. Since then, though, the questions have been replaced by this one: How have the Tar Heels, without two of their best players, become one of the most impressive teams in the nation?

McAdoo, the junior forward, spoke Saturday of belief. How he and his teammates have had it all along.

“Why do we believe?” McAdoo asked, repeating a question. “Why do you play the game? We love the game. We love each other. This is what this team is about – playing for the guy next to you. Playing for the guys that might not be in the game as much as, per se, me. Even P.J. and Leslie – this is North Carolina basketball.”

McAdoo hasn’t always appeared comfortable playing small forward, but he appeared to turn a corner against Kentucky. He broke out of a prolonged scoring slump and scored 20 points – 12 coming at the free throw line. Tokoto, too, provided essential first-half points. Paige, meanwhile, took over in the second half.

A year ago, McAdoo said after the Kentucky game, “We got killed in games like this. Indiana. Down in Maui.”

At Texas. The Tar Heels suffered an 85-67 loss in Austin, Texas, against the Longhorns last Dec. 19. Now, nearly exactly a year later, the most-doubted UNC team in a while is making believers and erasing questions. And they’re doing it without Hairston and McDonald, both of whom continue to sit out amid NCAA eligibility concerns.

The primary questions that have surrounded them still remain: When will they return? Will they return? Another one has emerged, too: If they do come back, how will that affect the good thing the Tar Heels have going?

Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter

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