Marcus Paige hasn’t written it down, at least not yet, and the words don’t hang up on a team bulletin board or anything like that. But the goal is there nonetheless, surrounding this North Carolina basketball team and on its best player’s mind.
“Personally, I have set a goal to at least make it to the Final Four,” Paige, the Tar Heels’ junior guard, said on Wednesday. “That’s something I’ve wanted to do since I’ve got here. Haven’t had the chance, obviously, but this team is capable. And we have the players; we have the chemistry.”
UNC hasn’t been to a Final Four since 2009, when it left Detroit after defeating Michigan State in the national championship game. Since then, there has been an injury-plagued debacle of a season (2010), a couple that ended in the Elite Eight (2011 and 2012) and the ups and downs of the past two seasons.
Now, though, the Tar Heels are primed for their most successful season in years – maybe their most successful since 2009. Paige, who will enter the season as a preseason national player of the year candidate, is back after emerging to become one of the best players in the ACC a season ago.
His supporting cast is deep, too. J.P. Tokoto, the versatile junior forward. Brice Johnson, a junior, and sophomore Kennedy Meeks, both of whom are expected to anchor the frontcourt. A three-man freshman class, led by 6-foot-8 forward Justin Jackson, should contribute early, too.
This UNC team has what the past two teams have lacked: balance. Two years ago, the Tar Heels could shoot but lacked production on the inside. A season ago, UNC struggled from the perimeter, outside of Paige, and tried to compensate in other areas.
Now, though, coach Roy Williams expects to have his most balanced team since the 2011-12 season, which likely was a Kendall Marshall wrist injury away from reaching the Final Four. Williams on Wednesday spoke highly of his pieces but cautioned that some of them are unproven.
Was this ideal, the makeup of his team? He thought about it for a second.
“It’s not ideal,” Williams said. “You could say ideal, I’d have Marcus (Paige) and Marvin (Williams) and Tyler (Hansbrough) and Tyler (Zeller) and John (Henson) – now that’d be a real ideal team, because we could do everything.
“This team hasn’t shown yet on the court, against other teams, that they can do everything.”
Yes, there are some questions. Among them: Who emerges to help Paige most on the outside? Jackson and fellow freshman Theo Pinson could help there, as could Nate Britt, the sophomore point guard who started at times a season ago. There’s also Joel Berry, another point guard, and another freshman.
Williams on Wednesday harkened back to his days at Kansas, where he once started a three point-guard lineup that reached the Final Four. He hasn’t used UNC’s three point guards in a lineup together, but their presence could make things easier on Williams.
Perimeter shooting, though, remains a concern after the departure of Leslie McDonald. After Paige, he was UNC’s most proven outside shooter a season ago.
But, Meeks said, “In practice, we hit a lot more 3-point shots.”
Meeks was known for his long outlet passes last season. He might have more opportunities to make those this season. This is likely Williams’ fastest, most up-and-down-the-court team in years.
“It’s a lot easier for me to make those passes now, because everybody’s willing to run,” Meeks said.
Another question: Will the production in the post be consistent enough?
Johnson, who has added some weight and now weighs 228 pounds, is likely to enter the starting lineup in place of the departed James Michael McAdoo, who left for the NBA. Meeks, meanwhile, is a more svelte 270 pounds.
“Kennedy lost a lot of weight, which has made him quicker,” Tokoto said. “He gets up and down the floor – he’s still making solid moves down low. … Brice has always been a scorer, been able to shoot. He’s gained some weight. So everybody’s thinking he’s lost a step but I think he still has it.
“So we’ll see. It’ll be interesting to see where (inside scoring) comes from but we know we have it.”
Tokoto knows his UNC basketball history, and understands the components of Williams’ best teams: strong point guard play, consistent production on the inside, and fast, versatile players on the wings who are capable of scoring in bunches in transition.
“It definitely does,” Tokoto said, asked if this UNC team has the feel of a vintage Williams team. “We said last year that we have the tools to be a great team, and we had our great wins and we had our very bad losses. …
“We still have the tools – even better this year. But it all comes down to how we implement it in the game and how we use it, and how hard we’re going to play and how mentally strong we’re going to be. … It’s just going to be an only-time-will-tell kind of thing.”
For the time being, at least, it appears there’s much to like. The Tar Heels will enter the season with an All-American candidate, like Williams’ best teams have. They’ll enter the season with, it appears, enviable balance – another characteristic of Williams’ best teams.
But there are questions – like who starts alongside Paige in the backcourt – and who becomes most responsible for helping the Tar Heels reach a goal that has been on Paige’s mind for a while.