North Carolina begins the 2015-16 college basketball season on Friday night against Temple in the Veterans Classic in Annapolis, Md. It’s a season that begins with great expectations, with Final Four and national championship aspirations.
Will the Tar Heels end their season in Houston, which hosts the 2016 Final Four? There’s a more than a decent chance, it seems, as we sit here in mid-November. The answers to these questions during the next four months will decide it:
1. Does Marcus Paige play up to his potential after coming back from his hand injury?
And maybe we should start the answer to that question with a question: How much time will Paige, the senior All-American candidate, really miss? When he broke the third metacarpal in his right (non-shooting) hand, UNC announced that Paige would miss three to four weeks. If that holds true, he’d miss the first three weeks of the season – or UNC’s first five games. In that case, he’d make his season debut against No. 3 Maryland on Dec. 1.
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Then again, Paige told reporters on Wednesday that he hasn’t ruled out playing at Northern Iowa on Nov. 21, a game that was scheduled as a homecoming for the Iowa native. He acknowledged playing against Northern Iowa is a long shot.
Regardless of when Paige returns, the most important questions are these: Are there any lingering issues with his hand? Does it affect his shot at all? His dribbling? His defense? Paige won’t play until he’s healthy enough but, remember, he played most of last season through a nagging foot injury (plantar fasciitis) that never had a chance to heal.
This is different. The hand injury is more minor. It won’t be a chronic condition. Still, it’s not an ideal set of circumstances: the player UNC most depends on entering this season with the way he ended the last: trying to overcome an injury. Best case: The hand heals as expected, there are no lingering effects and Paige goes back to playing like he did his sophomore season and at the end of last year.
2. Will Justin Jackson take the next step?
Jackson, the sophomore wing forward, was good last season. In moments toward the end of the season, he was even great. Now the expectations are higher. Freshman slumps are normal and almost expected, given the adjustment from high school to college.
Jackson, though, believes he can take a big leap from his freshman year to his sophomore season. And rightfully so. His talent has never been in question. He might be UNC’s most gifted player. He can shoot (when he’s on), can penetrate and his size and quickness make him a difficult match-up.
If Jackson goes from good to great, then you have to like the Tar Heels’ chances to do the same.
3. Can Kennedy Meeks avoid a second-half slump?
Up until about mid-to-late February last season, you knew what to expect from Kennedy Meeks, the junior forward. He never went more than two consecutive games without scoring in double figures and, often, he was a focal point of the offense.
Meeks, though, failed to score in double figures in eight of UNC’s final nine games, and he sat out another game, against Boston College in the ACC tournament. In the final weeks of last season, Meeks was dealing with an illness that was never really identified.
He was tested for mono, for strep throat, for the flu. He didn’t have any of those. Looking back now, though, Meeks has said that he allowed his health to decline in the second half of the season. He didn’t make good choices with his diet, he said, and his strength faded, which affected his performance.
More often than not Meeks has been one of UNC’s most efficient offensive players during his two years at UNC. The question now is if he can do it for an entire season.
4. Does Brice Johnson end the questions about his motor and effort?
UNC coach Roy Williams has had some of his most memorable lines in recent years while talking about Brice Johnson. Like, say, this one from last month: “He ran up and down the court once and asked for oxygen, his freshman year. Just one trip. Now he can make five or six.”
Williams, it seems, has been on a never-ending quest to get more out of Johnson, the senior forward. To inspire him to play harder, with more energy, with more passion, with more urgency (one of Williams’ favorite words).
Some players are more intense than others. Then there’s Johnson, known for his mellowness. Thing is, though, Johnson plays better when there’s an edge to him. As long as he controls it. And his teammates have said Johnson is entering this season with an edge.
Paige might have put it best recently when talking about Johnson: “He just has a better motor this year. He’s playing harder. He’s diving for loose balls and I think he’s finally realized that what’s separating him from being a big-time player at this level, and even the next level, is just that extra gear.”
5. Do the Tar Heels find their toughness in the second half of games?
Eight times UNC lost last season after holding second-half leads. Like at Louisville, where UNC led by 18 points before losing in overtime. And at Duke, where UNC led by 10 with less than four minutes to play before losing, again, in overtime.
And in the ACC championship game against Notre Dame. And against Wisconsin in an NCAA tournament regional semifinal. In all of those games the Tar Heels entered the final 10 minutes of regulation with an excellent chance of winning. And they lost every time.
They have entered this season with reminders of those second-half collapses posted in their locker room and in the weight room. Reversing that trend, and finding that toughness to close out games, has been a focal point. How do they do it, though?
Toughness, urgency – all those characteristics that Roy Williams likes to talk about – are intangible, difficult-to-quantify things. It might mean diving on the floor for a loose ball in one moment. In another, it might mean having the wherewithal to make the right pass in transition.
They’re little things that turn into bigger things. A deflection that leads to a defensive stop. The extra pass in a half-court set that leads to a 3-pointer. UNC often didn’t do enough of the little things last season to hold onto those second-half leads. Does that change now, with a team of experienced players?
6. How much of a difference does Theo Pinson make as he enters the starting lineup?
UNC returns four of its five starters and the one who isn’t back, J.P. Tokoto, just might have been UNC’s most versatile player. At his best, Tokoto did a bit of everything, and did it well: rebound, pass, defend, score in transition.
Now Theo Pinson, the sophomore forward, will be asked to fill some of that void. Pinson is coming back from a foot injury that required surgery in the spring, and he’s still probably not quite 100 percent recovered.
Pinson has spent a lot of time since last season refining his outside shot. Defensively, Williams expects a lot out of him. Finding his role and settling into being a starter will be an adjustment, though.
7. Can UNC take another step at the free throw line?
UNC went from shooting 62.6 percent from the line during the 2013-14 season to shooting 70.1 percent last season. That’s a significant improvement. But there’s room to get better. The Tar Heels still ranked 134th nationally (and fifth in the ACC) in free-throw shooting last year.
8. Conversely, can UNC avoid foul trouble?
At times last season it seemed like Brice Johnson couldn’t take a step without being called for a foul. In some games he collected fouls at an alarming pace. That hindered him offensively. The same could be said for Isaiah Hicks, who was called for one foul, on average, about every five minutes he played. Overall, UNC last season committed an average of 19.4 fouls per game, which ranked 267th nationally.
9. Speaking of Hicks, does he fulfill his potential this season?
If any player seems on the verge of a breakout season, it’s Hicks, the 6-foot-8 junior forward. It looked like he was close last season, when he scored 21 points in a victory at Boston College, then followed that up not long after with 12 points in consecutive games at Duke and against Georgia Tech.
Those two games, the second of which was last Feb. 21, were the last time he scored in double-figures, though. Still, Hicks made plenty of progress last season toward becoming the player many envisioned he’d be when he arrived a heralded recruit.
10. Which player most expands his role as the season progresses?
The natural answer here would be Pinson, who is stepping into the starting lineup. But there are other candidates: Hicks. Joel Berry, the sophomore point guard. Williams said recently Berry might have been UNC’s second-best player in the preseason.
Other candidates: Joel James, the 6-foot-10 senior forward who progressed nicely during the second half of last season, and Kenny Williams, the 6-foot-4 freshman who looks as though he could contribute earlier than expected. As in now.
So there you have it. As for the answers to these questions? Check back in March. Or, perhaps, in early April.