Justin Jackson, SF, So, 6-8, 200: Marcus Paige will remain North Carolina’s best and most valuable player this season, once he returns from a broken bone in his hand, and by now we know what to expect out of senior forward Brice Johnson – especially when he’s on and good.
The player who might most decide whether UNC goes from good to great, though? That could well be Justin Jackson, the sophomore forward. After something of a slow start last season, Jackson was one of the Tar Heels’ most reliable players during the final month of the season.
He scored in double figures in 11 of UNC’s final 12 games, rediscovered confidence in his perimeter shot and was, in short, the player many expected him to be from day one. If Jackson himself goes from good to great, the Tar Heels will have an excellent chance to do the same.
vs. Maryland, Dec. 1: There are the usual important ACC games – none more than the two against Duke and one against Virginia.
Early on, though, it gets no bigger than a Dec. 1 game against former ACC rival Maryland in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. The Terrapins enter the season ranked No. 3, so this should be a game between top-5 teams.
The game will be even more significant if it’s the first one back for Paige, who is expected to miss the first three to four weeks while recovering from his hand injury. He could be back in time for Maryland.
8 That’s how many times the Tar Heels held a second-half lead last season and wound up losing. Some of those losses were especially baffling.
UNC led by 18 points in the second half at Louisville before losing in overtime. It led by 10 at Duke with less than four minutes to play and lost in overtime.
UNC led Notre Dame by nine with about 10 minutes left in the ACC championship game – and lost. And in what turned out to be UNC’s final game, the Tar Heels led Wisconsin by seven with 11 minutes to play before the Badgers came back to win 79-72 in the NCAA tournament regional semifinal.
Can the Tar Heels hold on to leads this season? Are they strong enough not to wilt under pressure? That could define the season.
Winning the ACC, NCAA tournaments: Marcus Paige returns from his hand injury as healthy as ever, Brice Johnson is consistently good (as is Kennedy Meeks), Justin Jackson takes that next – and expected – step in his progression and the role players (Theo Pinson, Isaiah Hicks) emerge as reliable difference-makers.
In other words, it all comes together for UNC, which wins the ACC championship and ends the season in Houston at the Final Four – perhaps with coach Roy Williams’ third national championship.
Season ends early: Inconsistency still haunts the Tar Heels, as do those pesky second-half collapses, and UNC bows out of the NCAA tournament in the Sweet 16 – same as last season.