And welcome back to college basketball season. Almost.
North Carolina’s first practice of the preseason was on Monday. It was the Tar Heels’ first practice since they prepared to play in the national championship game against Villanova last April.
With practice upon us – and a week from today is UNC’s team media day – here are five questions that surround the Tar Heels a little more than a month before they begin their season on Nov. 11 at Tulane:
1. How to fill the voids left by Brice Johnson and Marcus Paige?
And their production is only part of it but let’s get that out of the way first: Johnson had an All-America season last year, averaging 17 points and 10.4 rebounds per game; Paige, meanwhile, struggled with his shot for a long stretch but still averaged 12.6 points and made clutch shots, as usual, when UNC most needed them – particularly in the NCAA tournament.
During their senior seasons, Paige and Johnson accounted for a combined 29.6 points, 12.9 rebounds and about five assists per game. So, combined, they were kind of like this LeBron James-like force for the Tar Heels a season ago. And replacing that production is the most difficult on-court task UNC faces. That’s just a part of the Tar Heels’ challenge, though.
Paige and Johnson made up the spiritual core of the team. They were go-to leaders – Paige in a more calm, cerebral sense, and Johnson in a more emotional way. Their styles contrasted but meshed. And now they’re gone and what remains in their place are plenty of questions about how to fill everything they did, from setting screens to setting an example and everything else.
2. Can Theo Pinson and Isaiah Hicks take a step forward?
UNC returns three starters and we pretty much know who Joel Berry, Justin Jackson and Kennedy Meeks are at this point. Yes, each of them has his own questions to answer (more on the big one facing Jackson in a bit). The most interesting members of the team, though, might just be Pinson and Hicks.
They’re expected to enter the starting lineup as full-time starters for the first time. Hicks will have to limit his fouls while remaining as productive as he was in his best moments a season ago. And Pinson will have to be better everywhere, but especially offensively.
3. Is UNC really going to be a better shooting team?
Hubert Davis said not long ago that he believed the Tar Heels would be a much-improved 3-point shooting team this season. Which would be quite the positive development for UNC, if it happens, because perimeter shooting has been a weakness for the past several seasons.
UNC made 32.7 percent of its 3-point attempts last year. Paige, who made 35.6 percent of his attempts, is gone and Jackson (29.2 percent) is going to have to improve to give Berry (38.2 percent) a viable complement on the perimeter.
4. Is Jackson ready to be The Guy?
Jackson has had a productive two years at UNC and has started since he stepped on campus. But it hasn’t always been easy for him, and after a fantastic end to his freshman season he struggled in moments last year amid individual expectations that perhaps overwhelmed him.
Much will be expected of Jackson, again, entering his junior season. If UNC is going to successfully account for those 30 missing points with the departures of Johnson and Paige, then Jackson is going to have to realize his potential as a consistent, go-to scorer.
5. What are the reasonable expectations for reserves and newcomers?
While Roy Williams is unlikely to commit to a firm starting lineup, it appears likely that it will be: Berry, Pinson, Jackson, Hicks and Meeks. Nate Britt should be the first backcourt player off the bench, and the team’s clear sixth man.
Beyond the top six returnees, though, there are lots of questions: Luke Maye and Kenny Williams are both sophomores, and their roles should expand after they played about four or five minutes a game last year. Are they ready to be more than bit players? Stilman White, still around, could provide some spot minutes in the backcourt.
Among the incoming freshman class of Tony Bradley, Brandon Robinson and Seventh Woods, Bradley appears most in line to contribute immediately. UNC is going from four traditional post players in the rotation last season – Johnson, Meeks, Hicks and Joel James – to three this season, including Bradley.
And so UNC will be counting on him. And on others who have yet to prove themselves.