You might recall that before North Carolina's season-opener against Gardner-Webb on Nov. 9, I posted a list of 10 questions that surrounded the Tar Heels at the start of the season.
Little by little, UNC provided answers to those 10 questions as the season progressed. And now, with the season complete, those answers are final. So here goes - the questions that surrounded UNC then, and the answers to those questions now, with the season already a memory:
The question then:
• With an abundance of perimeter players and shooters, can North Carolina (finally) become a good shooting team?
UNC coach Roy Williams thought he had a capable shooting team a season ago and, he said after the Tar Heels' exhibition victory against Shaw, "I think this is a team that's going to be even better than that." Problem was, UNC rarely proved it was a good shooting team last season. The Tar Heels made just 33.4 percent of their 3-point attempts, which ranked eighth in the ACC. In conference games, UNC was second-to-last in the league in 3-point shooting. Reggie Bullock, P.J. Hairston, Leslie McDonald and Dexter Strickland all believe they are good shooters, and now is the time to prove it.
The answer now:
The Tar Heels shot 37.6 percent on 3-point attempts, which ranked (or ranks, I should say, as four teams are still playing) 36th nationally and fourth in the ACC. So yes, UNC was a good shooting team.
In fact, it was the Heels' ability to shoot that prompted Williams in mid-February to begin using a four-guard starting lineup. The Tar Heels made at least 10 3-pointers in 11 games this season, and the 3-point shot was always a major part of the offense - especially during the final month of the season after UNC went small.
Individually, both Reggie Bullock and P.J. Hairston ranked in the top five in the ACC in 3-point shooting. Bullock (43.6 percent) was third and Hairston (39.6 percent) fifth.
The question then:
• How prepared is freshman Marcus Paige to run the offense at point guard?
Williams has been in this position plenty of times before, starting a freshman point guard. He did at Kansas, with Jacque Vaughn and others. He's done it at UNC, with Bobby Frasor and Ty Lawson and Kendall Marshall. And now, Williams is confident that Paige is ready to run his offense. Paige isn't as pure of a passing point guard as Marshall was, but few are. Paige will provide more of a consistent scoring threat, but it's a given he'll struggle at times as he adjusts to the college game. The most important question might be how well he responds to those challenges.
The answer now:
Paige did indeed endure his share of struggles, particularly early in the season while he adapted to the college game. He made just four of his 17 attempts from the field in UNC's first two games, and those shooting struggles foreshadowed what was to come.
Paige didn't shoot well throughout the first half of the season, and into the early part of conference play. Paige's low point might have come in UNC's 91-83 loss at N.C. State on Jan. 26. He missed his first eight shots, finished just 2-for-11 from the field and had just four assists with three turnovers. Defensively, he was overmatched against the Wolfpack's Lorenzo Brown.
After that game, though, Paige began to improve. His career-high of 19 points came on Feb. 2 in an overtime victory against Virginia Tech, and he his production - both as a scorer and a passer - increased after Williams made the change to a smaller lineup. Still, two of his worst games came at the end of the regular season, when he committed a combined 13 turnovers during the final two regular-season games.
But again, Paige responded well and was arguably at his best in both the ACC tournament and NCAA tournament. In both tournaments he made clutch shots late in games that led UNC to victories. He averaged 8.2 points and 4.6 assists per game, and he was a far better player in March than he was in November.
The question then:
• How does UNC go about generating offense in the post?
Williams' best offenses at UNC have benefited from productive post players. Sean May. Tyler Hansbrough. Tyler Zeller. Outside of sophomore forward James Michael McAdoo, UNC enters the season without a proven presence in interior. And McAdoo, for all his positives, isn't a traditional back-to-the-basket player. Williams said on Thursday that his starting lineup still hadn't been set, outside of McAdoo, Paige, Strickland and Bullock. If the 6-foot-10, 260-pound freshman Joel James doesn't start tonight, it's likely only a matter of time before he does. His size and skills offer UNC its best chance for offense in the interior.
The answer now:
Generating offense in the post remained a problem for the Tar Heels throughout the season. It was so problematic that UNC's lack of interior offense in part is what led Williams to make the much-talked about mid-season lineup change.
UNC never found a reliable scoring option down low. James Michael McAdoo, the sophomore forward who averaged 14.4 points per game, was the closest thing to it but McAdoo isn't a traditional back-to-the-basket post player, and he often struggled to finish layups or dunks amid defensive pressure. He appeared more comfortable taking mid-range jumpers from the baseline or wing.
Of the Tar Heels' three traditional post players - Desmond Hubert, Brice Johnson and Joel James - no one averaged more than Johnson's 5.4 points per game. All three players faced their own unique set of challenges, too. For Hubert, it was offense. For Johnson, it was defense. James was raw all around.
Williams has said that he won't be small the rest of his life. He'd probably not prefer to use a small lineup next season. So increasing offensive production in the post is likely to be a major off-season focus for the Tar Heels.
And more questions that surrounded UNC then:
• Can James Michael McAdoo take the next step and become a consistently productive offensive player? We all remember McAdoo's impressive play in the ACC and NCAA tournaments last March. But now McAdoo will be the focus of opposing defenses, as well as a focal point of the Tar Heels' offense. Is he ready?
McAdoo became a consistent scorer, and his 14.4 points per game ranked second on the team. But he shot just 44.5 percent and at times had difficulty scoring close to the basket, surrounded by defenders.
• Will Reggie Bullock prove he's more than a shooter - and can he emerge as an aggressive scorer that the Tar Heels need? Bullock effectively played his role - first as a sixth man, then as a starter - last season. Now he'll be asked to penetrate and score far more often than he has in the past.
From start to finish, Bullock was probably UNC's best overall player. He averaged 13.9 points, 6.5 rebounds and 2.9 assists and 1.3 steals per game. His 48.3 percent shooting - 43.6 percent on 3-pointers - was by far the best of his collegiate career, though he still did most of his damage as a stand-up jump shooter.
• How will Dexter Strickland handle added responsibility in the offense? Strickland's defensive prowess has been well documented but he enters the season with a desire to prove that he's more than just an outstanding perimeter defender. He wants to prove he can score, too. Can he do that while playing in the confines of the offense?
Strickland spent some of the early part of the season still recovering from the knee injury that cut short his junior season. He probably wasn't at full strength until ACC play. He didn't become the scorer he hoped to be, and he admitted that he forced shots early on. Even so, he was one of the main benefactors of UNC's move to a small lineup, and his ability to penetrate the defense opened up opportunities for his teammates. He also helped run the offense as a kind of co-point guard with Paige. Strickland averaged 4.2 assists per game.
• Down by a point in the final seconds, who takes the last shot? Is it Bullock? McAdoo? Someone else? The Tar Heels don't enter the season with a clear candidate to take the last shot in critical late-game situations. Who becomes that player?
We never really learned the answer to that question. UNC played in just one overtime game this season - the 72-60 victory against Virginia Tech - and just two other games were decided by five points or less. So there weren't a lot of opportunities for players to establish themselves as go-to options in late-game situations. That said, Paige probably made more important shots than anyone late in games.
• After sitting out a year, what can we expect from Leslie McDonald? McDonald believed he was poised for a breakout junior season until suffering a knee injury in the summer of 2011. Finally, he's back. Like Bullock and Strickland, McDonald has an opportunity to play a larger role in the Tar Heels' offense.
After Hairston entered the starting lineup, McDonald became UNC's sixth man. He averaged 7.2 points per game and shot 35.9 percent on 3-point attempts. McDonald will compete for a starting position next season.
• Will P.J. Hairston rediscover his shooting stroke - and keep it? Hairston arrived on campus with the reputation as a dangerous shooter, and he was at the start of last season. A confidence-sapping slump, though, lasted most of the second half of last season. Hairston says he solved his mechanical problems during the summer.
Indeed, Hairston rediscovered his shot. His improvement was one of the most memorable parts of the season, and he averaged more than 18 points per game after becoming a permanent starter in mid-February. Hairston still was a streaky shooter who endured his share of misses. But when he was on - and he was on a lot during the final month of the season - he was UNC's best player.
• Which under-the-radar player emerges to become a key contributor? To reach its potential, UNC will likely need someone we're not immediately thinking about to play a significant role this season. Will it be sophomore forward Desmond Hubert? Sophomore forward Jackson Simmons? Freshmen Brice Johnson or J.P. Tokoto?
Of all the aforementioned, Simmons' contributions might have been most surprising. He played at least 13 minutes per game in five consecutive ACC games in late January and early February, and he endeared himself to Williams with his hustle and rebounding. After UNC went small, Simmons' role decreased, but he played 11 minutes in the NCAA tournament victory against Villanova. He scored just one point during that stretch, but also had three rebounds.
So there you have it ... a look back at the questions that surrounded the Tar Heels. And now, the answers.