North Carolina

UNC, with highest preseason ranking in three years, to begin season with plenty to prove

Marcus Paige will be the undeniable director of North Carolina’s offense.
Marcus Paige will be the undeniable director of North Carolina’s offense. rwillett@newsobserver.com

From a distance, it looks like North Carolina has the pieces – the All-American candidate at point guard, the stable of capable frontcourt players, the depth – to keep its season alive late into March, if not early April. Now comes the time to start proving it.

The Tar Heels, ranked sixth nationally – their highest preseason ranking since 2011 – will begin their season Friday night against N.C. Central, their feisty neighbor that made an impression of its own a season ago.

Both the Tar Heels and the Eagles ended their seasons in March in San Antonio on the first weekend of the NCAA tournament. Since then, UNC’s returning players have been building toward next March and beyond, and toward a season they believe could be special.

Junior guard Marcus Paige is a national player of the year candidate. Junior forward Brice Johnson and sophomore Kennedy Meeks, now about 50 pounds lighter than when he arrived at UNC a year ago, are the leading candidates to become the Tar Heels’ next breakout player in the frontcourt.

The Tar Heels have size, everywhere, and more balance than they’ve had in years. Or so it seems.

“This year, I think we have a little bit of everything,” Paige said recently, “and I think we’re going to run more. Which should help that balance, because guys get running and we’ve got the big guys running – it opens up the perimeter, as well.”

He added that this is “definitely the most balanced offensive team” he’s been a part of.

The Tar Heels appear like something of a throwback in this age of one-and-dones, when it seems rare for a standout freshman to come back to college, and rarer, even, for a team to rely on a junior All-America candidate, the way UNC will with Paige. He’s hardly the only piece, though.

Johnson and junior forward J.P. Tokoto have been around as long as Paige, and Meeks started for half the season as a freshman. The other starting spot in the backcourt – the one next to Paige – was in question for a while until Justin Jackson, a 6-foot-8 freshman, provided a definitive answer.

Coach Roy Williams said Jackson, from Tomball, Texas, will start Friday night – just as he did amid two impressive performances in the exhibitions.

“That lineup has performed better than anybody else in practice,” Williams said of the quintet of Paige, Tokoto, Jackson, Johnson and Meeks.

For the first time in three seasons, perhaps, Williams has options to mix and match and create all kinds of matchup challenges. He can go small, with a lineup of three point guards: Paige, sophomore Nate Britt and freshman Joel Berry.

Williams can go big, with frontcourt reserves Isiah Hicks, a 6-8 power forward, and Desmond Hubert, a 6-10 senior known for his defense and shot-blocking. Parts of the early season, then, will offer Williams a chance to experiment – to find out which lineup combinations work best.

“We’ll experiment quite a bit, but at the same time we’re going to try to win games, too,” Williams said. “It’s important to realize that we’ve had two exhibition games where we’re just far more gifted than the teams we’re playing. And so I tried to experiment a lot during those times.

“I don’t see us experimenting nearly as much Friday and Sunday” against Robert Morris.

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