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Ten questions that will define UNC's 2016-17 basketball season

After more than a month of practices, the season has arrived: North Carolina begins it on Friday night in New Orleans against Tulane.
After more than a month of practices, the season has arrived: North Carolina begins it on Friday night in New Orleans against Tulane. rwillett@newsobserver.com

And so it begins. Seven months and seven days after North Carolina ended last season with one of the most agonizing defeats in college basketball history, the Tar Heels begin a new season on Friday night at Tulane.

Like last year, UNC begins this season with the goal of playing on the final night of the season. Like last year, the Tar Heels appear to have the pieces to make that hope a reality. So let's get right to it: the questions that will define the Tar Heels during the next four – or five – months:

1. How does UNC replace Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson?

The short answer: The Tar Heels don't.

The production is one thing. Johnson and Paige last season combined to account for 33.4 percent of UNC's points, 30.9 percent of its rebounds and 26.1 percent of its assists. That's a lot between only two players but, believe it or not, filling that void – the missing points and all the rest – might be the easiest part, if that's the right way to describe it.

At least there are tangible ways to measure the numbers. There is no replacing Paige's leadership, though, or Johnson's energy, which, when positively directed, spread to the rest of the team. Paige and Johnson also shared a unique bond – they were close friends and roommates throughout their years at UNC – that helped create a strong sense of team unity that undoubtedly benefited the Tar Heels.

Now this is a new team. New leaders will emerge. New relationships will form, especially among the incoming players. The chemistry will be different. That doesn't mean it can't be as strong, or even better, than it was a season ago. But when it comes to the intangibles, the things behind the scenes, in practices or off the court, Paige and Johnson won’t be replaced and can’t be replaced, not exactly.

2. Will Isaiah Hicks be the interior force UNC needs in Johnson's absence?

When he was at his best last season, Hicks looked like he might have just been the Tar Heels' most alluring pro prospect – and then when the season ended he didn't even consider the thought of leaving school to enter the NBA draft. He felt that strongly about returning for his senior season.

Now big things are expected. Hicks earned the ACC's Sixth Man of the Year Award a season ago, and he'll have to be as efficient, if not more so, now that he's entering the starting lineup. At times last year, Hicks was unstoppable in the post. He has developed a quick first step, and now he’s UNC's interior scoring option.

The question is whether he can remain on the court. Foul trouble has plagued Hicks throughout his college years. He finished 19 games a season ago with at least four fouls and on average he committed a foul every 5.9 minutes he was on the court.

Hicks led the Tar Heels in fouls and, while he may well do that again, he at least has to reduce the rate at which he fouls. If he does, which will be no small feat given his history, he'll have an opportunity to produce at a Johnson-like level. The talent is there.

3. How does Joel Berry handle being The Man in the Tar Heels' backcourt?

It's arguable that Berry already served in that capacity a season ago. After all he – and not Paige – was the team's second-leading scorer, and Berry earned ACC tournament MVP honors and also made the All-Final Four team. He was also a better 3-point shooter than Paige (last season, at least), was better at the free throw line and averaged essentially the same amount of assists per game.

Even so, Berry succeeded in large part because of Paige's presence. Even when Paige went through a prolonged shooting slump in the middle of the season, he was still a focal point of opposing defenses. He was still the player other teams knew would have the ball in the final moments, a game on the line (though Berry succeeded in his share of those circumstances, too).

With Paige gone, Berry now inherits that attention from other teams. He'll be the perimeter player other teams are most intent on stopping, the guy opposing coaches pay the most attention to when they're putting together their scouting reports. This isn't to say that Berry didn't receive such respect last year; he did.

But now the attention surrounding him will be magnified. He won't have the help in the backcourt he did last year, with Paige by his side, setting Berry up for success. How well Berry transitions into the post-Paige era will determine UNC's potential, and direction.

4. Will UNC find its shooting touch from the outside?

Perimeter shooting, overall, was perhaps the Tar Heels' greatest weakness a season ago. They made 32.7 percent of their 3-point attempts, which ranked 259th nationally. At times, UNC could be a very good 3-point shooting team, as it was in the national championship game. That Monday night, UNC made 11 of its 17 3-point attempts (a baffling stat given UNC lost that game).

More often than not, though, opposing teams were content to let the Tar Heels try to win the game from the outside. In that national championship game that was clearly Villanova's strategy, which effectively limited Johnson's touches on the interior, and Duke's strategy during the Blue Devils' victory at the Smith Center last year. There is optimism among players and coaches that UNC will indeed be a better shooting team.

Then again, there's always optimism about such things this time of year. The question is whether UNC can turn that optimism into reality. Berry is the most proven perimeter shooter. Nate Britt, who's likely to start during the first month and a half while Theo Pinson recovers from his broken foot, made 32.1 percent of his 3s last year.

No other returning player made more than 30 percent of his 3-point attempts. Justin Jackson will need to be more efficient and Kenny Williams, likely to play a much larger role than he did last season, would be well-served by some early-season confidence after he missed 12 of his 13 3-point attempts last season.

5. What's next for Justin Jackson?

Jackson has been a very good player for UNC the past two seasons. He averaged 10.7 points per game his freshman year and increased that to 12.2 last year. He's a good passer, and was second on the team in assist-to-turnover ratio last year. He scored in double figures in 16 of UNC's final 20 games a season ago.

As well as he's played overall, though, Jackson has endured stretches of inconsistency, times when he goes missing from the offense, or when his shot goes cold. The Tar Heels a season ago could often compensate for those times, what with the season Johnson had the team's offensive balance. And UNC is still balanced.

Still, Jackson is a big part of making all of the other parts work correctly. He played a high-profile, important role in each of the past two seasons – but, like Berry, his role now becomes magnified given that he's one of the Tar Heels' elder statesman, and presumed leaders. There have been moments the past two years when Jackson has seemed on the precipice of becoming a first-team All-ACC caliber player.

As with Hicks, the talent is there for Jackson. He'll have an opportunity this season to realize his potential in a way that he hasn't quite done yet.

FIVE OTHER QUESTIONS:

6. Will the Tar Heels re-create their enviable team chemistry?

It was special a season ago, the unity was among the most important intangibles – perhaps the most important intangible – amid that long run to the national championship game. With a strong nucleus of returning players, there's good reason to believe this will continue to be a strength.

7. When will Theo Pinson return and how effective will he be?

Those are two of the most important questions for UNC. Right now, an optimistic timeline has Pinson coming back in time for the start of conference play in late December. If he takes longer to recover from the broken bone in his left foot, then he might not be back until mid-to-late January -- or possibly even later, at which point a redshirt discussion would probably become likely. Pinson served as UNC’s “energy guy” last year, a player who did a lot of little things well. If he’s able to return to form when he returns -- assuming he returns -- that’d be a significant bonus for the Tar Heels entering the most important part of the season.

8. How will Kennedy Meeks fare down the stretch?

Meeks is one of UNC’s more intriguing players given Roy Williams can never be quite sure what to expect out of him. At his best, he's been an integral, productive part of UNC's success the past three years. Whether because of fatigue, illness or injury, though, Meeks has yet to put together a complete season. Two seasons ago, he scored in single digits in eight of his final nine games, and missed another because of an illness. Last year it was similar, though Meeks recovered and played well during a three-game stretch in the NCAA tournament. He'll try to reverse a two-year trend late this season.

9. Who makes the greatest improvement from the end of last season?

The obvious candidate is probably Kenny Williams, who just didn't get a whole lot of playing time a season ago. Roy Williams has spoken highly of Kenny’s progression. Hicks, if can avoid foul trouble, could be another candidate, because he has a chance to take a significant leap now that he’s playing a more prominent role.

10. How much can be expected out of Tony Bradley?

Among UNC's freshmen, the 6-foot-10 Bradley stands the greatest chance to make an immediate significant contribution. The Tar Heels are down a traditional post player from last season, after losing both Johnson and Joel James, and so there's playing time to be had in the frontcourt. Bradley will enter the season by default the first post player off the bench, and if Meeks struggles to remain consistent as the season progresses, Bradley's role could expand in February and March -- and likely will, anyway.

And, a bonus question:

11. Who aside from Berry will provide some toughness?

For years, literally, Roy Williams bemoaned his team's lack of toughness. He harped on it. He constantly brought it up after games, especially after defeats. Last year UNC finally developed it. Paige, Johnson and Berry – and to a lesser extent Pinson, off the bench – all provided it. Now Paige and Johnson are gone, Pinson will miss at least the first month and a half of the season and Berry is UNC's only proven dispenser of toughness. Others, seniors Nate Britt, Isaiah Hicks and Kennedy Meeks, especially, will to join Berry in setting the team's attitude. Or is a given this characteristic carries over? It’s nearly time to find out.

The first game of the season is about eight hours away.

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