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UNC at the start of ACC play: five things we've learned

And so it begins: the start of ACC play. For North Carolina it's here.

The Tar Heels, who on Monday night completed the non-conference portion of their schedule with a 96-63 victory against UNCG, play against Clemson on Wednesday night in the ACC opener for both teams. The Tigers, of course, have never won in Chapel Hill. They're 0-57 there.

And if they somehow break that streak on Wednesday night, it would come while the Clemson media corps is in South Florida covering the Tigers in advance of their game against Oklahoma in the College Football Playoff. So it's possible Clemson could make history without any of its regular beat reporters there to chronicle it.

Not likely. But possible.

Nonetheless, the one of the best parts of the college basketball season – the start of conference play – is upon us, and we're about to find out, as UNC football coach Larry Fedora might say, who the 2015-16 Tar Heels are going to be. UNC coach Roy Williams likely already has a good idea, though. Here are five things we've learned about the Tar Heels to this point:

1. Marcus Paige has a lot more help than he has had the past two seasons.

Even last season, when Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks – and, later, Justin Jackson – were putting up big numbers at times you always got the sense that UNC was essentially a one-man operation. That if opposing teams stopped or slowed down Paige, they'd probably have a great chance of winning. And that's not the case this season. Paige is still the Tar Heels' best overall player, but he has more help than he's ever had. Brice Johnson has been UNC's best scorer, and is playing at the highest level of his college career. Joel Berry has had a breakout season to this point. Jackson is better, and should continue to improve. UNC has a lot more options than it had two years ago, and last year.

2. The Tar Heels' offense might just be the nation's best.

Thirteen games isn't a gigantic sample size but it's large enough. And after 13 games, UNC ranks first nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency, according to kenpom.com. Essentially, that means the Tar Heels are averaging more points per possession than any team in the country. That's more proof that UNC is far from the one-man team it has been at times the past two seasons. The Tar Heels can score in a variety of ways – on the inside with Johnson and Kennedy Meeks, who continues to be out with a bruised bone in his knee. They can score on the outside with Paige and Berry. UNC has capable shot-creators, too, and players capable of penetrating to the basket.

3. Brice Johnson is beginning to realize his considerable potential.

Here's what Johnson has done in UNC's past four games, victories against Tulane, UCLA, Appalachian State and UNCG: 25 points and 10 rebounds, 27 points and nine rebounds, 22 points and nine rebounds, 16 points and 16 rebounds Granted, Tulane, Appalachian State and UNCG are not good teams and Johnson will face more difficult competition during the coming months. And certainly, Meeks' injury has given Johnson more of an opportunity. Still, though, Johnson's dominance – and the fact that it has been consistent, lately – is a sign that he has perhaps turn something of a mental corner. Expect Williams to continue to ride him. That won't change. The difference now seems to be that Johnson is responding the way Williams wants.

4. Isaiah Hicks is becoming a difference-maker.

Are we finally seeing the emergence of Hicks, who in 2013 arrived at UNC as the best prospect in the state? Sure seems that way. With Meeks out, there's more playing time available in the Tar Heels' frontcourt. And Hicks, like Johnson, has benefited. Hicks has scored in double figures in five consecutive games, his longest such streak. Entering this season he'd never scored in double figures in more than two consecutive games. Hicks has been efficient offensively. His “worst” shooting performance during this five-game stretch was when he was 5-for-8 from the field against Appalachian State. Hicks still needs to improve his rebounding and avoid fouls but he's becoming the player many expected him to be when he arrived.

5. Tar Heels have some work to do defensively.

UNC enters ACC play ranked 60th nationally, according to kenpom.com, in defensive efficiency. When you consider there are 351 teams nationally, 60th isn't all that bad. But it's sixth in the ACC, and UNC hasn't finished a season ranked so low in defensive efficiency since 2003. UNC has done a good job of keeping opposing teams off the foul line, but perimeter defense continues to be a challenge. Opposing teams have made 38.2 percent of their 3-point attempts against the Tar Heels, who rank 299th nationally in 3-point defense.

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