Looking back at 10 questions surrounding UNC at start of the season

UNC forward Joel James, left, guard Marcus Paige, middle and forward Brice Johnson, right, cut the nets after the Tar Heel’s 61-57 win over Virginia in the ACC tournament championship game on March 12.
UNC forward Joel James, left, guard Marcus Paige, middle and forward Brice Johnson, right, cut the nets after the Tar Heel’s 61-57 win over Virginia in the ACC tournament championship game on March 12. cliddy@newsobserver.com

And then it was over.

Back on Nov. 11, before North Carolina had played a game, I wrote and analyzed 10 questions that, at the time, looked like the most significant ones facing the Tar Heels entering the season. I also posed another, broader question:

“Will the Tar Heels end their season in Houston, which hosts the 2016 Final Four?”

UNC answered that one in the affirmative. The Tar Heels made it to the national championship game, where they lost 77-74 to Villanova. Here’s a look back at my preseason questions and the answers UNC provided during the past 4 1/2 months:

1. Does Marcus Paige play up to his potential after coming back from his hand injury?

The answer is a bit complicated but ultimately it has to be a yes. Paige, eventually, was at his best, especially when UNC most needed him to be – in the postseason.

Still, it was a strange senior season for Paige, who missed UNC’s first six games while recovering from a broken bone in his right (non-shooting) hand. His first game back was one of his best in the regular season: 20 points and five assists in an 89-81 victory against Maryland.

In Paige’s first 10 games, he played a lot like he did throughout his All-American sophomore season and when he was healthier during his junior season. He averaged 16.3 points in his first 10 games this season, and that included the 30-point performance at Florida State on Jan. 4.

And then came a difficult six-game stretch in which Paige scored in double figures once and missed 31 of his 36 3-point attempts. Paige broke out of that with 21 points in a loss at Notre Dame on Feb. 6, but he was mostly up and down during the final month of the regular season.

Then came the postseason. In UNC’s final nine games – three in the ACC tournament, six in the NCAA tournament – Paige averaged 14.1 points and four assists per game and made 43.3 percent of his 3-point attempts. He made 26 3-pointers in those nine games – or as many as he had during UNC’s previous 16 games combined, going back to the one at Florida State on Jan. 4.

Paige found his potential toward the end of the season. It took a while – longer than he would have preferred – but he was at his best when it was most important for him to be. And it’s worth noting that he made his final college 3-pointer – an off-balance, double-clutching shot that tied the national championship score at 74 with 4.7 seconds to play.

Villanova won the game at the buzzer moments later on Kris Jenkins’ 3, but Paige’s shot will live on, too.

2. Will Justin Jackson take the next step?

Statistically, Jackson improved – if only slightly – from his freshman season. The sophomore forward guard averaged 12.2 points this season, after averaging 10.7 as a freshman. His rebounding and assists numbers went up, slightly, too.

Jackson had plenty of memorable moments and games this season. He helped UNC, for instance, avoid what would have been one of the great upsets of the season with 20 points in the victory at Boston College on Feb. 9.

Still, Jackson endured some growing pains amid his expanded role. Like Paige, he went through a long shooting slump. In February, Jackson deleted Twitter from his phone so he could more effectively block out harsh criticism that some directed his way.

Even amid those shooting woes, Jackson remained an important part of UNC’s success. And like Paige, Jackson improved as the season progressed. Jackson scored in double figures in 15 of UNC’s final 17 games. If he returns for his junior season – and you can expect Jackson to go through the NBA pre-draft process – greater things will be expected. Again.

3. Can Kennedy Meeks avoid a second-half slump?

Strangely, Meeks’ junior season followed the same sort of pattern as his sophomore season. This time, at least, the cause was clearer.

From the middle of December through early January, Meeks missed seven games while recovering from a bruised bone in his knee. The injury healed well enough for him to return Jan. 4 and Meeks played his best game of the season in a victory against N.C. State on Jan. 16, when he led UNC with 23 points.

That was his highlight for a while, though. Meeks didn’t score more than 12 points until the 101-86 victory against Indiana in the East Region semifinals on March 25. The second half of the season often was a struggle for Meeks, who said his knee injury continued to bother him.

4. Does Brice Johnson end the questions about his motor and effort?

Johnson answered this question with a resounding yes, and it was the primary reason why the Tar Heels won the ACC and played on the final night of the season. Entering his senior season, Johnson was known as a talented offensive player who lacked toughness and intensity.

And now he will leave school as UNC’s first consensus All-American since Tyler Hansbrough. Johnson had one of the best individual seasons in school history, as well as one of the best games in school history – a 39-point, 23-rebound performance at Florida State on Jan. 4.

Still, Roy Williams remained tough on Johnson – so much so that the coaching strategy Williams used with Johnson became one of the most memorable story lines of the season. It was a strategy that could best be described as tough love. Whatever you’d call it, Johnson responded.

Johnson’s emergence as a consistent force was the biggest reason the Tar Heels played for the national championship.

5. Do the Tar Heels find their toughness in the second half of games?

They did, eventually. This remained a problem through mid-February, amid defeats at Notre Dame and at home against Duke.

In both of those, UNC allowed second-half leads to slip away, again. After the 80-76 loss at Notre Dame on Feb. 6, Williams questioned his team’s toughness and heart.

Finally, though, the Tar Heels became the kind of tough team they hadn’t been in recent seasons. The turning point likely was the end of the regular season and two gritty victories – a 75-70 win at home against Syracuse on senior night and then a 76-72 win at Duke, where UNC won the ACC regular-season championship.

Those victories seemed to embolden UNC entering the postseason, and the Tar Heels continued to play on until the final night of the season. The UNC of late March was not the UNC of February. The Tar Heels developed that toughness that had been missing for so long.

6. How much of a difference does Theo Pinson make as he enters the starting lineup?

Pinson started at the beginning of the season, when Paige was out with his injury, but it was sophomore Joel Berry – not Pinson – who became the regular new addition to UNC’s starting five. Even so, Pinson became a versatile and valuable player as a reserve, especially during the final month.

Berry played admirably at point guard, even while some questioned why Paige wasn’t starting there. In addition to all that could be quantified by box scores, Berry provided an intangible element of toughness.

7. Can UNC take another step at the free-throw line?

Indeed it can. And did. The Tar Heels shot 74.7 percent from the line, which ranked 32nd nationally. Two years ago, if you remember, UNC shot 62.6 percent from the line, which ranked 343rd nationally.

8. Conversely, can UNC avoid foul trouble?

This was a big question in part because Johnson and Isaiah Hicks had been so prone to fouling, and because the Tar Heels during the 2014-15 season hadn’t done a great job of keeping other teams off the free-throw line. UNC improved this season.

Its defensive free-throw rate went from 199th nationally, according to kenpom.com, to 51st. And Johnson fouled out once this season, after fouling out five times during his junior season. Foul trouble still was a major problem for Hicks, who finished 18 games with at least four fouls.

9. Speaking of Hicks, does he fulfill his potential this season?

The answer: yes. Assuming Hicks is back for his senior season, he could be one of the best players in the ACC next season. He earned the league’s sixth man of the year award and averaged 8.9 points and 4.6 rebounds in about 18 minutes of playing time per game. He’ll have to find a way to play more minutes without fouling, but there were times this season when Hicks dominated his defenders.

10. Which player most expands his role as the season progresses?

Berry went from a bit player, and a backup, during his freshman season to playing one of the most prominent roles for a Final Four team that fell just short of winning a national championship. He earned ACC tournament Most Valuable Player honors, and he’ll be expected to enter his junior season as UNC’s leader and most proven returning player.