On what is essentially the first public day of a new basketball season, there was an awful lot of talk about the two guys we know for certain will not play for North Carolina this year.
Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson are gone, but their considerable absence hung over the Tar Heels’ media day like the banners honoring them will one day hang over the Smith Center court. Most of the questions asked Tuesday were about how they will be replaced, on the court, in the locker room, in every way.
“Those other guys, as I’ve said many times, and will say many times again, really need to step up,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. “Because it’s not two out of eight. It’s your two best. Markedly, maybe you could say your two best in every part of the game. It’s not just a numbers game.”
Williams, to use the kind of golf analogy he delights in, is sandbagging a little. He might not have Paige and Johnson, but he has all the tools he needs. It’s probably foolish to say that this team can be as good or better than its predecessor, which was a shot or two away from winning a national title, but there’s no reason it can’t come close.
Duke harbors legitimate Final Four hopes, but it isn’t the only team in the Triangle that does. And because North Carolina lost such high-profile players, it’s easy to overlook the talent the Tar Heels do have. There are six McDonald’s All-Americans on this roster, the MVP of the ACC tournament (Joel Berry), a consistent double-digit scorer capable of much more (Justin Jackson), the experience of Nate Britt and Kennedy Meeks and the as-yet-unharnessed talent and athleticism of Theo Pinson and Isaiah Hicks.
Any of those six would claim a starting spot on just about any ACC roster. Throw in freshman big man Tony Bradley and shooter Kenny Williams, little used as a freshman, as well as reserves Luke Maye and Stilman White, and there may not be as much talent and depth here as there was a year ago, but there’s plenty. This group just lacks the resume of its illustrious predecessors.
“We understand we haven’t done anything yet as a team,” Pinson said. “We have to go out there and prove what we can do as a team, and we’re going to go out there and try and do that.”
There is unquestionably a changing of the guard for the Tar Heels, one that started to gain traction a year ago when Paige and Johnson were still around, with Berry’s emergence as a go-to player and Pinson’s development over the course of the season. Because of the relative dearth of big men, the Tar Heels may even be more inclined to go small with Pinson or Jackson at the 4, a strategy that produced some of North Carolina’s best moments a year ago.
That junior class of Berry and Pinson and Jackson is the key for North Carolina; the Tar Heels will go as far as those players can take them.
“We’ve always said our time is coming,” Berry said. “We’ve always felt like this year is the year – we have seniors, but the core people on this team are probably us, because we’re the most experienced. It’s something we think about all the time, that this year is our year to be able to do that.”
The Tar Heels certainly have something to prove, but it’s less about how much they’ll miss Paige and Johnson than it is how far they can go with what they have. And as hard as it is to forget about the players they lost, it’s just as easy to overlook the players they do have.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, email@example.com, @LukeDeCock