North Carolina Tar Heels: 2015-16 Season Preview

Roy Williams and the North Carolina Tar Heels had another disappointing end to their season a year ago losing in the Sweet 16 to Wisconsin.

After beating Harvard and a very respectable Arkansas team to reach he Sweet 16, the Tar Heels had to get through Frank Kaminsky and the #1 seeded Wisconsin Badgers to reach the Elite 8. For North Carolina, a win would have sent them to their sixth regional final since 2007.

NCAA BASKETBALL: MAR 26 Div I Men's Championship - Sweet Sixteen - North Carolina v Wisconsin
J.P. Tokoto, (13) is the only Tar Heel starter not returning this season after deciding to leave early for the NBA draft.

The #4 seed Tar Heels couldn’t have asked for anything more in the first half of play. Both teams struggled on offense and the game remained close (33-31 at the half) with National Player of Year Frank Kaminsky struggling to get going.

The second half was a different ball game. The play picked up on the offense end, as both teams were more efficient scoring the ball. The Tar Heels had a lead early in the second half, but the Badgers turned it on and took control of the game for much of the second half.

Junior guard Marcus Paige got scorching hot from three-point range late to cut the Badger lead to one with 54 seconds to play. However UNC couldn’t get the stop it needed at the end and Wisconsin sealed the game at the free throw line. It was a 79-72 defeat for UNC in a game they feel they could have easily came away victorious.

This season, the Tar Heels return nine of their top ten scorers’ from that Sweet 16 squad. They are tied atop the preseason USA Today Coaches poll with Kentucky as the #1 team in the country.

With so much experience returning from last year’s team, there are very high expectations for a team that is used to having them. Sanctions cloud over the program from a pending investigation of an academic scandal, so this could be the last chance for this group of players to win a national championship after never advancing past the Sweet 16.

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UNC guard Marcus Paige, (5) is one of the top returning players in college basketball. 

For Roy Williams’, this is his most talented Tar Heel squad since the 2011-12 team led by first round picks, Harrison Barnes, Kendall Marshall, John Henson, and Tyler Zeller. Williams has two national championships as the head coach at North Carolina, but none since the 2009 season. There is pressure on Roy this year to at least get his team to a final four.

North Carolina is led by senior combo guard Marcus Paige, and as he goes so will the Tar Heels. Paige is coming off of a season when he was plagued by injuries almost the entire season. After averaging 17.5 points on 44% shooting in his sophomore season, plantar fasciitis, as well as an ankle injury slowed him in his junior campaign to the tune of just 14.1 points on 41% shooting.

Paige has the ability to create for himself as well as others, also leading the Tar Heels in assist with 4.5 assists per game last season. He can score off the dribble, as well as make it rain from long range. If Paige can stay healthy, he has ACC, and even national player of the year capability.

However, bad news has recently come to light regarding Paige and the Tar Heels. Paige, (who was selected as Co-Preseason Player of the year in the ACC by the Sports Media Association) broke a bone in his non-shooting hand at practice on Tues., Nov. 3rd. Paige will be out for three-to-four weeks as he recovers from the injury. This is a huge blow for the Tar Heels as Paige is the most experienced playmaker, as well as best shooter on the UNC roster.

With Paige out, UNC will look more to Brice Johnson, a 6’9 senior is also a very good player for the Tar Heels. Manning the power forward spot, Johnson averaged 12.9 points and 7.8 rebounds a season ago. Expect both those numbers to rise this season with another full season of experience under his belt. Johnson and Paige are the engines that make the Tar Heel’s go, and Johnson will be looked at to do even more with Paige on the shelf to start the season.

Johnson has a good post up game with a fade-away jumper and jump hook. He uses both of these shots to perfection when Carolina needs a score down low. The combination of Johnson and Meeks down low makes for one of the most formidable duos in the country.

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North Carolina’s Justin Jackson, (44) is a candidate for a breakout season as a sophomore. 

The Tar Heels return four starters in Marcus Paige, Brice Johnson, Justin Jackson, and Kennedy Meeks. All four players return averaging at least double digits in scoring. With the versatile J.P. Tokoto unexpectedly bolting for the NBA draft, Carolina will have a couple options as to how to replace him.

Former McDonald’s All-American Justin Jackson emerged as a potential star towards the end of last season as a true freshman. At 6’8, Jackson has range from the three-point line, and also a silky smooth floater. Jackson will be one of the most important players for Carolina this season.

Another former high school All-American, Joel Berry possesses all the skills of a traditional Roy Williams point guard. He is very poise running the show, can pass the ball, as well as shoot from the outside. A starting line-up consisting of Berry, Paige, Jackson, Johnson, and Meeks would be one of the best five in the country. We’ll have to wait to see this potential line-up as Paige is out for the first couple weeks.

With Paige out, UNC will almost surely start Berry at point guard. Doing this would mean keeping Justin Jackson at the shooting guard, and inserting another former McDonald’s All-American in sophomore forward Theo Pinson into a starting role. After being injured for much of last season, Pinson has a lot to prove as far as what he can bring to this Tar Heels team this season.

Juniors Nate Britt, (who is another option to start at point guard with Paige out) and Isaiah Hicks will be huge contributors off the bench. Hicks is a player that could make a huge leap this season, and there are rumbling he could even crack the starting five. As a former top recruit nationally, Hicks is a traditional Roy Williams type big man. Running the floor, crashing the offensive glass, and playing rock solid defense are all qualities Hicks possesses. Look for those qualities to earn him a bigger role this season.

Regardless of who’s in the starting line-up, this season’s North Carolina Tar Heels will have the ability to play in waves. With up to five or six solid contributors off of the bench, Williams will have the opportunity to bring five in and five out at a time. This is something that he is known for doing, but not having as much quality depth the past couple seasons has kept him from using this strategy.

North Carolina opens their season in Annapolis, MD., at the Veterans Day Classic on Nov. 13 against Temple. Tip-off is scheduled for 7:00 p.m. ET.

The Paige injury isn’t a good start to the season for the Tar Heels. But once healthy, look for this veteran North Carolina team to be in the thick of things come March.