After suffering through an incredibly inconsistent season last year, Roy Williams and the North Carolina Tar Heels look poised to compete for an ACC title again in 2014-15.
Junior point guard and Player of the Year candidate Marcus Paige returns and with one of the top recruiting classes in the nation now on campus, the Tar Heels should compete with Duke, Louisville and Virginia -- and possibly Syracuse -- as the top team in the ACC.
2013-2014 Record: 24-10 (13-5)
Last Time We Saw Them: The Tar Heels got smacked at the Carrier Dome, 57-45. Syracuse was in the middle of its undefeated run -- it improved to 16-0 with the win -- and led by 12 at halftime. The Orange shot just 35 percent, but forced 14 turnovers and led by as many as 19 in the second half. C.J. Fair scored 20 points while Jerami Grant, Tyler Ennis and Trevor Cooney all scored in double figures.
Season Summary: North Carolina experienced once of the most frustrating seasons in recent memory for the program. The Tar Heels lost to Belmont in the third game of the season before beating No. 3 Louisville by nine points, then losing to UAB and then defeating No. 1 Michigan State by 14 points. The Tar Heels added wins over No. 11 Kentucky, No. 25 Pitt and No. 5 Duke but also suffered losses to Texas, Wake Forest and Miami. North Carolina entered the NCAA Tournament as a 6-seed and defeated Providence in the first round before losing to Iowa State, 85-83, to end the season.
Marcus Paige (17.5 PPG/3.2 RPG/4.2APG): He made the All-ACC First Team last year and is a National Player of the Year candidate this season. As a sophomore, Paige showed improvement as a scorer while leading the Tar Heels in points per game, assists per game, free throw percentage and 3-point percentage. Paige shot just 34 percent from the field as a freshman, but emerged as a legitimate scorer as a sophomore on a team that struggled to score at times.
Paige even showed an ability to make 3-point shots with high volume. Let's play a quick game: Player A shot 39 percent from 3 on 86 of 221 shooting in 2013-14 and Player B shot 38 percent from 3 on 90 of 240 shooting. Any idea which one is Paige and which one is a sharpshooter for the Orange? Player A is Paige and Player B is Trevor Cooney. I'll just leave that here for the next time someone makes a bad decision and goes under a screen for Paige.
J.P. Tokoto (9.3 PPG/5.8 RPG/3.0 APG): Tokoto struggled at times on offense last year -- he shot 22 percent from 3 and 50 percent from the free throw line -- but is hyper athletic and will be a key to the North Carolina offense this season. Paige can make things happen in the half court offense, but Tokoto running next to him on a fast break can be deadly. For years Roy Williams has run offenses that thrived on getting in transition and getting easy buckets with hyper athletic wings. This season should be no different and Tokoto will be one of the reasons.
Personnel Changes: James Michael McAdoo was the big name to leave last season. The junior declared for the NBA draft early and did North Carolina a favor by doing so. McAdoo went from a potential lottery pick after his freshman season to a liability on offense as a sophomore and a junior. He did well running in transition, but never really developed a post game while playing power forward, never had any shooting range outside of the paint and was also the easy choice when it came to fouling as he shot just 54 percent from the free throw line last year. With McAdoo gone, the Tar Heels should have better spacing on offense and the open scholarship is nice, too.
Along with the loss -- if you want to call it that -- of McAdoo, Williams brought in the No. 3-ranked recruiting class according to ESPN. The class includes three five-star ESPN recruits with Justin Jackson (No. 2 SF, No. 8 overall), Theo Pinson (No. 3 SF, No. 10 overall) and Joel Berry (No. 3 PG, No. 17 overall).
2014-15 Potential: North Carolina didn't lose much and should actually be better this season. Paige should improve and the recruiting class will be a big boost as the Tar Heels have struggled with guards and wings lately outside of Paige. The Tar Heels come in as the No. 6 ranked team in both the AP and USA Today Coaches preseason polls and look poised to compete for an ACC championship and possibly a national championship.
Orange Matchup: The Orange dominated the match up last season. That likely won't be the case this year. Paige is far better than any player on Syracuse and happens to play the position that could do the most damage to the Orange. Navigating the zone is always the key when playing Syracuse and Paige is good enough to manipulate it to his liking. One reason the Syracuse zone is so good is because it morphs to what it needs to be. Point guards like Paige are good enough to use that morphing to manipulate the zone to what he wants it to be by using screens and dribble penetration. Paige's ability to shoot 3s will also be deadly as the guards will be put in tough situations when forced to either go over or under Paige's screens.
Center Kennedy Meeks could also cause issues for the Orange, as the big man can use powerful post moves against Rakeem Christmas and potentially cause Christmas to foul. Christmas already fouls at a high rate and Williams will likely call plays for Meeks on the block early to put Christmas in those tough positions.
A favorable match up the Orange does have is the transition game. North Carolina will look to run when possible and the additions of Kaleb Joseph and Chris McCullough will make Syracuse more athletic when running on offense or defense.
North Carolina is much improved compared to last season and that team showed it could beat some of the top teams in the nation at times. Syracuse plays UNC in Chapel Hill this year, so look for a very different outcome than last year's 12-point Orange win.