Hoopsbag: North Carolina edition

Each week, I’ll try to answer your queries, comments, raves and rants about North Carolina hoops (and other related issues/teams). Send your interrogatives by visiting this page. You can also email me at bylinerp@gmail.com or contact me via Twitter at @bylinerp.

With only one game left before the start of ACC play, there are still plenty of questions about this Tar Heels team....

John from Chapel Hill, N.C. writes: Which of the UNC big men after [James Michael] McAdoo has the best shot at keeping the starting job and the biggest upside heading into ACC play? I feel like [Desmond] Hubert, [Brice] Johnson and [Joel] James are pretty much tied at this point and wonder who you think will break out.

Steven Leatherman from Charlotte, N.C. writes: Read your piece on the revolving door for the #5 spot, but during ACC play is it really going to be a 3-person rotation? Even though Hubert is our best shot blocker down low, will his body be able to take a beating as well? In my mind it's clear that Joel should be the starter during ACC play because he will be able to play on the blocks. Thoughts?

Pickeral: Hi, John. Hi, Steve. I think coach Roy Williams would like to be able to settle on one guy by the start of ACC play, but judging by the fact that three different guys have started at center over the last three games -- and a smaller lineup, using four guards and McAdoo, has produced the best at some points -- who knows if he’ll be able to do it?

As I’ve written before, Hubert is the best defender but lacks confidence. Johnson is the best on offense but still struggles on defense and aggressive consistency. James boasts the most muscle, but has only been playing organized basketball for a few years and is still learning the game.

Saturday’s game against UNLV will be a key (and interesting) tough test for the trio. Because even though Rebels forward Mike Moser remains sidelined by a dislocated elbow, the frontcourt is going to have to deal with freshman forward Anthony Bennett (19.5 ppg, 8.5 rpg) and midseason transfer forward Khem Birch (11.7 ppg, 6.7 rpg).

Joseph from Raleigh, N.C. writes: The giving spirit of the holidays has brought back memories of Kendall Marshall's giving spirit. I was under the impression that Marcus Paige had court vision comparable to Marshall's yet he hasn't panned out that way. What's up?

Pickeral: Happy Holidays, Joseph. First, I’ll note that you wrote in before Paige’s nine-assist, zero-turnover game against McNeese State last Saturday. Overall, Paige is still averaging 4.4 assists and about 2.5 turnovers per game in his first 11 college outings.

First, it’s difficult (and probably unfair) to compare anyone’s court vision to that of Marshall; after all, he reset decades-old assist records in only two seasons before he left for the NBA last summer.

Second, Paige is a freshman point guard, and it takes a while for any freshman point guard not only to get acclimated to Williams’ system and the rigors of college ball – but also to learn his teammates’ tendencies. Remember: Marshall didn’t immediately start as a freshman in 2010-11. Through his first 11 games that season, Marshall averaged 3.7 assists and 2.7 turnovers off the bench. Williams actually pondered inserting Marshall into the starting lineup earlier in the season … but then the player posted a two-assist, four-turnover game at Illinois.

So although Marshall ended up averaging 6.2 assists and 2.5 turnovers by the end of his freshman season -- while having the benefit of being able to throw the ball to a couple of true post players in Tyler Zeller and John Henson, something Paige doesn’t have -- Marshall did have his ups and downs early, as well.

I’m still curious to see how Paige’s shot progresses. By all accounts, he’s a much better shooter than Marshall, but so far, the freshman is hitting only 35.7 percent.

Frank from Virginia writes: OK, I know it’s still early, but we don’t seem to have very many quality non-conference wins. How important is beating UNLV to UNC’s chances of making the NCAA tournament?

Pickeral: Well, according to RealTimeRPI.com’s latest rankings, UNC -- which lost at Indiana and Texas, plus to Butler in the Maui Invitational (which led to a game against Division II Chaminade, rather than a tougher Division I foe) rates 54th in RPI and 107th in strength of schedule. Both ratings should go up during ACC play, but there’s no doubt topping No. 20 UNLV would give the Tar Heels a boost.

But more important than that potential ratings boost might be a confidence boost. The Tar Heels know they can win against the McNeeses and ETSUs. But the road to the NCAA tournament is about the get a whole lot harder than that.