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 firstname.lastname@example.org or contact me via Twitter at @bylinerp.
UNC has now won three straight since starting the ACC season 0-2. Some recent questions ...
Tom from N.C. writes: Which North Carolina freshman do you think has improved the most?
Pickeral: Do I have to choose?
Before Wednesday’s win over Georgia Tech, I would have pointed to Marcus Paige. Although he’s still struggling with his shot -- he’s only 4-for-22 over UNC’s last three wins -- but the starting point guard is looking more comfortable with the Tar Heels’ pace, and where to get his teammates the ball. He still makes mistakes, and is still a work in progress, but it’s nice to see that he’s making progress, especially at that position.
But did you also see quick-shooting freshman forward Brice Johnson, who had recorded all of six assists through his first 17 games, dish out back-to-back helpers at the end of the first half against Georgia Tech to turn a four-point UNC lead into an eight-point cushion?
Or that freshman wide-body Joel James, who has shown a penchant for drawing officials’ whistles -- finished without a foul while recording four points, an assist, two blocks, a steal, and a rebound?
Or that freshman wing J.P. Tokoto, who finished with eight points, has obviously been working on his jumper?
It’s hard to pick one “most improved” after that game -- which could be a good sign for the Tar Heels.
Anonymous asks: I was sorry to hear that Leslie McDonald is out for a few more games. Do you think that will have much of an effect on the team?
Pickeral: Barring an injury to someone else, probably not. Remember, the reserve junior guard had already missed three games because of a sore right knee before his academics-related suspension was announced Wednesday (he’ll return to the lineup Feb. 2 against Virginia Tech), meaning the team already had time to adapt. He’s still practicing with the Tar Heels, still sitting on the bench during games.
Yes, McDonald was shooting 43.1 percent on 3-pointers this season, and UNC needs all the scoring it can get.
But he plays a position where there’s a logjam. Reserve wing P.J. Hairston is contributing more minutes lately -- a definite plus, when the sophomore is scoring like he did against UNLV, at Florida State or against Georgia Tech. Starting wing Reggie Bullock has been shooting even more sharply during ACC play; and Tokoto, an athletic freshman, is also available to fill in any gaps.
UNC never wants to lose a player for any period of time, but there are other positions where a suspension would have hurt worse.
John from Winston-Salem, N.C., writes: Even though I currently go to Wake Forest for law school, I'm actually a Virginia grad and a big Tony Bennett fan. My question is who do you think is the best 2-win team in the ACC right now--given that there are 7 teams with that distinction? Thanks!
Pickeral: Hey, John. Since you wrote in before the midweek games, some of those two-win teams have become three-win teams, so I’ll try to answer both.
Among the three-win teams in the ACC -- Duke, UNC, Maryland, Wake Forest -- I’ll still go with Duke, despite its embarrassing defeat at Miami on Wednesday night and the fact that it has lost two of three. The Blue Devils are obviously missing senior Ryan Kelly (foot injury) and what having a 6-foot-11 guy who can make 3-pointers opens up for everyone else. But I do think they’ll figure it out, and having a couple of stars like Mason Plumlee and Seth Curry helps.
Among the two-win teams -- Virginia Tech, Florida State, Clemson and your Cavs -- Virginia and FSU fascinate me the most. UVa, because of its frustrating defense; the Seminoles because of playmaker Michael Snaer. There’s a lot of potential there.
But who knows? Thus far, top to bottom, it’s been hard to predict what’s going to happen in this league from game-to-game. And I’m not sure that will change any time soon.