North Carolina, ranked No. 11 in last week’s unveiling of the USA Today Coaches poll, entered last season from a similar position. Looking back that No. 12 preseason rank seems hollow by comparison.
The Tar Heels will be nothing like the team that struggled in the front court to the point of forcing coach Roy Williams reluctantly to use a four-guard lineup.
The development of veterans such as Brice Johnson and Joel James along with adding freshmen Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks to the front court will give Williams the post presence he covets. He can go back to his coaching comfort zone of playing more of a traditional lineup, which he hopes will produce Carolina’s traditional results.
“Our best teams have always been when we’ve had good balance -- when we can score inside and we can score from 3-point line, score on the break and score in a set offense,” Williams said. “So that’s our challenge -- to be able to do all of that.”
It’ll be slightly more challenging than anticipated from the perimeter. P.J. Hairston’s well-documented trouble behind the wheel this summer drove him straight to an indefinite suspension. Williams reiterated last week at ACC media day that Hairston will miss multiple games.
When he does return, Hairston’s numbers figure to be much improved from last season when he led the team in scoring (14.4 ppg) despite averaging just 23.6 minutes per game and starting just 14 games.
In his absence, the Heels will have to depend on J.P. Tokoto and Leslie McDonald to fill the void at shooting guard. And that won’t be an easy task. Tokoto made just 1 of 11 attempts last season from 3-point range. McDonald was so streaky that he actually shot slightly higher from behind the arc (35.9 percent) than inside of it (35.7 percent).
What is very similar to last season is that before final exams are over in December, we’ll have an idea of how good this team is.
The Heels will likely face No. 3 Louisville on Nov. 24 in the Hall of Fame Tipoff Tournament. They get No. 2 Michigan State on the road on Dec. 4 in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge and top off their non-conference schedule with No. 1 Kentucky at home on Dec. 14.
“Everybody picks up those magazines and they pick Michigan State, Louisville, Duke and Kentucky -- probably pretty much the top four -- we play all those guys,” Williams said. “So that part is dumb scheduling. It is a little scary trying to figure out, ‘OK, can I win a game?’ That’s something as a coach you’re always worried about that.”
The schedule won’t be any easier in a revamped ACC that will feature road trips to Syracuse and Notre Dame for the first time as league games.
Carolina wasn’t particularly strong on the road last season, finishing with a 6-6 record. Three of those losses were by 18 or more points: Indiana 83-59, Texas 85-67 and Miami 87-61.
Paige believes the experience of last season just groomed the Heels to be a better team this season.
“I look at our pieces, I look at the talent we have,” Paige said. “Some of our guys are still young so it’ll take a while to gauge how far we can go, but I think we have the talent. We have the versatility in our lineup to be a top five team who can go to the Final Four.”