It seemed like three different seasons within the one that played out for North Carolina this season.
UNC coach Roy Williams endured his most troublesome offseason last year while the NCAA looked into rules violations committed by guards P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald. The Tar Heels began the season wondering when the duo would be reinstated. The cloud of investigation stayed over Chapel Hill until finally being resolved nine games into the season.
McDonald returned, but the school decided not to apply for Hairston’s reinstatement. The immediate aftermath led to their second season. The Heels searched for an identity and slumped during the process. They started ACC play looking like a team whose season would not extend into the NCAA tournament.
All of which led to the turnaround. The third season within the season saw the Heels find their way despite their flaws and made a long postseason run appear possible.
What we saw this season
Carolina proved it could beat any team in the country by becoming the first team ever to beat the top four teams (No. 1 Kentucky, No. 2 Michigan State, No. 3 Louisville and No. 4 Duke) ranked in the Associated Press preseason Top 25. The Tar Heels also proved that they could lose to any team as well, dropping games to Belmont and ACC cellar-dweller Miami at home and UAB on the road.
The loss of Hairston created a perimeter void that was never filled. It left Carolina limited offensively with Marcus Paige and McDonald being the only true 3-point shooting threats.
While making adjustments to how they needed to play offensively, inconsistency characterized the first half of the season. It was far from a typical Williams-coached team that could simply overpower opponents offensively, and took a while for the Heels to find their niche.
Part of their new identity came on the defensive end, where they developed into a team that didn’t have to rely on simply outscoring their opponents.
That helped fuel a 12-game winning streak during ACC play -- their longest since the 2008-09 national championship season -- that redefined the season. Despite a 1-4 start in conference play, the Heels rallied to finish tied for third with Duke with a 13-5 record in the league.
Paige emerged from playing a supporting role as a freshman point guard to the bona fide go-to player as a sophomore. He developed a Clark Kent routine of playing nondescript first halves before changing into his cape during intermission. Opponents came to expect Paige to have a big second-half scoring, earning him the nickname “Second-half Marcus.”
Free throws reached a historic low and proved to be a constant nuisance throughout the season. The nadir came in the Heels’ 22-of-48 performance during their loss to Belmont. Carolina shot 62.6 percent from the line, which edged the 1953-54 season (62.9 percent) for the worst shooting percentage in program history since they began keeping that stat in the 1950s.
For a second straight season, the Heels didn’t make it out of the NCAA tournament’s first weekend. As a No. 6 seed in the East Region, they squandered a lead late in their third-round loss to Iowa State.
What we expect to see next season
Williams will have what coaches consider one of those “good problems.” The Tar Heels' roster is stacked with a lot of talent, not to mention a lot more athleticism, which should lend to a lot more versatility.
The Heels will probably be a preseason top-10 team, and Paige will likely be the preseason ACC Player of the Year. Paige could end up playing off the ball a lot more next season with the return of sophomore point guard Nate Britt and the addition of freshman point guard Joel Berry. The Heels should be able to run more next season with a combination of any two of those players in the backcourt. What could prove to be a weakness is that Paige is Carolina’s only proven 3-point shooter.
J.P. Tokoto was the Heels’ one true wing player last season. He’ll have plenty of company next season with McDonald’s All Americans Justin Jackson and Theo Pinson joining the rotation. Williams could even experiment, as he did some last season, with using Tokoto and possibly Jackson at shooting guard in a big lineup.
Isaiah Hicks could be the biggest beneficiary from James Michael McAdoo’s decision to turn pro. While Brice Johnson will likely be the starter at power forward, Hicks could move back to his more natural position after spending much of his freshman season playing small forward. Hicks didn’t come close to showing his potential in limited minutes this season, so he could be ready to shine as a sophomore.
Johnson could play a considerably bigger role next season. He averaged only 19 minutes per game this season, but is the Heels’ best scorer in the post. With McAdoo gone, Johnson also returns as the leading rebounder, although he had just two more than center Kennedy Meeks.
The offseason for Meeks will be crucial for what could be expected from him next season, and conditioning will be at the forefront as he continues to shed pounds. As long as he returns in shape, he should solidify the starting spot at center.
The front-court rotation could get crowded, as Williams has always valued his experienced players, and he’ll have plenty. Desmond Hubert, who is the best defender in the post, Jackson Simmons and Joel James will continue to be rotation mainstays.