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Tar Heels ready for Bahamas

Twice previously under Roy Williams, North Carolina took advantage of a trip to get a young team ready for the season. Before the 2005-06 season, Williams went searching for how he was going to replace an entire starting lineup from the 2005 national championship team. Before 2010-11 season, Williams took a team to the Bahamas that had no scholarship seniors and the oldest player – Justin Knox – was a graduate student transfer playing his first year.

Having a team full of newcomers is usually what compels coaches to take advantage of a foreign trip, which the NCAA allows once every four years. The extra practice – the NCAA allows up to 10 days prior to departure – and sometimes the competition from the exhibition games provides a good running start on the season.

That’s not why North Carolina is currently in the Bahamas.

(The games will not be broadcast, but goheels.com is providing live stats today at 5 p.m. against the Providence Storm and again tomorrow at 5 p.m. against the Bahamas All-Stars.)

The Heels have a veteran roster led by junior point guard Marcus Paige, who, based on last year’s performance, could be a national player of the year contender. Their trio of freshmen will certainly be used in the rotation, but the success of the team won’t depend on them.

Williams wasn’t available to the media before the team left, but on the school’s athletic website he remarked that the trip was partly “a reward for what you did last year on the court, but especially off the court.”

This time last year, the Heels were dealing with the eligibility issues of P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald that continued to cast a cloud over the season.

The sunny skies of Nassau – not to mention a squad that will likely be ranked in the top 10 in the preseason -- provides Carolina a very different backdrop heading into this season. (Although the pending results of Kenneth Wainstein’s independent investigation of academic fraud – sparked by Rashad McCants -- could make things dark in Chapel Hill all over again.)

When Indiana made the trip in 2007, the start of a game was delayed because several of the Bahamian players had been out fishing. When Louisville went in 2011, Rick Pitino opted for an intrasquad scrimmage knowing that the outside competition was so weak.

The competition level will be very different when the Heels travel back to the Bahamas in November in the Battle 4 Atlantis. That loaded field includes Wisconsin, Florida and Oklahoma. It doesn’t, however, mean that Carolina won’t benefit from its trip now. Williams and the Heels will see several questions begin to form answers.

Where will Paige spend most of his time?

The intrigue lies with if Paige will start at point guard or will he move off the ball? If he stays at point, either freshman Theo Pinson or Justin Jackson is likely to start at shooting guard. If Paige moves off the ball, that puts sophomore Nate Britt or freshman Joel Berry at play to start at point. Regardless of the starting lineup, Paige will probably rotate between both guard spots plenty during the season so it’s important to establish a backcourt chemistry starting now.

Has shooting really improved?

That goes for 3-pointers and free throws. The Heels were historically bad from the free throw line, shooting just 62.6 percent. J.P. Tokoto was one of the worst culprits, making just 50 percent of his free throw attempts. Paige is the only returning shooter who could consistently make 3-pointers last season. Jackson and Pinson should help ease that burden from deep. Britt’s shooting percentages might be the most interesting to keep up with considering he will debut shooting right handed after spending all of last season as a lefty.

How will the frontcourt rotation play out?

If Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks start, who is the first to replace each when they come out? Will Isaiah Hicks be the sixth man at power forward? Does the experience of Desmond Hubert and Jackson Simmons trump Hicks? Has Joel James improved to the point of being a viable option?