Recruit Watch: Foundation class on its way

As top-ranked North Carolina was preparing last week to begin what it hopes is a championship season, it was also rebuilding the base for possible titles to come.

ESPN senior national recruiting analyst Dave Telep said UNC’s 2012 class of point guard Marcus Paige, small forward J.P. Tokoto, center Joel James and power forward Brice Johnson -- which it officially signed last week -- reminds him of Carolina’s 2009 group, which included Dexter Strickland, John Henson, Leslie McDonald and the Wear twins (who have since transferred).

“It’s a really good class, full of a lot of really good players -- but it’s more of a foundation class,’’ he said. “It bridges the gap to the following class, really sets the stage to bring in the sizzle the following year.”

Shades of 2010, when Roy Williams added Harrison Barnes and Kendall Marshall to the ‘09 “foundation” group, setting up a run to the Elite Eight last year -- and the No. 1 ranking now?

“We have seen this before,” Telep said.

The most impactful guy, Telep predicts, will be Paige, a 6-foot ballhandler from Iowa.

“No matter how long Kendall Marshall is in town, Paige is capable of coming in and playing for North Carolina as a freshman. He’s not quite the passer that Marshall is … but he’s intelligent, a unifier, a natural scorer.”

If Marshall stays in college for three or four years, the two could play on the court together. If the sophomore were to leave early for the NBA, Paige has to skill set to step in and lead.

Johnson, a 6-9 athlete from South Carolina, can run the floor, play facing the basket, and has the biggest ceiling for improvement.

“He’s the state triple-jump champion, a long-jump champion, we’re talking about a guy with athleticism ... and potentially, he’s the one in the group with the biggest payoff,’’ Telep said.

Which would be a good thing for UNC, what with starting forward Tyler Zeller graduating after this season, and junior John Henson a sure first-round draft pick, should he leave early.

James, a 6-10, 280-pounder from Florida, might be the most interesting of the group to keep an eye on this year. Telep described him as “a big tree stump” in the lane, and this marks the first season he’ll be the main focus on his high school team. How will he handle that burden?

Tokoto, meanwhile, could be the X factor of this class. The 6-6 wing from Wisconsin “has good size, plenty of athleticism,’’ Telep said. “He needs to find his sweet spot -- the one thing he really does well, and do it consistently. He could end up being that super-sixth man that Danny Green was -- not the shooter that Green was, but that guy who could come off the bench and give the team what it needs.”

Or more, if Barnes, who considered a jump to the NBA after last season, goes next summer.

It should be noted that the ’09 class, coming in after so many stars from the previous season’s NCAA championship team left, struggled mightily its freshman season. The team was hurt by injuries and a lack of focus, failed to jell and had to settle for an NIT tournament run.

But even if the Tar Heels lose three or four -- or even five -- players again to the NBA next season, Telep said the 2012 group can push UNC to the NCAA tournament in 2013.

“The expectations would need to be tempered, but … this is a pattern that has been pretty successful for UNC: compete for a championship, bring in a class that builds depth and then bring in the star power the follow season.”

And UNC already has a good start on that. Raleigh’s Isaiah Hicks, a power forward ranked No. 14 overall in the ESPNU Super 60, verbally committed to UNC in August.

Contact Robbi Pickeral at bylinerp@gmail.com. Follow her on twitter at @bylinerp.