Heels aim to get back to Final Four

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Stilman White, last seen starting in the 2012 Elite Eight for an injured Kendall Marshall, missed the past two seasons while participating in a Mormon mission.

Unfortunately for the Tar Heels, White didn't miss out on any postseason success during his hiatus.

White, whose only two career starts have come in the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight, remains the lone Tar Heel to play in a game beyond the NCAA tournament's first weekend.

The Heels, for the first time during coach Roy Williams' tenure, have been bounced from the tournament's first weekend in consecutive seasons. But their recent history hasn't discouraged UNC players from openly talking about the Final Four this season.

"Obviously it hasn't come from the coaches like sitting down in a meeting, like we have to go to Indianapolis, get to the Final Four," Marcus Paige said. "But when we work out, we talk about it and we have that as a realistic goal, and I think we should. We'll maintain that as a realistic goal as long as we keep working the way we are."

Paige is a major reason their confidence is not limited by their postseason experience. The junior point guard, a national player of the year and All-America candidate, led the team in scoring (17.5 points per game) and assists (4.2) last season.

Carolina was limited offensively in 2013-14, but Paige will have more help this season. A three-man freshman class -- led by Justin Jackson and ranked No. 3 by ESPN RecruitingNation -- will help give Williams the depth and flexibility the Tar Heels lacked on the wing last season.

The Heels return center Kennedy Meeks and forward Brice Johnson in the post. Forward Isaiah Hicks, forced to play out of position at small forward last season, moves back to his natural spot at power forward as a sophomore. It adds up to a more balanced team than Williams had in 2012-13, when he played with four-guard lineups, and in '13-14, when the roster tilted toward an abundance of post players.

"I guess the last really good team consistently was 2012 even though last year at times we looked pretty doggone good," Williams said. "But that team had the consistency of balance of inside and outside scoring. We have some people there now they have to step up and do it."

Johnson is especially anxious to prove the postseason expectations are justified. As a freshman, he hadn't yet established himself in the rotation and played just 10 minutes combined in the Tar Heels' two tournament games. Last season, Johnson injured his right ankle just two minutes into his appearance in the season-ending loss to Iowa State.

"It's a big motivation just because we've done the same thing two years in a row," Johnson said. "We want to be able to move on from being that team that just gets out of the first round and loses in the second round. We want to be that team that just keeps winning and keeps progressing on."

Carolina, which likely will take a spot in the preseason top-10 rankings, showed flashes of being an elite team last season by beating the likes of Michigan State, Louisville, Kentucky and Duke. It was too flawed to remain consistent, which is why Williams won't yet be joining his players' Final Four conversations.

The Heels are close to having the personnel makeup that could make them a title contender, but Williams has to see it play out on the floor.

"This team hasn't shown yet on the court against other teams that they can do everything," Williams said. "We still don't have anybody that's proven they can be an inside scorer. ... We don't have anybody who has proven they can score against quality opponents every night. We haven't proven yet that more than one guy can step out to the 3-point line and make a shot. I don't think I can even answer that question because nobody has proven all those different things."