College Basketball Nation: J.P. Tokoto

Carolina vs. Duke: The key matchups

February, 20, 2014
Feb 20

Here's a look at the individual matchups that could determine Thursday night's game between North Carolina and Duke:

McAdoo vs. Parker

James Michael McAdoo is coming off his worst game of the season. He fouled out scoreless having played just 13 minutes in Monday's win over Florida State. If the Kentucky game was any indication, McAdoo will be up for facing Jabari Parker. McAdoo rendered Kentucky’s Julius Randle, another highly-touted freshman, a non-factor offensively during the Heels' win over the Wildcats.

Parker will be more of a challenge because he’s more comfortable stepping out on the perimeter than Randle. McAdoo may want Parker to drift out, however, as Parker has scored more than 20 points in three of Duke’s last four games while making more of a concerted effort to stay in the paint.

“He’s taking it upon himself to get the basket, he’s posting up a lot more. That’s where he’s most effective," Duke’s Rodney Hood said of Parker. “Not saying he can’t hit a jump shot, [but in the paint] that’s where he can punish people.”

[+] EnlargeSulaimon
Grant Halverson/Getty ImagesDuke's Rasheed Sulaimon has the length to make scoring a little tougher for UNC point guard Marcus Paige.
Sulaimon on Paige

Rasheed Sulaimon has started three of the last four games at point and could be matched up with Marcus Paige, the Heels’ leading scorer. At 6-foot-4, Sulaimon brings a little more length than Tyler Thornton or Quinn Cook and could make scoring a little more difficult for Paige. Florida State tried the same strategy by using the 6-foot-5 Aaron Thomas on Paige. It was effective for a half until the Heels started running Paige off more screens and he lit it up with 14 points in a nine-minute span in the second half. That went right along with Paige’s recent trend of producing big in the second half after a slow start.

“I don’t let my performance in one half dictate how I feel the rest of the game. I’m usually pretty even keeled throughout the game,” Paige said. “I’m not going to let a poor shooting performance or a couple of turnovers in the first half affect my mindset for the second half because I know my teammates are counting on me to produce.”

Tokoto on Hood

J.P. Tokoto is accustomed to drawing the opponent's best wing player, having just chased around Pittsburgh’s Lamar Patterson for the better part of a game. Hood may be the best player Tokoto will have faced this season. Hood isn’t one-dimensional. He’s shooting 45 percent from 3-point range, yet he can put the ball on the floor and create shots on his own. Tokoto said his defensive strategy doesn't change regardless of the opponent.

“I just approach every game with the mentality that I’m going to beat him up defensively,” Tokoto said. “Not so much foul, but just kind of get into him, get the ball out of his hands, keep the ball out of his hands -- whoever it is.”

[+] EnlargeDez Wells
Bob Donnan/USA TODAY SportsUNC's Kennedy Meeks has size on his side, but Duke's Amile Jefferson will try to counter with quickness.
Jefferson on Meeks

Kennedy Meeks played arguably his second-best game of the season against Florida State (trumped only by his Louisville performance of 13 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists). He scored a career-high 23 points on 11 of 12 shooting from the field, and most of those baskets were point-blank putbacks.

Duke's Amile Jefferson, meanwhile, has been outsized all season. He’s listed as 6-foot-9, 210 pounds. Meeks is listed at 6-foot-9, 290 pounds.

“For me it’s about fighting the other guy because a lot of times they’re bigger, stronger, height-wise,” Jefferson said. “For me it’s about using my quickness to beat them up and down the floor length, on offense and defense. Really it’s just about fighting the entire game, making sure they feel me every possession.”

McDonald & Cook vs. Slumps

Carolina’s Leslie McDonald and Duke’s Cook are fighting similar slumps. McDonald has made just two of his last 15 from 3-point range and is 8 of 31 from the field since scoring a season-high 20 points against NC State on Feb. 1.

“He’s a phenomenal shooter from outside. We need him, and he knows that,” McAdoo said. “We’re not going to put too much pressure on him because as you’ve seen, we are still capable. But hopefully [against Duke] his shot is falling. When he is on, he’s just another great player, an added dimension.”

Cook’s recent performance against Maryland highlighted his inconsistencies. It was the only game this season that he didn’t record an assist, and he also had three turnovers. He played a season-low 14 minutes in the game.

If either player can emerge in this game, it could be a huge boost for his respective team.

The X-factors

  • Carolina’s Brice Johnson just posted his second double-double of the season with 14 points and 11 rebounds against Florida State. Johnson could see extended minutes if the Heels are hurt by Duke pulling its five out to the perimeter on pick-and-rolls. Johnson is better suited to defend it than Meeks or Joel James.
  • Duke’s Andre Dawkins shoots like every shot is going in and was a big factor off the bench when he scored a season-high 20 in the Blue Devils' win at Pittsburgh in late January.

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Roy Williams knows that Armageddon is right around the corner. The faces and names that await his team in its next test just happen to escape him.

The latter remark drew more laughs than the former after North Carolina's 73-62 escape job here over Notre Dame. But a season-best five-game winning streak has done little to calm the neurotic Tar Heels coach as his program turns the page to Wednesday's showdown against rival Duke.

"I never feel like that," Williams said when asked if his team was finding a rhythm. "I feel like every day we've got to play the best we can possibly play or the world's going to end, so I'm never going to be satisfied."

Satisfied, no. Not after a game that began with his Heels missing 20 of their first 28 shots and falling behind by nine early. While the Fighting Irish were connecting on their first four tries from long range, UNC's missed layups were becoming a source of comedy. Consistent giveaways only fueled a Joyce Center crowd that was filled for what coach Mike Brey had called another "program day" for his Irish in their inaugural ACC campaign -- a league slate that commenced with an upset over those Blue Devils last month.

[+] EnlargeJames Michael McAdoo
Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY SportsJames Michael McAdoo, who had 18 points and eight rebounds, and UNC were too much for Notre Dame.
But Williams and his band can feel much better about their much-anticipated meeting with Duke given the way the Heels took charge late in the first half, creating offense with their defense to carry a 9-0 run and four-point lead into halftime.

The opening play of the second half portended more of what was to come, with the 6-foot-9 James Michael McAdoo batting off a pass near Notre Dame's bench and saving it in one motion to Leslie McDonald, who cruised in for the lay-in.

It marked the first fast-break bucket of the game for the Heels. They finished with eight fast-break points in the second half, which at times looked like a clinic of how to operate in transition. They finished with 23 points off turnovers, forcing four in the second session's first four minutes and building a double-digit lead that they never really relinquished against an Irish squad that was simply no match athletically.

Notre Dame finished 2 for its last 17 from downtown after its hot start. The Irish were unable to crack the length of McAdoo (four steals), the 6-foot-5 J.P. Tokoto (four steals) or 6-foot-9 reserve Brice Johnson (three steals), who followed his 8-for-8 night against Maryland with a cool 10 points, three offensive rebounds and two blocks in 21 minutes.

"The biggest thing was probably just our sense of urgency on defense, but with that just being disciplined and then just being really sound," said McAdoo, who had 18 points and eight rebounds. "Coach uses that word a lot, and I think that really has to do with 1-through-5 playing together and realizing that although we do strive to play perfect defense, someone is eventually going to mess up. But there's four other guys out there on the court that can help cover up for that."

This was different from the 19-6 run to open the Terrapins game, or the 18-4 lead UNC built early against NC State last weekend.

Encouraging may not be the right term considering the way the Heels struggled early in this one, but the 6-4 league record after a forgettable 1-4 start did bring out some smiles after a fifth straight double-digit win.

"Yeah, I do believe in a little bit of rhythm, unlike him," Marcus Paige (16 points, 6 assists) said at the podium, pointing to Williams on his right. "But I think we've had some success and we've been able to build off of it, and it's given us some confidence so we know what we're capable of doing now. We're not struggling as much. We're still not perfect by any means, but we understand that our defense can get us through our tough stretches on offense, and guys are figuring out their roles and what works well. And I think as long as we continue to take and build off that we can keep this run going."

Tokoto (13 points, 7 rebounds) played coy when asked about his next game before saying that momentum is ultimately thrown out the window when Carolina and Duke take center stage.

Still, it sure beats the alternative.

"It's fun, the game coming up is the kind of game you come here to play," Paige said. "But we definitely weren't looking past this. We had won a couple in a row, we didn't want our momentum to stop on a tough road game in a cold, snowy area. We wanted to keep this going, keep the win streak alive and then now we can really focus on the Duke game on Wednesday."

Missed free throws costing Tar Heels

December, 20, 2013

Grant Halverson/Getty Images
North Carolina has been frustrated by poor free throw shooting all season
The charity stripe has been anything but giving for the North Carolina Tar Heels this season.

The most recent example: Wednesday’s three-point loss to Texas in which the Tar Heels missed 23 free throws. But that was hardly an isolated incident.

Here’s a look at the struggles UNC has faced all season from the line:

Free throws are killing the Tar Heels
UNC has missed 128 of 317 free throw attempts this season, an average of 12.8 a game. That is more than any other school in the country.

Three of the four worst free throw shooting performances in the Roy Williams era have already occurred this season. The Tar Heels missed 26 free throws against Belmont, 23 against Texas and 19 against Kentucky. Back in 2011, North Carolina missed 20 free throws against Nicholls State.

What should be a strength is a weakness
Actually getting to the line has not been an issue for UNC – they have the highest free throw rate in the ACC, averaging at least one free throw for every two field goal attempts.

Converting from the line, though, has been another story.

The Tar Heels have the eighth-worst free throw shooting percentage in the country, shooting 59.6 percent. Nicholls State is shooting the poorest from the line among D-I teams at 55.6 percent.

Poor 3-point shooting is compounding this problem
Struggles from beyond the arc for the Tar Heels this season have forced them to go inside more often. This has only added to their woes, as their big men have had trouble from the line.

This season 13 percent of UNC’s total points come from the 3-point line, the lowest in the country. During Roy Williams’ title seasons of 2005 and 2009, 3-pointers accounted for 26 percent and 23 percent of the total points, respectively.

Two of UNC’s three starting forwards, James Michael McAdoo and J.P. Tokoto, have shot 54.4 and 38.5 percent from the line, respectively.

The lone success
Though the team as a whole has struggled from the line, point guard Marcus Paige is not to blame. Paige is the only player on the team to have a free throw percentage higher than 75 this season.

Paige leads the ACC in free throw percentage and is one of only eight players in the country shooting better than 90 percent from the free throw line (min. 50 attempts).

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- North Carolina coach Roy Williams refused to acknowledge it.

But he didn't have to.

The signs were all there in Carolina's 82-77 victory against No. 11 Kentucky.

The No. 18 Tar Heels have figured things out. They're no longer a team struggling in new roles because they were stretched outside of their collective comfort zones.

They've settled down now to the point where saying Carolina is playing short-handed even seems like a misnomer. P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald didn't dress for the ninth time this season, and it didn't seem to matter.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Paige, Dominique Hawkins
AP Photo/Gerry BroomeMarcus Paige has come a long way from his pass-first days as a freshman last season.
"I don't know if we've figured it out like we're clicking like no other right now, but guys do understand their roles better," sophomore guard Marcus Paige said. "We know that we're going to have to play without them until they're ruled eligible or whatever. We've just decided that this is our squad that we're rolling with for the time being."

The Heels have plenty of flaws. Paige is their only consistent 3-point shooter. They're atrocious from the free throw line. They haven't had anyone claim the center spot. But they have learned what their strengths are.

Paige is the face of the successful transitions. As a freshman last season, he was asked only to be a distributor at point guard. With Hairston out, he has moved to shooting guard and has become the Heels' leading scorer.

Early in the season, it wasn't natural for Paige to hunt for his own shot. It's safe to say he has learned now, scoring 21 of his game-high 23 points in the second half and shooting 6-of-8 from the floor.

One of his biggest baskets of the game came while going right at UK center Willie Cauley-Stein, who had five blocked shots. Paige completed a teardrop over the 7-footer's outstretched arm to give Carolina a 70-65 lead with 1 minute, 41 seconds left, which kept it at least a two-possession lead until 7 seconds remained.

"He made two unbelievable shots," Williams said. "That little floater on the baseline -- I'm always kiddingly harping on, I don't like floaters until you show me you can make them, and he's coming pretty doggone close."

Junior James Michael McAdoo is coming close to erasing worries at small forward. His transition from power forward to reserve duty at the 3 had made him pretty ineffective offensively. He had a four-game stretch in which he didn't reach double figures in scoring and shot just 29.2 percent from the floor.

McAdoo played arguably his best game of the season with 20 points, 5 rebounds and 4 assists. He has put up bigger numbers against lesser competition, but his performance caused Wildcats coach John Calipari to say, "McAdoo made a statement."

"Games like today are huge; it feels a lot better," McAdoo said. "If we would have won and I had zero points, zero rebounds, I'd still be happy, but as a human being I want to be able to contribute to the team."

McAdoo got the ball in positions where he could score. Over and over he'd take passes from the wing and aggressively drive to the basket. That led to fouls and was the reason he tied his season high with 19 free throw attempts.

UK forward James Young said McAdoo's offensive outburst took him a bit by surprise, given his recent struggles.

"In the second half, I played most, if not all, my minutes at the 3," McAdoo said. "To be able to log those minutes, it's definitely huge, not only personally, but for the team moving forward."

[+] EnlargeJ.P. Tokoto
AP Photo/Gerry BroomeJ.P. Tokoto has adapted well to playing more minutes and playing more as a shooting guard.
J.P. Tokoto teamed with McAdoo to carry the Heels in the first half, with 11 of his 15 points. Tokoto eased into playing more at shooting guard, which, along with McAdoo at small forward, has allowed the Heels to play a bigger lineup, usually with Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks rounding out the five.

"Guys are accepting the challenge of stepping up and producing when they get the chance," Paige said. "J.P.'s playing a lot more minutes this year as a starter, and he's really producing. It's cool to see our team grow and accept the fact that we're going to have to all step up as a group."

Williams was concerned about how Carolina would perform against the Wildcats after a lackluster practice Friday. It was just the second full practice of the week due to final exams changing players' schedules.

Passes floated to areas with no one waiting to receive them. Man-to-man defensive assignments were missed, and their focus was distant. It was the complete opposite of their practice before the Michigan State game.

Freshman guard Nate Britt attributed it to players coming off the mental fatigue of final exams.

"Coach might have been worried, because he felt like the intensity wasn't there," Britt said. "But I feel like the players, we were fine mentally coming into the game."

Isn't that a sign of a good team?

Williams still says the Tar Heels have a ways to go. But after beating their third ranked team this season -- and shooting a combined 55.1 percent in the second half of those three games -- he has to be flashing a Cheshire grin.

"We're such a young group, and sometimes an immature group," Williams said. "You don't want to get them too fat and happy."

Big Ten, ACC deadlocked once again

December, 5, 2013

The 15th annual Big Ten-ACC Challenge ended with no resolution to conference supremacy. For the second straight season the clash ended in a 6-6 tie, leaving the ACC with a 10-3-2 advantage.

We know which teams really won the night though: North Carolina, for sure, with its upset over No. 1 Michigan State. No. 8 Wisconsin, which like the Tar Heels won on the road, beating Virginia. And No. 5 Ohio State, which is on a steady ascent up the polls.

On the surface the Buckeyes' win doesn't look that big, as they had unranked Maryland at home. But the way they controlled the game from start to finish and gave the Terrapins a harsh introduction to the league they'll join next year.

Defensively, Ohio State dissected everything the Terps wanted to do. Maryland shot just 39 percent from the field and gave up 25 points off 14 turnovers. That included the final sequence of the first half, when Aaron Craft dove to the floor for a steal and passed ahead to Sam Thompson for a buzzer-beating basket.

[+] EnlargeSam Thompson
Jamie Sabau/Getty ImagesSam Thompson's highlight-reel dunks capped off a dominating night for No. 5 Ohio State.
The Buckeyes basically beat the Terps like a ranked team should at home. They never let the lead dip below 10 the entire second half and once up 25 turned the game into one long highlight reel for Thompson.

Columbus discovered the alley-oop Wednesday night as Thompson slammed down lobs on four different occasions.

And those shooting woes that threatened to drag down OSU seem to be a thing of the past too. The Buckeyes shot 52 percent from the field, powered by LaQuinton Ross' 7-of-13 performance. Ross finished with a game-high 20 points.

Ohio State honored former coach Gary Williams prior to the game. Williams coached the Buckeyes from 1986-89 before leaving Columbus for College Park, where he would win the 2002 national title at Maryland. Williams then had to sit through the Terps being handled by the Buckeyes.

Chris Collins also returned to familiar territory, as the Northwestern coach returned to ACC country for the first time since taking the Wildcats job in the offseason. Collins, who played for Duke and also spent 13 years as an assistant coach under Mike Krzyzewski, knows Northwestern's opponent Wednesday, NC State, well. But his intimate knowledge didn’t help the Wildcats muster a win.

Collins’ welcome-back package included a technical foul and 22 points from T.J. Warren, as the Wolfpack cruised to a 69-48 win.

Purdue matched NC State for the biggest margin of victory in the challenge with its 88-67 victory over Boston College. The Boilermakers, led by a season-high 18 points from Terone Johnson, have quietly won five straight in the challenge.

Nebraska salvaged the night for the Big Ten by beating Miami 60-49 in Lincoln. The Cornhuskers held the Canes to a frigid 24 percent shooting performance in the first half en route to a season-low 13 points at the break.

Michigan State didn’t hit new lows against the Tar Heels, it simply didn’t hit back at all.

Most expected Northwestern, Boston College and Miami to have a hard time winning on the road. No one expected the Spartans to lack the fight generally accepted as the norm from Tom Izzo’s team. Even though they bounced back from a 12-point deficit in the first half to tie the game at intermission, they never seemed to bring the fight to the Tar Heels.

MSU’s punchless night could be summed up in one second-half exchange. Branden Dawson seemingly had a clear path to the rim and was poised to give Sparty its first lead of the game, breaking a 38-38 tie. But J.P. Tokoto rotated in time to block the shot and start a fast break that ended with Marcus Paige completing a three-point play.

Carolina never trailed afterward and Michigan State literally hobbled through the rest of the game.

Senior forward Adreian Payne kept cramping up, at one point during the middle of a play, he literally stood on one leg while grabbing his other foot behind him to stretch. Gary Harris, who sat out Michigan State's win over Mount St. Mary’s with an ankle injury, seemed to lack some of his explosiveness. Keith Appling suffered an apparent hip injury late in the first half and shot 5-of-15 from the field.

Virginia joined Michigan State as a big loser from Wednesday night. The Cavs have made quite the acquaintance with the NCAA bubble and missed possibly their last chance for a statement win before conference play begins.

Both of the Cavaliers' losses have come at home to ranked teams, and the common thread is that they haven’t mustered much offense either time.

UVA, which lost to VCU 59-56 on a last-second shot, scored its lowest point total in 20 years against Wisconsin. The Cavs managed only 18 points in the second half, and their total of 38 was the lowest output since losing to UConn 77-36 in 1993.

So while the challenge ended in a tie, the winners and losers Wednesday were clearly defined.

Heels making unconventional the norm

November, 23, 2013

UNCASVILLE, Conn. -- Erase for a minute everything you’re used to assuming about a North Carolina basketball team under coach Roy Williams.

The No. 24 Tar Heels are not that team.

This team can’t impose its pace and use the fast break to outrun teams. It can’t merely overpower an opponent on sheer talent. It will have to grind out wins much in the fashion of Saturday's 82-72 victory over Richmond in the Hall of Fame Tip-Off Tournament at the Mohegan Sun Arena.

North Carolina (3-1) trailed for much of the first half, and its lead didn’t reach double digits until 1:35 remained in the game.

Because P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald have yet to suit up for the Heels, every game could present something new. Williams agreed it’s probably the least conventional team he’s coached since arriving in Chapel Hill.

“By this time of the year most times, it’s fairly close to a set lineup,” Williams said.

Nothing is set this season.

Not the lineups.

Not even the playing style.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Paige
AP Photo/Michael DwyerMarcus Paige made a career-high six 3-pointers and played point guard for much of the victory over Richmond.
The Tar Heels were so unpredictable against the Spiders that sophomore Marcus Paige, who made a career-high six 3-pointers and set a career high with 26 points, even played point guard.

Paige is a point guard, but he’s had to play shooting guard with their current roster situation. When he moved back to point for a span against Richmond, forward J.P. Tokoto played shooting guard for the first time this season.

“I played more minutes at point guard in this game than I probably did all year so far,” Paige said. "That was a little different."

Williams generally avoids playing zone defense. But Spiders guard Cedrick Lindsay couldn’t be defended in man-to-man as he scored a career-high 29 points against the Heels.

Lindsay almost single-handedly forced the Heels to unveil a 1-2-2 zone for stretches throughout the game as he was successful driving the lane for baskets. After this game, zone isn’t likely to be a one-time occurrence for Carolina either.

“We have been working more on the zone with this team than any team I’ve ever had,” Williams said. “We gave up some straight drives to the basket, which the zone is supposed to stop that kind of stuff. We’ve got to get a lot better at it, but we’ll play it some more -- there’s no question.”

The game ventured into uncharted territory for senior guard Wade Moody, a walk-on who had played a total of 60 seconds through the first three games. He entered the game with four minutes left in the first half and played three minutes.

“Wade can shoot the ball,” Williams said. “I wanted to give him some time today. You never can tell; he may get more time later on.”

Forward Brice Johnson is making his case for more time -- whether it comes at center or power forward. He came off the bench to record career highs with 24 points and 12 rebounds, his first double-double.

In the past three games, Johnson has played center with James Michael McAdoo at power forward during the deciding stretches. It gives the Heels their best scoring options in the frontcourt while Kennedy Meeks and Joel James are still developing.

“I did it last year, so it’s whatever they need,” Johnson said. “I might now be able to guard the biggest guy, but I’ve added a little bit of weight and a little bit of strength so I can hold my own now.”

What the Tar Heels lack in flash, they make up with toughness. Williams said he wanted to see how they would bounce back from their first loss.

They showed their resilience from the free throw line after missing 26 free throws in the loss to Belmont. Carolina responded against Richmond by shooting 70 percent from the line. They showed it during the game after falling behind by nine in the first half but taking a 36-33 lead into halftime.

“With North Carolina basketball, you’ve got five guys on the court that are all capable of going off for big games,” McAdoo said. “I think that’s really what you just saw today -- them trying to take certain things away and other guys stepping up, which is huge, definitely, as the season goes on.”

Can UNC overcome free throw woes?

November, 21, 2013
Will North Carolina’s nightmarish outing at the free throw line against Belmont carry over into Saturday’s meeting with Richmond?

The Tar Heels repeatedly talked about the mental aspect of free throw shooting after missing 26 free throws in Sunday’s 83-80 loss to the Bruins. They talked about misses in the first half having a snowball effect and spreading no matter which player went to the line.

“You can talk about it, you can not talk about it -- I mean, it’s free throws,” sophomore guard Marcus Paige said. “He [Roy Williams] can’t make them for us, there’s really not anything you can say to a guy struggling on the line. I mean, what do you say to him?”

So if they miss a few early against the Spiders, does the Belmont outing creep back into their collective minds?

Sophomore J.P. Tokoto's first trip to the line will be the litmus test because he had the toughest outing against Belmont.

Coach Roy Williams said the last time he had the team shoot 200 free throws in practice, Tokoto shot 84 percent. He made his first free throw against Belmont -- then missed the next nine en route to 4-of-16 shooting.

His body language grew increasingly worse with every trip to the line. The uneasiness within the Dean E. Smith Center crowd was palpable until they finally just started clapping in support for Tokoto before he shot his final few free throws.

“That’s pretty much all it was, just mental for me,” he said.

Tokoto was back in the gym Sunday night practicing free throws before reporters had completely cleared out of the media room.

It’s inevitable that he’ll get to the line -- he’s the only natural small forward on the team, and his game is to slash to the rim. Tokoto has the second-most attempts on the team (25), just four behind James Michael McAdoo. No other Carolina player has registered 10 attempts.

Considering that the Heels lost to Belmont and Richmond beat the Bruins, UNC could again be locked in a close game in which free throws matter. Will it be strong enough to handle it?

UNC passing the boards with ease?

November, 6, 2013
While pondering what North Carolina won’t be as long as P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald are out of the lineup (hint, proficient from the perimeter), there’s one area where the Tar Heels should dominate.

On the boards.

Rebounding was most certainly a struggle last season when the Heels were forced to play a four-guard lineup that moved forward James Michael McAdoo to center. Carolina held its lowest rebounding margin (+1.6) of the Roy Williams era and came close to being the first team since 2003-04 to get outrebounded.

It shouldn’t be that close this season.

While UNC awaits word from the NCAA regarding eligibility issues for Hairston and McDonald, Williams will be forced to use a big lineup at times. He could even potentially (however temporary) use a lineup that features J.P. Tokoto at shooting guard and McAdoo at small forward.

Having the team’s two best rebounders paired with a frontcourt that could include forward Brice Johnson, who had the second highest rebounds per minute last season, would be an overpowering matchup for most of their non-conference foes.

Carolina doesn’t face a team that finished on the plus side of rebounding margin until the fifth game of the year when it will play either Fairfield or Louisville in the Hall of Fame Tipoff Tournament.

Consider UNC's 2013-14 non-conference opponents' rebounding margin (& national rank) from last season:

Oakland -0.8 (205)

Holy Cross 0.0 (142)

Belmont -1.5 (T-240)

Richmond -5.8 (331)

Fairfield +0.8 (153) or Louisville +3.6 (66)

UAB +1.7 (120)

Michigan State +7.6 (10)

UNCG -0.9 (209)

Kentucky +4.3 (48)

Texas +0.9 (149)

Davidson +2.0 (114)

Northern Kentucky -5.0 (N/A)

UNCW -1.5 (233)

Rebounding has also been a point of emphasis with Williams in determining who will get to start at center. It’s why Joel James is more focused on his rebounding technique than he is post moves.

“I feel like if you make that contact first, you have a better chance of rebounding the basketball,” James said. “It’s coming slowly, but it’s coming.”

Statistically speaking, the Heels controlled the boards better in 2007-08 than any team during the Williams’ 10 seasons. They enjoyed a rebounding margin advantage of 11 per game. While the 2011-12 team grabbed the most total rebounds, averaging 45.0 per game, their rebounding margin was slightly behind at 10.4 per game.

This team might not quite reach that stratosphere, but all signs indicate rebounding will be once again be a strength this season.

Paige's improved play propels UNC

February, 23, 2013

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- North Carolina coach Roy Williams didn’t have to tell point guard Marcus Paige that he needed to play a whole lot better Saturday than the previous time the Tar Heels faced NC State.

Paige knew.

And he did.

The freshman, who looked lost and performed like it when the Tar Heels got whipped by the Wolfpack last month in Raleigh, rallied his team with an inspired, confident, 14-point, eight-assist effort during UNC’s 76-65 victory at the Smith Center.

NC State coach Mark Gottfried called Paige’s shots down the stretch Saturday “timely.”

And they were. But not just for that game -- also for the future of a Tar Heels team that finally seems to be putting its pieces together cohesively after switching to a smaller lineup four games ago.

“It’s just confidence and experience -- he has those now," senior guard Dexter Strickland said. “For [Paige] to be able to step up and hit those shots now, that’s huge for us, and where we are as a team.”

Where they are now, at 19-8 overall and 9-5 in the ACC, is third place in the league standings -- a half-game ahead of Virginia (which plays Sunday) and a full game ahead of the Wolfpack (19-8, 8-6). That’s important because only the top four teams earn a first-day bye in the ACC tournament.

And where they are now is looking calmer and more capable, going 3-1 since 6-foot-5 wing P.J. Hairston was inserted into the starting lineup, in place of 6-9 forward Desmond Hubert. The switch has made the Tar Heels faster, put another scorer on the floor, and opened more lanes for both Paige and Strickland to get to the basket.

“I think we’re starting to click more a little bit," Paige said.

[+] EnlargeReggie Bullock
Cal Sport Media via AP ImagesNorth Carolina's Reggie Bullock impressed with his shooting ability Thursday.
A big part of that click is Paige, who went 2-for-11 with four assists and three turnovers during the Tar Heels' 91-83 loss last month at NC State. During that game, the freshman got outclassed by Wolfpack point guard Lorenzo Brown, who pushed a strong transition game -- and pushed past Paige on a regular basis. And the Tar Heels, Paige said, "got a little bit embarrassed," falling behind by as many as 28 points.

“That was the first time I played against a really big-time player, and he got the best of me in that matchup," Paige said. “[But] I couldn’t let him have a big night this time, because he kind of makes their whole offense go. I just wanted to try to contain him and make things as difficult for him as I could. And it ended up working out.”

Brown, still not quite 100 percent after an ankle sprain that sidelined him for two games earlier this month, finished with 12 points and 12 assists Saturday. But this time around, Paige was the aggressor -- especially when it mattered most.

After NC State used a 13-2 run early in the second half to turn a 10-point deficit into a 43-42 lead, Williams used his pull-'em-all approach, and inserted Paige, Luke Davis, J.P. Tokoto, Jackson Simmons and Hubert to give his more-used players a few minutes to ponder their lack of focus. Paige hit a 3-pointer -- a key shot considering Wolfpack wing Scott Wood countered with back-to-back 3s to extend his team’s run to 19-5.

But it was a few minutes later, with State still leading 55-52, when Paige really made his presence felt.

During what would become an 18-2 breakaway, and with the regulars back on the floor, he buried a 3-pointer to give the Tar Heels a 57-55 lead. After two Leslie McDonald free throws and a Reggie Bullock 3, he drove past Wood for a three-point play. And after another Bullock 3-pointer, Paige buried two free throws to give his team a comfy 70-57 cushion with less than four minutes left.

“I just think you’ve got to be able to step up and make big shots in times like that," Paige said. “And if defenses are going to leave you open, they’re challenging you to make shots like that. So to step up and make shots like that, that was big for me.”

And his team.

Bullock, who finished with a game-high 22 points and a career-high-tying 13 rebounds, also was big for UNC. As was the fact that NC State star forward C.J. Leslie finished with as many turnovers as points (6), and that the Tar Heels scored 24 points off turnovers (the Wolfpack had 16 for the game).

But Paige’s obvious growth since the previous time he faced NC State on Jan. 26 pulled it all together. It kept the rival Wolfpack from sweeping the Tar Heels for the first time since 2002-03. And it propelled the Tar Heels to their third consecutive victory.

He needed to improve. He knew it. And he did.

“My freshman is a tough little nut," Williams said. “And he’s getting better and better.”
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- North Carolina is now above .500 in ACC play (3-2) for the first time this season. Georgia Tech (0-5) is still searching for its first conference win.

A quick look at the Tar Heels’ 79-63 victory at the Smith Center on Wednesday night:

Turning point: The Tar Heels led by as many as 13 points in the first half, but the Yellow Jackets cut their deficit to four in the moments before halftime, thanks to strong rebounding that helped cut down on UNC’s fast-break and second-chance opportunities. But after Tech missed on its opportunity to cut the lead to two, junior Reggie Bullock and freshman J.P. Tokoto scored buckets (both on assists from freshman forward Brice Johnson) to give UNC a 40-32 cushion at the break.

Energetic UNC then opened the second half with a 9-2 run -- including five points from Bullock -- to take its largest lead to that point in the game. The Jackets never really threatened again.

Key player(s): Bullock led the Tar Heels with 17 points, while reserve P.J. Hairston -- just 1-for-8 in his last game -- added 15. Forward James Michael McAdoo chipped in 14 points and 10 rebounds.

Kammeon Holsey, a starter last season who has adapted well to his sixth-man role, finished with 18 points for Georgia Tech.

Noteworthy number: Tech outrebounded UNC 50-45, but shot only 36 percent for the game.

Etc.: UNC reserve Leslie McDonald, who had missed three previous games because of a sore right knee, remained dressed in a suit on the bench. The school announced earlier Wednesday that the redshirt junior is suspended for three more games because, coach Roy Williams said, he “did not do what we expect of our student-athletes.”

Next up: Georgia Tech plays Wake Forest at home on Saturday; UNC plays at No. 18 NC State the same day.
Leslie McDonald AP Photo/Gerry BroomeRashawn Rembert (right) will have to make things happen for ETSU.
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- When you have to do as much finger-pointing as the No. 20 Tar Heels did on Saturday night, you can’t really blame some of the players -- particularly the freshman -- for occasionally forgetting the credit-the-assist-man tradition.

“I missed it a few times tonight, in the heat of the moment," rookie wing J.P. Tokoto said, smiling a bit sheepishly after throwing down a couple of replay-worthy dunks and finishing with nine points. “We usually do a great job of that, but sometimes you forget.”

Call it another learning opportunity.

UNC (7-2) got a lot of practice at the Dean-Smith-staple of crediting the passer, getting 30 assists on 31 buckets during an easy 78-55 victory over undermanned East Tennessee State (2-5).

The Tar Heels led by 30 at halftime, after an opening half that saw the Rams set a new Smith Center record for futility by scoring only 12 points.

UNC’s lone unassisted field goal came during that breakaway, when redshirt junior Leslie McDonald missed an alley-oop on a pass from P.J. Hairston, and rebounded his own bucket. He grabbed the rebound and put it back in to give the Tar Heels an 18-point lead barely nine minutes into the game.

“I take full responsibility for that," McDonald said, ducking his head and grinning after being asked about sending team’s 31-for-31 assist-to-bucket possibility askew.

In all seriousness, the Tar Heels -- who have a freshman starting at point guard and three other rookies who played double-figure minutes on Saturday -- say they’re putting a lot of emphasis on making smart passes, trying to limit turnovers and giving credit where credit is due. And for good reason.

“When we move the ball, we’re very successful," said UNC coach Roy Williams, who wasn’t quite as pleased with his team’s offensive success when it didn’t move the ball. The Tar Heels shot 36.8 percent in the second half and got outscored 43-36.

Plus, last year, sophomore James Michael McAdoo said, the team sometimes strayed too often from pointing to the passer. This season, the forward said, the salute been restressed.

“It definitely is something that [new assistant coach] Hubert Davis brought back when he came back, that he’s emphasized; he said it was second nature when he played here. He was a shooter, so he probably had to point to a lot of passers," McAdoo said. “It’s an opportunity to thank the passer, to bring the team closer together, even when you’re in the middle of a game.”

It takes a while for it to become second nature, though.

Freshman hear of the tradition from coaches, and teammates pass it down (so to speak) in early practices. But McDonald, who led the team Saturday with 14 points, said he can remember when he was a rookie and wanting to throw up a "3" sign or look at the crowd after he hit a long shot, like in high school.

“And coach would yell at me, ‘Point to the passer!’” he said.

Eventually, he got the gist, and he showed after several other buckets against ETSU.

And so will these newbies, he said.

Especially if the Tar Heels can continue to get so much in-game practice. Senior Dexter Strickland and freshman Marcus Paige (seven assists each) earned the most finger-pointing.

“You just have to remember: whoever passes you the ball, point at them," said freshman forward Brice Johnson, who finished with 12 points. “Be a good teammate."

It's tradition.

Maui Invitational Day 1 roundup

November, 20, 2012
LAHAINA, Hawaii -- Here are some observations from the first day of the EA Sports Maui Invitational:
  • This is clearly a down season for talent at the Maui Invitational. The names on the front of the jerseys are all impressive -- North Carolina, Texas, Illinois, USC, Marquette, Butler, Mississippi State -- but every single program, with the possible exception of UNC, is having a down season.The USC and Mississippi State programs are in shambles. Both teams aren’t even close to being competitive against a solid D-1 team.

    Texas, after being blown out by Chaminade, doesn’t look much better. Yes, they were missing point guard Myck Kabongo, but even with Kabongo the Longhorns have major issues. Chaminade shot just 37 percent from the field for the game and it still won by 13.

    Illinois dominated USC, but it’s hard to tell whether Illinois is actually playing better under new head coach John Groce or whether USC is just that bad.

    Marquette and Butler played the most entertaining game of the day, but it was marred with fouls, poor shooting and mistakes. Neither team boasts an elite player on its squad.

    As for North Carolina -- yes it blew out Mississippi State -- but as far as NBA talent goes, the Tar Heels are having a down season too. After forward James Michael McAdoo, it’s unclear whether they have another first-round draft prospect on their roster.

    Nevertheless, if UNC doesn’t roll through this field, it will be a major upset.
  • Tomorrow’s best game should be Butler versus North Carolina at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN. North Carolina has much more talent, but the Bulldogs are scrappy and well coached. The Tar Heels are more of a finesse team. The physicality of Butler could give the Heels problems.The rest of the field looks like a wash. Marquette should roll over Mississippi State. Texas versus USC will be interesting only if the NCAA somehow clears Kabongo.

    Illinois will be the heavy favorites to beat Chaminade in the finale at 10:30 p.m. ET on ESPN2. Yes, the Silverswords just knocked off the Longhorns, but they didn’t play particularly well. The Illini should roll.
  • A number of NBA GMs -- including the Celtics’ Danny Ainge, the Jazz’s Kevin O’Connor, Bulls’ Gar Forman, the Warriors Bob Myers and the Blazers Neil Olshey -- were in attendance. Overall, they are seeing the same phenomenon here that they are seeing everywhere. This is a down season, talent wise, in the NCAA. “If Cody Zeller, Shabazz Muhammad, Nerlens Noel and James McAdoo are your top four picks, it’s going to be an ugly, ugly draft.”

    Other than McAdoo, I couldn’t find a scout or GM convinced there was another first-round prospect here. If Kabongo plays, that could be two. But that explains, in part, why the field is so weak.
  • There were some good performances by top prospects on Monday. Perhaps the best was Illinois’ Brandon Paul. Scouts have loved Paul’s combination of elite athletic ability and scoring prowess for years. However, they’ve been puzzled by his inconsistency. He had a 43-point game against Ohio State last season. But there have been plenty of others in which he completely disappeared.

    He seems to be more settled and more consistent under his new head coach. He was averaging nearly 20 points a game coming into the tournament and scored 26 points and shot 6-for-9 from 3-point territory on Monday night in Illinois’ win.

    UNC’s Reggie Bullock was on fire against MSU. He had 16 points in 22 minutes and was 4-for-5 from beyond the arc.

    As I detailed in my Rapid Reaction to the Butler-Marquette game, Vander Blue and Khyle Marshall also had terrific games on Monday night.
  • There are many NBA scouts who believe both P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald could start on most high major NCAA teams and they probably would average 16-20 points. Once the game quickly got out of hand, Roy Williams turned to both of them and both delivered. The two combined for 39 points and shot 10-for-17 from behind the 3-point line.
  • UNC has a number of talented freshmen: Joel James, Brice Johnson and J.P. Tokoto. All three got plenty of playing time on Monday. Of the three, it was James who shined on Monday. He was a significant defensive presence for the Tar Heels. He's still trying to get a feel for the game and could still probably lose another 10 to 15 pounds, but his seven rebounds and two blocked shots, combined with just a general toughness in the middle gave NBA scouts an encouraging glimpse into his future if he continues to develop.
  • The most memorable moment of the day was Rotnei Clarke’s buzzer-beating heave to defeat Marquette. Here’s how both Clarke and Marquette coach Buzz Williams described the moment.

    Williams: “He shot it off one foot from behind his head from 40 feet. It was contested. As soon as the ball left his hand, I knew it was a basket. The trajectory and everything was perfect.”

    Clarke: “It was just kind of a scramble play. I was dribbling around, and I almost thought about flipping it to Roosevelt Jones, who was going down the lane line just to have him drive and make a play, [but] ended up keeping it, and got through and got around a couple of guys, and just let it up there, and luckily it went in.”
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- After feeding freshman Joel James for a late-game ally-oop that gave North Carolina a 29-point lead Friday night, redshirt junior Leslie McDonald grinned as he backpedaled to the other end of the court.

Defending, transitioning, dunking: This is what the 11th-ranked Tar Heels could look like if they can live up to their potential. But after trailing Division II Shaw by three points early in the second half of their eventual 81-54 exhibition victory, the question is: How long will it take the Tar Heels to consistently live up to that potential?

"Honestly, I feel like [the second half] is just a glimpse of what we can be," said sophomore forward James Michael McAdoo, who led UNC with 16 points and 8 rebounds at the Smith Center. "We’re so young, it’s crazy how young we are. ... Hopefully, in the next week or so we can really work out the kinks, because it’s going to be a battle once the season starts."

[+] EnlargeJames Michael McAdoo
Cal Sport Media via AP ImagesSophomore James Michael McAdoo scored 16 points in North Carolina's exhibition victory over Shaw.
Early on, the Tar Heels showed who they are: a reconstructing team still trying to figure out its best lineups after losing four starters to the first round of the NBA draft; a squad still teaching its quartet of freshmen about pace and defense and intensity.

As expected, rookie point guard Marcus Paige got the start alongside McAdoo and junior wing Reggie Bullock. Joining them were senior shooting guard Dexter Strickland -- who played impressively quick and confident after reconstructive knee surgery just eight months ago -- and sophomore forward Desmond Hubert. Hubert got the nod, coach Roy Williams said, because he had been playing better than the other big-man options in practice.

UNC missed eight of its first 12 buckets and shot worse than 38 percent en route to a 37-33 halftime lead. And when scrappy Shaw used four consecutive field goals from forward Karron Johnson (17 points, 19 minutes) to open the second half with a 9-2 run, Williams said he didn’t really mind.

"I even liked it when they took the lead there, because those are the kinds of things that we’re going to face all year," Williams said. "I like the way our guys responded."

Because that’s when the Tar Heels showed who they could be when they speed and defend and jell.

Trailing 42-39, UNC shot, dunked and stopped its way to a 28-2 run before the Bears scored on a goaltend. It began with McAdoo performing his familiar steal-at-half-court-and-dunk-on-the-other-end move. It included eight straight points (including two 3-pointers) from sophomore P.J. Hairston.

Freshman forward Brice Johnson was active, picking up two rebounds, a steal, an assist and a dunk during that stretch. So was James, who might work his way into the starting lineup after working his 6-foot-10, 260-pound frame into a 13-point, 7-rebound outing.

"It was good for us to get in front of a crowd," Williams said of the freshmen. "We’ve been trying to do things in practice: We have station work, we have four-on-four group work. But now they got to put it into game action, and that’s what they did. ... Joel and Brice probably played better for their opening night than Marcus and J.P. [Tokoto, a freshman wing] did, but I liked what they did."

Paige finished with 6 points, 6 rebounds, 3 turnovers and an assist. All 12 of UNC’s scholarship players played at least seven minutes before the new group of walk-ons took the floor.

The Tar Heels open the season Nov. 9 versus Gardner-Webb.

"That second half is a great example of what our team is capable of doing," said McDonald, who finished with 12 points in his first game back after redshirting last season to rehab a torn anterior cruciate ligament. “Our intensity was high defensively, we got steals and dunks. That second half was us -- the Carolina way. ... And that’s what we’ve got to continue to do."

BRIEFLY: Strickland (6 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists, 1 turnover) said he’s not quite 100 percent but "probably 99 percent or 98 percent." ... UNC made only 3 of 16 3-pointers, and made only 14 of 26 free throw attempts. ... The Tar Heels travel to Georgetown to play in a closed scrimmage Sunday.

Follow Robbi Pickeral on Twitter at @bylinerp.

UNC wings ready for their shot

October, 19, 2012
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- North Carolina’s guards have become known for their good-natured shooting contests.

If sophomore P.J. Hairston can make a shot from half-court (backwards, which he has), redshirt junior Leslie McDonald wants to try to swish one from at least two feet farther back. If junior Reggie Bullock can make a trick shot while sitting on a table behind the basket, then surely senior Dexter Strickland wants to try it, too.

The bragging rights competitions are all in good fun. But this season, with such an overflow of experienced wings on their roster, the Tar Heels are hoping some of that outside shooting prowess carries over to games.

[+] EnlargeReggie Bullock
Jeff Curry/US PresswireWithout the dominant frontcourt players they have relied on in the past, the Tar Heels may need to rely more on outside shooters like Reggie Bullock.
“I think it’s going to be a big year for our wing players,” said Bullock, the only remaining starter from the team that lost to Kansas in last year’s NCAA regional finals. “... This year it’s going to be up to the wings to be able to step up and knock down shots, because we don’t have that powerful interior that we had.”

With four starters gone from last season’s team -- including the frontcourt of ACC Player of the Year Tyler Zeller and ACC Defensive Player of the Year John Henson -- UNC’s most experienced players perform mostly outside the lane.

Strickland, a senior, was last year’s starting shooting guard, backup point guard and top perimeter defender until he tore his ACL in January; he’s practicing, and at about 85-90 percent. Bullock replaced him in the starting lineup and barely missed a beat on defense. He also added more of an offensive threat, shooting a team-leading 38.2 percent from 3-point range.

Hairston struggled with his shot the second part of the season, but showed early-on he knows how to swish when he’s confident. McDonald returns after redshirting last season because of a torn ACL; he was UNC’s top perimeter threat before he got hurt during the 2011 offseason.

Plus, the Tar Heels add freshman J.P. Tokoto, who teammates have called one of the most athletic guards they’ve ever seen; and rookie Marcus Paige, who is expected to start at point guard.

“We have a lot of guys who can knock down the 3-ball, and we’re counting on that,’’ said sophomore James Michael McAdoo, UNC’s most experienced returning post player. “But hopefully that comes from us [forwards] kicking it out.”

Indeed, McAdoo and Bullock said UNC won’t be changing its inside-out offensive philosophy, but the Tar Heels will need more from the “out.”

In 2010-11, UNC made only 32.8 percent of its 3-pointers, the worst outside-shooting season in school history. Last season, that percentage rose only slightly, to 33.5.

Bullock knows the numbers, and seems confident they are about to jump.

“I’m willing to step up to the challenge,’’ he said. “We’ve definitely been winning off point guards and post men the last four to five years, with all the great players that came through: Ty Lawson, Tyler Hansbrough, those type of players.

“Players like [wings] Wayne Ellington, Danny Green, people didn’t think about them as much. But when their time came, Wayne Ellington stepped up, Danny Green stepped up. So I believe it will be time for our shooting guards to step up this year.”

Just like during those competitive trick-shot intrateam competitions, where anything -- three-quarters-court-sideways-with-one-eye-closed, anyone? -- is possible.

“If we see somebody making it easy from halfcourt, we should be able to believe that they can make it easy from the 3-point line,” Bullock said. “So I think it’s definitely a confidence booster for us in that we can shoot from anywhere on the court.”

Follow Robbi Pickeral on Twitter at @bylinerp.

UNC preseason begins with ... tutus?

October, 12, 2012
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Six-foot-10, 260-pound freshman Joel James probably didn’t imagine his North Carolina career would begin in a tutu. Neither, likely, did classmates Marcus Paige, Brice Johnson or J.P. Tokoto.

But such is the ritual of “Late Night With Roy Williams,” UNC’s annual team introduction that precedes the official start of basketball practice. Part dancing, part videos, part scrimmage, Friday marked Tar Heels fans’ first chance to see their team -- which lost four starters to the first round of the NBA draft -- at the Smith Center before real workouts begin at 9 a.m. Saturday.

“My freshman year, I would have been, ‘Naaaah, I can’t do the tutu,’” redshirt junior Leslie McDonald said, laughing after his “blue” team won the event-ending intrasquad scrimmage 37-27. “… But Joel’s a big dude, and to see him in a tutu, that’s funny.”

[+] EnlargeBrice Johnson
AP Photo/Gerry BroomeBrice Johnson and his fellow UNC freshmen sported tutus as part of Friday's festivities.
It was a night filled with emotion … and applause and dancing.

UNC changed up “Late Night” a bit this season, beginning the evening with an Olympics-style opening ceremony during which each of the school’s sports teams was introduced, and walked around the court.

After each of her players was introduced individually, women’s basketball coach Sylvia Hatchell pulled chancellor Holden Thorp -- who recently resigned, effective at the end of the school year -- out of the stands to join her near midcourt. The women’s players then hoisted him atop their shoulders, before commencing with their own skits and videos.

Finally, it was time for what most of the patient, light-stick-wielding fans were waiting for: men’s basketball introductions. And the only cheer that was louder than the one for McDonald and senior Dexter Strickland -- who have both fought through ACL injuries, and opted to be introduced together -- was the roar for Williams.

The Hall of Fame coach, who is still recovering from a surgery to remove a tumor from one kidney and a biopsy on a tumor in his other kidney (both were non-cancerous), grew emotional as the crowd’s standing ovation lasted more than a minute. Earlier in the day, his Fast Break Against Cancer Breakfast raised $150,000 for UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center -- but this was about being back on the court with his players after a serious cancer scare.

And his players understood the fans’ appreciation.

“It’s history -- just to see that icon, everybody supporting him,” McDonald said.

After the team’s dance routines -- which included some ballerina moves by the freshmen (thus the tutus), then a salsa shimmy and some Broadway kicks by the rest of the veterans -- the team managed to coax Williams into a few shag-like moves.

Afterward, he sat behind the scorer’s table with Strickland and smiled as he watched the blue-white scrimmage. Strickland, still working his way back from February ACL surgery, did not play as a precautionary measure, a team spokesman said. But the guard will practice Saturday.

Sophomore P.J. Hairston led the “Blue” team with 12 points in the unofficial stats, while Paige added 7 and Joel had 6. Junior Reggie Bullock and sophomore James Michael McAdoo scored 7 points apiece for the “White” team.

The night seemed enjoyable to them all, although the veterans know Saturday morning’s opening workout will be much different than Friday’s festivities.

“Get your mind ready,” McDonald said when asked how to prepare for a first practice. “We know that this is interacting with the crowd, but tomorrow is the big show. … If you saw us diving on the floor tonight, imagine what we’ll be doing tomorrow.”

Freshmen were not available to talk about their performances (dance or scrimmage); per team rules, they are not allowed to do interviews with media until after they play in their first regular-season game.

But it sounds like at least one guy didn’t have much to say about some of his dance apparel, anyway.

After ESPN recruiting analyst Dave Telep tweeted “@marcuspaige15 you have some explaining to do with the tutu at UNC's Midnight Madness,” Paige, (whom Williams expects to start at point guard this season) offered this response via Twitter: “I’d rather not talk about”.

Follow Robbi Pickeral on Twitter at @bylinerp.