- C.L. Brown, College Basketball Reporter
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Editor's note: It's never too early to start to look ahead to next season. Over the coming weeks, we will examine what comes next for each team in the Power 5 conferences and also those outside the Power 5 who could make noise on the national stage.
Roy Williams' first six seasons in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, ended with three Final Four appearances and two national championship banners raised in the Dean E. Smith Center. His last six? Crickets. They still talk about what might have been had Kendall Marshall not suffered a wrist injury in the 2012 NCAA tournament on a team built to win the title. Playing in the last weekend has long been the measuring stick for the North Carolina Tar Heels and Williams might have the group to get them back there next season.
The amount of talent and experience on the roster will arguably be the most Williams has had since the 2009 national championship team. That was the last time the best player, who happened to also be the team's leading scorer, made it to his senior season without turning pro. More on Marcus Paige later, but the biggest recruiting coup for Carolina this spring was that he decided to return for his senior season.
Three of the Heels' starters followed Paige's lead; forwards Brice Johnson, Justin Jackson and Kennedy Meeks, all of whom averaged double figures scoring, will be back. The surprise was that small forward J.P. Tokoto, Carolina's most versatile player, opted to declare for the NBA draft. Tokoto's absence does nothing to temper expectations for next season.
What could put a damper on the season is the still-pending NCAA response to the university's nearly two-decade-long trail of paper classes that put several sports, including men's basketball, in jeopardy of sanctions. Will future scholarships be taken away? Will a banner come down? No one knows how severe the penalties may be.
What the immediate future holds: Paige played roughly half of the season on an injured foot. The difference in his game was obvious. He became way more cautious of driving to the basket. He had developed the tendency to float on the perimeter and settled for jumpers. Once he got healthy in late February, that changed and he performed like the player many expected when he was voted the ACC's preseason player of the year.
Starting with his 23 points in the regular-season finale against Duke, Paige scored double figures in the Heels' last eight games. He averaged 17.1 points over that span and shot 45 percent from the field and from 3-point range -- all of which were well above his regular-season numbers. (Paige averaged 13.2 points, shot 40 percent from the field and 37.7 percent from 3-point range prior to the final eight games.)
A healthy Paige leads to a healthy outlook for the Heels. Now here is where Tokoto's early departure could actually make them a better team -- at least offensively -- next season. Paige is a scoring point guard and he's been most effective the past two seasons for Carolina when he plays off the ball. He could possibly do that from the beginning next season as the starting lineup could have sophomore Joel Berry II or junior Nate Britt at point.
Carolina ranked 10th nationally in adjusted offense last season, according to Ken Pomeroy, and that was with a lineup that struggled with perimeter shooting for half the season. Berry, Britt and Jackson all improved during the course of the season from outside so teams won't be able to pack it inside against them next season.
The Heels will be deep, too. Wing Theo Pinson missed 10 games with a broken foot, returned and missed four more games dealing with its soreness. He could make a push to replace Tokoto in the starting lineup. He's already the most likely to inherit Tokoto's role of doing a little bit of everything.
Forward Isaiah Hicks would be a starter in a lot of places but again could end up coming off the bench. Forward Joel James is a good offseason away from transforming from a player who came to Carolina as a project to one who will leave as a legitimate contributor.
So far, Carolina has signed only forward Luke Maye in the 2015 class. Should Kinston, North Carolina, native Brandon Ingram -- ranked No. 12 in the class by Recruiting Nation -- follow in the footsteps of Jerry Stackhouse and Reggie Bullock, Williams will have an abundance of talent and the all of the national title expectations that come with it. After the past three seasons of good but not great teams at Carolina, it would be a welcome change for the Tar Heels.
Roy Williams might have the players to get the North Carolina Tar Heels back to the top next season.