UNC/MarylandBob Donnan/USA TODAY SportsNorth Carolina junior guard Marcus Paige is arguably the top floor leader in the country.
It’s hard to imagine the North Carolina Tar Heels "flying under the radar," but lately when the discussion turns to the elite teams and programs heading into the 2014-15 season, you rarely hear Roy Williams’ squad mentioned. This is a program that won a national championship as recently as 2009 and, after missing the tournament in 2010, made consecutive Sweet 16 appearances in 2011 and 2012.

However, the past two seasons have been out of character for the Heels. They struggled early in 2012-13 without a true low-post scorer. Williams had to adjust Carolina’s system by going small and creating matchup problems. Last season, he had to start the season with P.J. Hairston's off-the-court situation hanging over his team. He didn't know whether the NCAA would reinstate Hairston or he would be ruled ineligible for the season. The uncertainty took its toll on the Tar Heels, and although they seemed to come together late in the season, the team eventually lost in the second round of the NCAA tournament.

But I believe this year will be different.

Where are UNC's outside shooters?

August, 29, 2014
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There are plenty of reasons North Carolina should be excited about this season.

Marcus Paige is one of the best point guards in college basketball. (Ask Connecticut how invaluable that can be.)

The Tar Heels' big men Kennedy Meeks and Brice Johnson should be among the best scoring and rebounding duo of post players in the ACC. Meeks also has proved to possess an added weapon of the outlet pass, which is crucial for a team that likes to run as much as Carolina does.

Junior forward J.P. Tokoto is the lone player returning in the league who made the all-defensive team last season.

And with a recruiting class ranked No. 3 by RecruitingNation, the Heels have depth at every position.

It all adds up to Carolina likely vaulting into a preseason top-10 team on paper. It should compete for an ACC title and be right up there among the Final Four contenders.

There’s just one not-so-slight problem that could keep the Heels from accomplishing those feats. For now, forget the fact that they had one of the worst free throw shooting teams in program history last season. That was partly because of James Michael McAdoo, who shot over 100 more free throws more than the next closest teammate. McAdoo is gone along with his 53.7 free throw percentage.

The question that should scare those in Chapel Hill is where is the outside shooting going to come from outside of Paige?

Paige is their lone proven shooter. He led the team in 3-point percentage last season converting 38.9 percent of his attempts. With the departure of Leslie McDonald, Paige is the only returning player on the roster to reach double digits in 3-pointers. His 2.5 average makes per game is second in the ACC among returnees only to Syracuse guard Trevor Cooney.

Paige accounted for almost 60 percent of the Heels' made 3-pointers last season. That’s why they ranked 339th nationally out of 345 NCAA Division I teams with just 4.3 made 3s per game.

Tokoto was 8-for-36 (22.2 percent) and Nate Britt made 3 of 12 (25.0 percent), but obviously neither player commanded a full closeout from opposing defenders. Tokoto’s midrange game improved toward the end of last season, but that may be his limit. Britt’s shooting from behind the arc is a total mystery given his switch from shooting left-handed last season to right this season.

With limited options from 3-point range, Carolina’s 434 attempts were the fewest 3-pointers in program history since the NCAA adopted the line in 1986-87. (That does not include 302 attempts in the 1982-83 season when the ACC played with an experimental line.)

Carolina might have to wait until the 2015 class to get a pure shooter on its roster. But it would settle for any of the freshmen emerging as a threat.

At 6-foot-7, Justin Jackson has no problem shooting over smaller defenders. He’s comfortable at shooting guard or small forward and has shown enough promise that he could develop into a viable 3-point option alongside Paige. If freshman wing Theo Pinson and point guard Joel Berry II can make enough to keep defenses honest, it could change the entire scouting report for opponents.

Many teams played zone against the Heels last season, a few resorted to exotic defenses such as a box-and-one to contest Paige on the perimeter, but allow anyone else to shoot from deep. (Texas even ran a triangle-and-two, choosing to defend Paige and McDonald.)

Carolina should again expect to see a lot of zone this season as teams pack it in and dare anyone but Paige to prove he can shoot from outside.
Glancing over the many challenges of North Carolina’s schedule prompted coach Roy Williams to say, “This one may be a little off the charts.”

The Tar Heels face a nonconference slate that’s highlighted by the Battle 4 Atlantis with a field that could lead to potential matchups against Oklahoma or UCLA and Florida or Wisconsin. The marquee games continue at home against Iowa in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge and the CBS Sports Classic in Chicago’s United Center against Ohio State.

Both of those games are sandwiched around a trip to Lexington to face Kentucky on Dec. 13.

In a released statement, Williams said the advantages of being successful against a tough nonconference schedule can be “enormous.”

“If you have some success, you can say that I am more prepared than just about anybody to get into conference play and that’s what we are trying to do,” Williams said. “In the pre-conference, get ready for conference play, but also to play some of those national-type games to measure yourself to see how you can do outside the league as well. It is planned to try and get better, get better, get better so that you are hopefully playing your best basketball at the end of the season, when it’s the most important.”

North Carolina opens against its other Durham rival, N.C. Central. The Eagles are coming off their first NCAA tournament appearance last season.

The “All in the Family” portion of the schedule includes dates against former Carolina players or coaches. It starts at home on Dec. 7 against East Carolina, coached by Jeff Lebo, who lettered from 1985-89; Dec. 16 versus UNC Greensboro, coached by Wes Miller, who lettered from 2004-07; Dec. 27 against UAB, coached by Jerod Haase, who played for Williams at Kansas and served on his UNC staff when he arrived in 2003 until 2012; Dec. 30 against William and Mary, coached by William Shaver, who lettered from 1972-75.

The ACC schedule is highlighted by a tough, five-game stretch that entails four road games including at Louisville, Pittsburgh and Duke. The Heels haven’t had a stretch like that since Dean Smith’s final season in 1997. It will mean 19 days away from home between facing Virginia on Feb. 2 and Georgia Tech on Feb. 21. The silver lining during that span is that the Heels have a week off between the Boston College and Pitt road games.

The Heels play Louisville, NC State, Georgia Tech and Duke twice in league play. Their road-only games are Clemson, Wake Forest, Boston College and Miami. Their home-only opponents are Florida State, Notre Dame, Virginia Tech and Syracuse.

North Carolina landed a top-five recruiting class and, with the return of national player of the year candidate Marcus Paige, will likely be ranked in the preseason Top 10. The season begins, in earnest, on Oct. 3 with the team’s annual “Late Night with Roy” celebration.

At least 20 of the Tar Heels’ regular-season games will be televised on the ESPN family of networks.

“The season is a long journey,” Williams said. “… We are going to have some incredible opportunities or incredible challenges; it depends on the way you want to look at it.”

ACC morning links

August, 19, 2014
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It is nearly time to begin preparing for Week 1 matchups. Does it surprise anybody that there are still unanswered questions at quarterback for three Coastal Division contenders?

Miami held a scrimmage Monday night in which true freshman Brad Kaaya continued to impress, throwing two touchdown passes. Transfer Jake Heaps, competing for the starting job, sat out the scrimmage to rest his arm. Coach Al Golden has repeatedly said he would name his starter following both scrimmages. Kevin Olsen is suspended for at least the opener; Kaaya played in both scrimmages; Heaps in just one. Do we read anything into where this leads headed into the opener against Louisville?

Meanwhile in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, coach Larry Fedora said he will not publicly announce his starter before kickoff against Liberty on Aug. 30. Returning starter Marquise Williams and Mitch Trubisky have been in a dogged competition. The Tar Heels will begin game prep Wednesday.

"We'll make a decision before the 30th," Fedora said. "I mean, you guys won't know it. But we will make a decision before the 30th. We'll start as we get into the game-planning, we'll have a plan what we're going to do and how we're going to implement it and those guys will be aware of it.

"It won't be like we walk out there on the 30th and I flip a coin and throw one of them out there."

Finally, the race to start at Virginia Tech is down to Michael Brewer and Mark Leal. Brenden Motley, who left the spring No. 1 on the depth chart, has been dealing with back issues throughout fall camp and has fallen out of the competition. Brewer and Leal split first-team reps during a weekend scrimmage, but a decision remains up in the air.

Now here is quick look at other headlines across the ACC:
Last season began with a variety of contenders for the Wooden Award, one of college basketball’s honors for national player of the year. But Doug McDermott seized the lead early and maintained it for the bulk of the season.

That race lacked the drama of past years because McDermott trounced the field in the first 100 meters and suppressed any doubts about the final outcome.

[+] EnlargeDoug McDermott
Eric Francis/Getty ImagesDoug McDermott ran away with the Wooden Award last season, but this year's race looks to be more wide open.
Things are different for 2014-15. And that’s why I can’t wait to see how this season’s Wooden Award race evolves.

We don’t have a McDermott-like front-runner who has a clear advantage over the field. Yeah, Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky and Louisville’s Montrezl Harrell will certainly crack the Wooden Award’s preseason list. Maybe they’ll be the only two in the mix in the final weeks of the season. But newcomers such as Duke’s Jahlil Okafor could make noise too.

And other players who played Robin last season will be Batman in 2014-15 -- see Caris LeVert and Ryan Boatright -- moves that could change the Wooden Award competition.

This thing seems so open right now. So many contenders and possibilities.

Proof? Check out these lists.

My top Wooden Award contenders (returning players)

  1. Frank Kaminsky -- Wisconsin star is one of the toughest players to defend due to his size and range, and he’s back for another run.
  2. Montrezl Harrell -- Louisville center is bigger, stronger and faster even though he was bigger, stronger and faster than everyone last season.
  3. Marcus Paige -- Averaged 17.5 points per game and 4.2 assists per game for North Carolina last season, but he’ll have more help and the potential for a more productive year.
  4. Fred Van Vleet (or Ron Baker) -- Wichita State’s point guard finished fourth nationally with a 4.02 assist-to-turnover ratio, and he’ll take on a bigger scoring role this year. But Baker, a future pro wing, could ultimately represent Wichita State in the Wooden Award mix.
  5. Branden Dawson -- Tom Izzo’s team will be built around the sturdy, skilled 6-foot-6 forward who was a McDonald’s All-American before injuries interrupted his progress.
  6. Georges Niang -- Iowa State power forward excels with an IQ and arsenal few bigs can match, and he’s healthy again after suffering a foot injury during last season’s NCAA tournament.
  7. Andrew Harrison -- Kentucky point guard will lead the deepest frontcourt in the country and most talented roster in America.
  8. Ryan Boatright -- Had 14 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists and 3 steals in win over Kentucky in national title game, and now UConn is his squad.
  9. Chasson Randle -- The Stanford guard averaged 18.7 PPG and shot 39 percent from the 3-point line for a Cardinal team that reached the Sweet 16 last season.
  10. Juwan Staten -- If you haven’t heard of Staten (18.1 PPG, 5.6 RPG, 5.8 APG, 40 percent from the 3-point line for West Virginia last season), you will. Soon.
My top Wooden Award contenders (freshmen)

  1. Jahlil Okafor -- Duke big man has great hands and mobility.
  2. Cliff Alexander -- Kansas freshman is trapped in a grown man’s body.
  3. Karl Towns/Tyler Ulis -- Kentucky first-year players turned heads during recent Bahamas tour.
  4. Stanley Johnson -- Linebacker who decided to play basketball at Arizona.
  5. Kevon Looney -- Perhaps the next great UCLA freshman.
My top Wooden Award contenders (sleepers)

  1. Wayne Selden Jr. -- KU star averaged 10.2 PPG next to Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid, but now he’s the man in Lawrence.
  2. Marcus Foster -- The sophomore could be one of America’s breakout stars after leading Kansas State to the tourney last season.
  3. Kentucky -- Willie Cauley-Stein, Alex Poythress, Aaron Harrison … take your pick. The whole team is a contender.
  4. Brandon Ashley -- Arizona forward is healthy now after missing a chunk of last season with a foot injury.
  5. Caris LeVert -- The 6-6 standout will be the next Michigan wing to turn pro and carry the Wolverines to Big Ten title contention.

This list is missing a bunch of players (Sorry, Terran Petteway, Malcolm Brogdon and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson). But the field is just that deep and open.

I don’t know how this year’s Wooden Award race will play out, but I can’t wait to see it.

Heels bounce back for exhibition win

August, 16, 2014
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North Carolina pummeled the Bahamas All-Stars 109-52 on Saturday, concluding its participation in the Summer of Thunder tournament in Nassau, Bahamas.

The Tar Heels were never really challenged from the opening tip, making 15 of their first 19 attempts from the floor as they led 32-12 after the first quarter.

Sophomore forward Isaiah Hicks led the Heels in scoring for a second straight game with 19 points. Freshman forward Justin Jackson added 16 and senior center Desmond Hubert rounded out the scorers in double figures with 12.

“Our guys knew we played poorly [on Friday] and they came out with much better focus,” coach Roy Williams said. “We didn’t finish [Friday] night the way we wanted to, but [Saturday] we were much more in tune with what we wanted to do. We were much better defending on the ball, were more unselfish with the ball, and our shots went in the basket, which was also a product of better passing.”

Williams again tinkered with lineup combinations, starting Theo Pinson and Hubert instead of Nate Britt and Kennedy Meeks. Brice Johnson, who played just seven minutes due to a sprained ankle in the Heels loss’ on Friday to the Providence Storm, was back in the starting lineup. But Williams limited his minutes for precautionary reasons.

Carolina shot 61 percent from the floor and even improved from its dismal performance on Friday.

The Heels had a hard time adjusting to the FIBA 3-point distance that measures 22.15 feet from front to center and 21.65 feet in the corner (the NCAA 3-point line is 20.75 feet). On Friday they shot a dismal 3 of 25 from 3-point range.

But they were much better from long range on Saturday. Marcus Paige scored all nine of his points while connecting on all three of his attempts behind the arc. Four other players had one each as the Heels shot 7 of 13 from distance.
North Carolina coach Roy Williams and staff took the Ice Bucket Challenge to support and raise awareness for ALS research Saturday prior to their 5 p.m. exhibition game against the Bahamas All-Stars.

Assistant coach Steve Robinson was the first to get cold water dumped on him -- albeit prematurely -- before Williams issued a challenge to head football coach Larry Fedora and the men's basketball team before football's Aug. 30 home opener against Liberty.

Williams had been challenged by state attorney general Roy Cooper; his former players Rex Walters, who played for him at Kansas; and Wes Miller, who played for the Heels from 2004-07 and is now the head coach at UNC Greensboro.

Here's the clip of Williams and his staff taking the Ice Bucket Challenge.

Heels drop exhibition in Bahamas

August, 15, 2014
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North Carolina dropped its first exhibition in the Bahamas 84-83 to the Providence Storm. Some of the same woes from last season appeared to revisit the Tar Heels, who couldn't close out despite an eight-minute lead in the final three minutes.

Carolina unofficially shot just 8 of 20 from the free-throw line, including two misses by Theo Pinson with 32 seconds left. That opened the door for Ernest Saunders' game-winning 3-pointer with 18.1 seconds left.

The Heels had three chances on their final possession to retake the lead with shots from Marcus Paige and Justin Jackson coming up short.

"They were more aggressive than we were and they made plays down the stretch," coach Roy Williams said in a released statement. "We missed a number of free throws in the fourth quarter and then we failed to pick up an open shooter on that 3-pointer that gave them the lead. We made lots of mistakes, went 3-for-25 from 3 and missed free throws. Hopefully we will learn from this and play better tomorrow."

Just like in the season-ending NCAA tournament loss to Iowa State, forward Brice Johnson sprained an ankle in the first half (they played four quarters) and did not play in the second half.

Paige, Carolina's leading scorer from last season, was held to just nine points. He also sprained his ankle in the third quarter but returned. He shot just 3 of 15 from the floor, including two of the Tar Heels' 3-pointers. The rest of the team shot just 1 of 16 from behind the arc, continuing a narrative from last season of the team lacking shooters.

Sophomore forward Isaiah Hicks led the Heels with 11 points with Meeks and Justin Jackson adding 10 each. J.P. Tokoto led the team with nine rebounds and seven assists to go along with nine points.

Carolina led for all of the fourth quarter until Saunders' shot and nearly matched its biggest lead of the game (41-31) with a 78-70 advantage with three minutes left. But the Storm answered with seven straight points to climb back in the game.

Williams experimented with many combinations beginning with Nate Britt in the starting lineup at point guard, moving Paige to shooting guard. He also used all three freshmen -- Joel Berry, Jackson and Pinson -- in the same lineup.

Keno Burrows led the Storm with 18 points. Burrows played collegiately at IPFW (under current Michigan State assistant coach Dane Fife) and played professionally in Finland this past season.

Neither Burrows nor Saunders played for the Storm last week when they were dismantled by Ohio State, 115-63.

Carolina returns to action Saturday against the Bahama's All-Stars at 5 p.m.

Tar Heels ready for Bahamas

August, 15, 2014
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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?

Bracket reveal: Battle 4 Atlantis

August, 5, 2014
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video Editor's note: It's time to reveal the fields for some of college basketball's biggest early season tournaments. Follow along as we break down the tournaments. All previews can be found here.

Tournament: Battle 4 Atlantis

When and where: Nov. 26-28 at Imperial Arena in Paradise Island, Bahamas

Teams involved: Wisconsin, North Carolina, Florida, Oklahoma, UCLA, Georgetown, UAB, Butler


Initial thoughts: Wow. Talk about a loaded field. Three teams could potentially be ranked in the top 10 (Wisconsin, UNC, Florida) and a fourth (Oklahoma) in the top 15.

The hotel ballroom converted into an arena won't be lacking in star power, either: Georgetown leading scorer D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera is a potential All-America candidate.

Wisconsin's Frank Kaminsky and North Carolina's Marcus Paige are potential Wooden Award candidates, which recognizes the nation's best player. It could be an early showcase for Florida's Chris Walker as well. The highly-touted power forward opted to return to school instead of entering the NBA draft.

The opening games feature Wisconsin versus UAB and Florida versus Georgetown on one side; UCLA versus Oklahoma and Butler versus North Carolina on the other side.

The toughest opening game could be between the Sooners and UCLA. RecruitingNation ranked the Bruins' 2014 class No. 10 powered by forward Kevon Looney and center Thomas Welsh. The duo will have an opportunity to grow up fast against top competition.

Oklahoma returns four starters from last season, including leading scorer Buddy Hield, leading rebounder Ryan Spangler and Jordan Woodard, who led the team in assists. The Sooners spent the summer smarting from being upset in the NCAA tournament by North Dakota State and are clamoring to make an early-season statement.

UAB will take a young team to the tournament having returned just three of its top eight from last season. Butler isn't the giant killer it once was, but will boast a deep backcourt including leading scorer Kellen Dunham and Indiana transfer Austin Etherington.

Why you'll watch: Only once in the three previous years of the tournament has both the highest-ranked teams reached the final. Harvard won the inaugural event by upsetting No. 22 Florida State and then beating UCF -- which had upset No. 4 Connecticut. An unranked Villanova squad won it last season with wins over No. 2 Kansas and No. 23 Iowa. The strength of those wins propelled the Wildcats to an eventual No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament. Butler and UAB would love to disrupt the chalk matchups from happening.

The Hoyas could make noise if they find additional scoring to help Smith-Rivera.

In the event the tournament goes according to chalk, it could be a preview of a high-stakes March game. When No. 2 Duke beat No. 5 Louisville in 2012, it was without center Gorgui Dieng, who was injured in the semifinals. The Cardinals won the rematch in the Elite Eight with Dieng healthy, and eventually won the 2013 national title.

Wisconsin and North Carolina are on opposite sides of the bracket and would make for an intriguing matchup in the finals. Before that could occur the Badgers could face Florida -- in a faux third-place matchup of the 2014 Final Four -- in the semifinals.

The Badgers and Gators played last year in the regular season, and both teams return a lot of key players from that game. Florida lost more but will still be deep with point guard Kasey Hill, sharpshooter Michael Frazier II and forward Dorian Finney-Smith. Wisconsin lost only one key player from last season and expects to make another Final Four run.

Even the consolation games in this tournament could be marquee matchups -- what if the Tar Heels and Gators both lost and squared off? I'm pretty sure folks would still tune in to watch.

Trading the gridiron for hoops

August, 4, 2014
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We’ll probably never see another football-basketball star like Florida State’s Charlie Ward from two decades ago. Today’s players have a tendency to specialize in one sport early, but not all of them do. Many of today’s top basketball players could have made a career in football, too.

As we usher in the annual opening of football fall camps this week, here is a list of players we’re glad decided to trade the gridiron for hoops:

Ryan Spangler, 6-foot-8, 231, F, Oklahoma: You would never suspect Spangler had a passing touch watching him bang for 9.3 rebounds per game for the Sooners. But he played quarterback and punted at Bridge Creek High School, and went so far as to take unofficial visits for football to Arkansas and Texas Tech as a sophomore. He finished his three-year career with nearly 7,000 passing yards with 71 touchdowns and just 20 interceptions. (Not to mention averaging 37.8 yards per punt as a senior.)

[+] EnlargeMontrezl Harrell
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesLouisville's Montrezl Harrell was recruited as a tight end out of high school by N.C. State.
Montrezl Harrell, 6-8, 235, F, Louisville: Harrell played for football powerhouse North Edgecombe High School in North Carolina’s smallest classification. He had drawn interest from N.C. State as a tight end, and there is no reason to believe he couldn’t have been an Antonio Gates clone. Harrell, who has a track record for shattering backboards, would have had no problem breaking a cornerback in two.

Willie Cauley-Stein, 7-0, 244, F, Kentucky: The visual of seeing a 7-foot receiver split wide had to be as intimidating to defensive backs as it is when an undersized guard dribbles down the lane attempting to score on the Wildcats’ leading shot-blocker. Cauley-Stein totaled 1,140 receiving yards -- averaging 20 yards per reception -- and caught 14 touchdowns in just nine games as a senior.

Denzel Valentine, 6-5, 225, G, Michigan State: Valentine’s father Carlton played basketball for the Spartans from 1985-88 and coached his high school basketball team to consecutive state titles. Valentine’s path to playing hoops was probably paved at birth -- but there was a time he played quarterback as a freshman at Lansing Sexton High School. A knee injury and the subsequent surgery he needed solidified his need to focus on basketball.

Nigel Hayes, 6-7, 250, F, Wisconsin: Hayes could have easily followed in the footsteps of his older brother Kenny, a defensive lineman who played a season at Ohio State. Hayes was an all-conference receiver at Toledo Whitmer High as a junior, but he decided to leave football behind as a senior to concentrate on basketball.

Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, 6-7, 215, F, Arizona: Hollis-Jefferson has something in common with Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan. Both played football at Chester (Pennsylvania) High School. Hollis-Jefferson was listed as a receiver and defensive end as junior. He even got a shot at playing quarterback, but his basketball skills were so much further ahead he missed football games because of hoops obligations.

Rod Hall, 6-1, 205, G, Clemson: Hall is listed as the exact same size as Clemson receiver Sammy Watkins, who was taken fourth overall in the 2014 NFL draft by the Buffalo Bills. And Hall drew interest from Kentucky and Georgia Tech as a wide receiver after recording about 1,200 receiving yards his senior year at Augusta (Georgia) Laney High School. He was named all-state in football by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

J.P. Tokoto, 6-6, F, North Carolina: Okay, not football, but futbol. Tokoto has a strong pedigree as his grandfather once played for the Cameroon national team. Although Tokoto stopped playing soccer at 13, his athleticism would pretty much allow him to be competitive on any field.
video

Seth Greenberg breaks down the brackets for a handful of early-season college basketball tournaments, including a loaded field at the Battle 4 Atlantis.
North Carolina Tar Heels junior J.P. Tokoto, whose effortless athleticism in the open court has often drawn comparisons to Vince Carter, eyed freshman Joel Berry, the only defender separating him from the rim on a fast break.

It was just a meaningless basket in a long line of summer pickup games, but Tokoto has been known to embarrass defenders, thanks to his hang time. Berry was well aware of this when he went up to contest the shot.

“I’m thinking, ‘This little freshman, I’m just going to finish over the top,' " Tokoto said. “The next thing I know, I’m catching like a forearm to my chest and he’s up in the air with me.”

Berry served notice. A new breed has arrived in Chapel Hill. They're not backing down, even during an insignificant pickup game.

“It was just a shock,” said Tokoto, who used his status as an upperclassman to call a foul, even though he admitted it probably wasn’t one.

It’s kind of hard to build a reputation for being tough as a team with all those All-Americans wearing baby blue. The Tar Heels have long been perceived as leaning toward finesse well before Roy Williams' tenure began. But Carolina’s freshman class of Berry, Theo Pinson and Justin Jackson could alter that this season.

The trio arrived on campus with the kind of hunger -- better yet, heart -- that has been missing in Chapel Hill for some time.

When’s the last time a Carolina team was defined by its toughness? The 2009 national championship team? Maybe, but more often than not, the teams were defined by players who played like a bunch of nice guys who didn't have a lot of fight.

Junior guard Marcus Paige doesn't believe lack of fight will be a problem this season. He likes what he sees from the freshmen so far.

“The thing I like about them most is they all have a real tough competitive edge, you can even tell in pickup games and in drills -- especially Joel,” Paige said. “He’s such a fiery competitor, and having that on the team is going to help. Because not everyone has it, let’s be honest. Everyone wants to win, but not everyone is super-fiery and competitive and I think all three of them have that and to go with their talent, it’s going to push our team to make it better.”

It all starts with position battles. Williams could very well use a starting lineup of all returnees with Nate Britt at point guard, Paige at shooting guard, and round it out with Tokoto, Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks.

But Berry will push Britt for playing time, giving Williams the option to use Paige, who led the team in scoring last season, off the ball.

Pinson, at 6-foot-6, and Jackson, at 6-8, could make a strong case to leave Paige at point guard and make Williams think about starting a big lineup with a freshman shooting guard.

“We don’t have that many natural 2s so I know that between the point guards and the freshmen coming in, there will be a lot of rotations and different looks from those two positions,” Britt said.

Tokoto has seniority at small forward, but could also end up being challenged by Pinson and Jackson, who both might be better 3-point shooters.

Paige called Jackson a “complete offensive player,” but what the trio could bring defensively has the veterans excited. Tokoto said Berry brings “physicality” that will be useful against bigger guards in the conference. Pinson has the length and quickness to guard three positions. Jackson is big enough to defend a power forward, but would likely create a mismatch for an opponent on the other end.

“They’re exactly what we need basketball-wise and talent-wise,” Paige said.

And toughness-wise, too.
North Carolina coach Roy Williams watched Nate Britt struggle with shooting during his freshman season. When he broke down the mechanics of Britt's left-handed shot, he noticed an obvious hitch in his form and it actually made Williams think about the tape he watched of Britt while the guard was being recruited.

Williams said Nate Britt Sr. recorded drills of his 11-year-old son coming off imaginary picks that were cones placed on the ground.

"When he'd come off one way he'd shoot left-handed," Williams said. "And when he'd come off the other way he'd shoot right-handed and it looked great."

Williams called Britt's father with the "crazy idea" of Nate switching hands and Britt's father said he was actually thinking the same thing. Thus began Nate's journey.

[+] EnlargeNate Britt
Jeremy McKnight/Icon SM"Everyone who has seen me play with both [hands] doesn't feel like it's a big deal," Nate Britt said.
Plenty of players adjust their shooting mechanics during the course of their college career, but very few could even consider the option of changing hands.

Britt has had people call him crazy for alternating hands while shooting throughout his playing career.

"Everyone who has seen me play with both doesn't feel like it's a big deal," he said.

Britt writes left-handed and considers himself a southpaw although when it comes to sports he said "anything with a stick or a club" he plays right-handed. So he doesn't consider his ambidextrous whims to be that much of a challenge.

"I feel the same," Britt said. "I think I do feel like the right hand felt more natural even from when I first picked up a basketball my natural instinct was to shoot with my right hand."

Around the ninth grade Britt said he decided to shoot exclusively with his left hand with the thought that concentrating on one hand would help him improve. But that wasn't the case last season.

Britt shot just 36.7 percent from the floor and made just 3 of 12 3-pointers for the Tar Heels. Aside from the stats, Williams was concerned with the "significant hitch" in Britt's form. Once he left his feet he had a tendency to twist his entire lower torso. He also fell into the habit of shooting with his left hand positioned more on the side of the ball than underneath it.

"We showed it to him on tape but still sometimes you can't change it," Williams said.

Ironically, Williams doesn't want Britt to change at the free throw line. He'll continue to shoot those left-handed since his shot doesn't have the same glitch when he stays on the ground. Britt shot 79 percent from the free throw line last season, which ranked second behind Marcus Paige on the team.

Britt hopes he can join Paige to give the Tar Heels another 3-point threat. He said shooting right-handed has given him more range because his right hand is stronger than his left. Paige, who's probably worked out with Britt more than any other player on the team, already believes the change is for the better.

"His right hand shot is so smooth and he gets it off a lot more effortlessly," Paige said.

Britt averaged nearly 21 minutes per game last season and started 16 games -- including the first nine games while Leslie McDonald and P.J. Hairston awaited ruling on their eligibility.

Britt's playing time as a sophomore could be largely determined by how well he can contribute offensively, with freshman guard Joel Berry and wings Theo Pinson and Justin Jackson ready to contribute immediately. The trio gives Williams plenty of backcourt options that the Tar Heels simply didn't have last season.

Britt said he was not concerned about being lost in the rotation. And his new shot is the reason why he doesn't have to be.

"He feels good about it now -- it's a much smoother stroke, it's got better spin, more consistent arc to me," Williams said. "It is strange. I've never had anybody suggest (changing hands) by any means, but looks to me like it's working. That's the best way to say it."
By the time Florida's Chris Walker was cleared to play last season, it was difficult for the freshman to have any sort of real impact. Walker played in just 18 games and didn't even average five minutes.

He's still being projected as a lottery pick for the 2015 NBA draft.

That's why he's all wrong for this particular list of sophomores to watch. Much time is spent following the most talented players and their journey to the pros; consider this equal time tracking the players most likely to develop while staying around a few seasons.

These 12 sophomores should make big improvements from their freshmen seasons -- just not substantial enough to leap right to the NBA. The players were all ranked in the top 100 of the 2013 class by RecruitingNation, but played less than 10 minutes per game as freshmen. (The one exception was Marc Loving, who averaged 10.9 minutes.) Most important, these players will likely all be back as juniors:

[+] EnlargeLuke Fischer
Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY SportsAfter transferring from Indiana, 6-foot-11 center Luke Fischer will be eligible to play Dec. 14.
Luke Fischer, forward/center, Marquette. First-year coach Steve Wojciechowski must be plenty glad Fischer got homesick after just 13 games at Indiana and decided to transfer. Fischer will be eligible in December, which can't come soon enough for the Golden Eagles, who lost their top three rebounders and lack the size that the 6-foot-11 Fischer brings.

Tre'Shaun Fletcher, guard/forward, Colorado. Fletcher suffered a knee injury and missed 14 games as a freshman. When healthy last season, he proved to be a reliable reserve and his role should expand next season.

Conner Frankamp, guard, Kansas. The Jayhawks are looking for the stability at point guard they never seemed to get last season. Frankamp could provide it, not to mention add another shooter to the lineup. He'll have his chance to start at point if he can beat out Frank Mason and Devonte Graham.

Anton Gill, guard, Louisville. Gill's offensive skills weren't questioned, but as strictly a shooting guard, he wasn't versatile enough to work his way into the backcourt rotation. He still figures to be coming off the bench, with Terry Rozier and Chris Jones starting, but Gill will make an impact this season.

Isaiah Hicks, forward, North Carolina. Hicks appeared in every game as a freshman for the Tar Heels, but mainly played out of position at small forward. This season he should be returning to power forward, where he should establish himself as the Heels' top frontcourt reserve.

Kuran Iverson, forward, Memphis. At this point, he may be best known for being related to Allen Iverson. That claim to fame should change next season, when the Tigers no longer have such a guard-centric lineup. Iverson could help make the wings the strongest position on the team.

Matt Jones, guard, Duke. Coach Mike Krzyzewski believed in him enough to start him four times, but Jones has to rediscover his confidence after shooting just 29 percent from the floor. If he doesn't, he could find himself buried in a roster that just got a lot deeper with the incoming freshman class.

Marcus Lee, forward, Kentucky. Lee showed how effective he could be with his 10-point, eight-rebound performance in just 15 minutes in the Elite Eight game against Michigan. But his toughest competition is arguably the Wildcats' crowded frontcourt. It's hard to envision how he'll get enough playing time to stand out.

Marc Loving, forward, Ohio State. LaQuinton Ross' decision to turn pro left the Buckeyes sorely lacking in scorers. Here's where Loving will have a chance to make a big leap from his freshman season average of 4.4 points. He'll likely find himself in the starting lineup after appearing in all 35 games last season but starting none.

Elliott Pitts, guard, Arizona. Even with the departure of Nick Johnson, the Wildcats will still have a crowded backcourt. Pitts proved to be a 3-point threat from off the bench last season, shooting 39 percent from deep. That and his 6-foot-5 frame could help him crack the rotation more next season.

Tyler Roberson, forward, Syracuse. Playing behind C.J. Fair and Jerami Grant meant Roberson had to wait his turn. His lone start last season came when Grant was injured. But after averaging 2.2 points in 8.1 minutes per game, Roberson will be needed to help the Orange solve their scoring woes.

Ish Wainright, guard/forward, Baylor. The Bears lost three of their top four scorers, including 3-point sharpshooter Brady Heslip. Wainright doesn't have the same range that Heslip had, but his size and length bring versatility to the lineup. At 6-foot-5, he can play multiple positions and has the potential to be a lockdown defender.

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