North Carolina Tar Heels: ACC

Isaiah Hicks' performance in the 2013 North Carolina 3A state championship game ranks among the state’s best ever regardless of classification.

The game earned Hicks instant-legend status in the state’s prep circles. It also punctuated all the accolades he received, like being named a McDonald’s All American and the state’s 2013 Gatorade Player of the Year.

His stat line that day -- 34 points, 30 rebounds -- helped power Oxford (N.C.) Webb High School to the title.

It also elevated the expectations last season for Hicks' at North Carolina.

[+] EnlargeIsaiah Hicks, Anthony Monaco
Robert Willett/Raleigh News & Observer/MCTSigns point to North Carolina's Isaiah Hicks making a much bigger impact this coming season.
His freshman-year transition to college hoops didn't turn out to be an easy one. His total points and total rebounds for the Tar Heels last season barely surpassed what he did in that state championship game.

Hicks' stat line from last season -- 42 points, 35 rebounds -- was modest considering he was one of seven Carolina players who appeared in every game.

But there is no need to wonder if the pundits got it wrong on Hicks. He could very well be the Heels’ most improved player this season and start having the impact many envisioned he would have when he came out of high school.

The biggest difference for Hicks, arguably even more important than having a year of experience, is a move back to his natural position.

Last season, he was forced to attempt to play small forward for the Heels. He didn’t have the skill set to do it, and it made for an awkward adjustment. Hicks lacked the instincts of a small forward and he couldn’t hide it. He often spent the 7.3 minutes he averaged on the floor looking as if he were literally thinking through his responsibilities as opposed to anticipating his next moves.

Hicks told reporters in July that he didn’t get frustrated last season playing out of position because he viewed it as a sacrifice for the team.

He won’t be asked to make such a sacrifice this season.

The addition of freshmen wings Theo Pinson and Justin Jackson means Hicks will no longer be needed as a reserve at small forward. The departure of James Michael McAdoo means more playing time will be available at power forward.

Hicks played the post while he was putting up big numbers in high school. With Brice Johnson likely the front-runner to start at power forward, Hicks is poised to be the first off the bench to replace him.

That was the case during North Carolina's trip to the Bahamas last month, when Johnson tweaked his ankle and played just seven minutes in two games. Hicks led the Heels in scoring in each of those games with 11 and 19 points.

While it’s a stretch to believe Hicks will lead the team in scoring when the games start to count, what those island games indicated is that Hicks will make himself a factor. He will be better-suited to defend the post than he was on the wing against quicker opponents. He runs the floor better than most power forwards. He doesn’t need his play called to score -- Hicks can make a considerable living off rebounds and putbacks.

That likely won’t earn him a legendary stat line. But it will make all remember why Hicks was a coveted recruit in the first place.

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.”

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

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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?
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."
Finally, it seems North Carolina Tar Heels guard Marcus Paige will enter a season where things are exactly how he expects them to be.

That didn't happen when he signed out of high school. Paige thought he'd play backup to Kendall Marshall at point guard and slowly make the transition to the college game. Instead Marshall bolted for the NBA, which sent Paige into the starting lineup from the opening tip.

It didn't happen as a sophomore. P.J. Hairston figured to be the Tar Heels go-to scorer on the floor, but was never reinstated after receiving impermissible benefits. That forced Paige to take over the scoring burden.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Paige
AP Photo/Eric GayMarcus Paige, who led the Tar Heels with 19 points, hit some big shots down the stretch against Providence.
For the nine games Leslie McDonald was ineligible, Paige was the Heels' only 3-point threat. For the entire season, he was the only player UNC fans felt comfortable seeing at the free throw line.

"There were some things that happened in the offseason that obviously shook up our team a little bit -- a lot of bit -- and just kind of changed the whole dynamic of leadership, of scoring options all that stuff," Paige said. "This year we haven't any of that. Our roster has been set. Everybody is good to go. It's been a lot more relaxing from that standpoint. I'm more at ease with what's going on."

Entering his junior season, Paige is burden-free. And that may actually mean he does less next season as the Tar Heels accomplish more.

Paige became the first player to lead the Heels in both scoring (17.5) and assists (4.2) since Jeff McInnis (16.5 ppg, 5.5 apg) in 1995-96. But with the offensive weapons added to the roster, he doesn't think he'll have to score as much next season.

"Our scoring will be more balanced this year, there's guys that are ready to make leaps, especially offensively," Paige said.

Starting with sophomore center Kennedy Meeks, who has dropped nearly 50 pounds from where he arrived on campus and is down to 271. Meeks' conditioning will allow him to stay on the court longer. He showed snapshots of his potential last season including his 13-point, 12 rebounds and seven assists in the win over Louisville.

Paige pointed to forwards Brice Johnson and J.P. Tokoto as having bigger roles and he said the freshmen trio of Joel Berry, Theo Pinson and Justin Jackson were all talented scorers as well. He said it should amount to the Heels not having as much trouble scoring in halfcourt as they did last season.

"I expect to shoot a higher percentage from the floor and from the 3-point line," Paige said. "I shouldn't have to take as many tough shots as I had to take last year at times to try to create points. We struggled to score a lot in the half court last year against tough defensive teams. I think I won't have to do that as much."

But for the times he will have the ball and the Heels need a basket, Paige said he's been working this summer on scoring in isolation and creating his own shot.

Paige doesn't expect a repeat of last season's tendency to have quiet starts offensively before erupting in the second half.

"Coach [Steve] Robinson told me to set the tone with my intensity and my aggressiveness and if they have to scale me back they'll do that," Paige said. "That's kind of the mindset I'm going to have going in, but I wouldn't expect to average 20 [points] a game or anything this year because we're too talented for that."

Paige could again find himself playing off the ball for portions of the game with either sophomore Nate Britt or Berry running point. He could also see a lineup when he is at point guard and joined by the 6-foot-6 Pinson or 6-foot-8 Jackson at shooting guard.

That's the kind of versatility that gives Paige high hopes for the coming season.

"I don't think there's any team that I'm looking at like, 'We can't beat them,' or 'we don't have the talent to matchup with them,'" Paige said. "We'll definitely have our tests with our schedule, but I think that will help us out and I think we're a legitimate Final Four contender if we can put all our pieces together."

Paige was asked about the ESPN.com college basketball coach poll that ranked UNC's Roy Williams 16th: "That's kind of ridiculous honestly. There's no chance that's remotely close. I may be biased, but, no way."
It seemed like three different seasons within the one that played out for North Carolina this season.

UNC coach Roy Williams endured his most troublesome offseason last year while the NCAA looked into rules violations committed by guards P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald. The Tar Heels began the season wondering when the duo would be reinstated. The cloud of investigation stayed over Chapel Hill until finally being resolved nine games into the season.

McDonald returned, but the school decided not to apply for Hairston’s reinstatement. The immediate aftermath led to their second season. The Heels searched for an identity and slumped during the process. They started ACC play looking like a team whose season would not extend into the NCAA tournament.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Paige, Rodney Hood, Quinn Cook
Bob Donnan/USA TODAY SportsMarcus Paige could be poised to be the best player in the ACC next season.
All of which led to the turnaround. The third season within the season saw the Heels find their way despite their flaws and made a long postseason run appear possible.

What we saw this season

Carolina proved it could beat any team in the country by becoming the first team ever to beat the top four teams (No. 1 Kentucky, No. 2 Michigan State, No. 3 Louisville and No. 4 Duke) ranked in the Associated Press preseason Top 25. The Tar Heels also proved that they could lose to any team as well, dropping games to Belmont and ACC cellar-dweller Miami at home and UAB on the road.

The loss of Hairston created a perimeter void that was never filled. It left Carolina limited offensively with Marcus Paige and McDonald being the only true 3-point shooting threats.

While making adjustments to how they needed to play offensively, inconsistency characterized the first half of the season. It was far from a typical Williams-coached team that could simply overpower opponents offensively, and took a while for the Heels to find their niche.

Part of their new identity came on the defensive end, where they developed into a team that didn’t have to rely on simply outscoring their opponents.

That helped fuel a 12-game winning streak during ACC play -- their longest since the 2008-09 national championship season -- that redefined the season. Despite a 1-4 start in conference play, the Heels rallied to finish tied for third with Duke with a 13-5 record in the league.

Paige emerged from playing a supporting role as a freshman point guard to the bona fide go-to player as a sophomore. He developed a Clark Kent routine of playing nondescript first halves before changing into his cape during intermission. Opponents came to expect Paige to have a big second-half scoring, earning him the nickname “Second-half Marcus.”

Free throws reached a historic low and proved to be a constant nuisance throughout the season. The nadir came in the Heels’ 22-of-48 performance during their loss to Belmont. Carolina shot 62.6 percent from the line, which edged the 1953-54 season (62.9 percent) for the worst shooting percentage in program history since they began keeping that stat in the 1950s.

For a second straight season, the Heels didn’t make it out of the NCAA tournament’s first weekend. As a No. 6 seed in the East Region, they squandered a lead late in their third-round loss to Iowa State.

What we expect to see next season

Williams will have what coaches consider one of those “good problems.” The Tar Heels' roster is stacked with a lot of talent, not to mention a lot more athleticism, which should lend to a lot more versatility.

The Heels will probably be a preseason top-10 team, and Paige will likely be the preseason ACC Player of the Year. Paige could end up playing off the ball a lot more next season with the return of sophomore point guard Nate Britt and the addition of freshman point guard Joel Berry. The Heels should be able to run more next season with a combination of any two of those players in the backcourt. What could prove to be a weakness is that Paige is Carolina’s only proven 3-point shooter.

J.P. Tokoto was the Heels’ one true wing player last season. He’ll have plenty of company next season with McDonald’s All Americans Justin Jackson and Theo Pinson joining the rotation. Williams could even experiment, as he did some last season, with using Tokoto and possibly Jackson at shooting guard in a big lineup.

Isaiah Hicks could be the biggest beneficiary from James Michael McAdoo’s decision to turn pro. While Brice Johnson will likely be the starter at power forward, Hicks could move back to his more natural position after spending much of his freshman season playing small forward. Hicks didn’t come close to showing his potential in limited minutes this season, so he could be ready to shine as a sophomore.

Johnson could play a considerably bigger role next season. He averaged only 19 minutes per game this season, but is the Heels’ best scorer in the post. With McAdoo gone, Johnson also returns as the leading rebounder, although he had just two more than center Kennedy Meeks.

The offseason for Meeks will be crucial for what could be expected from him next season, and conditioning will be at the forefront as he continues to shed pounds. As long as he returns in shape, he should solidify the starting spot at center.

The front-court rotation could get crowded, as Williams has always valued his experienced players, and he’ll have plenty. Desmond Hubert, who is the best defender in the post, Jackson Simmons and Joel James will continue to be rotation mainstays.

For the third time since the ACC/Big Ten Challenge began in 1999, more teams have been added to the mix. The battle for conference supremacy started with just nine games deciding the outcome back when that was the extent of ACC membership.

The league has ballooned to 15 teams and now that the Big Ten expanded too, a slate of 14 games over three consecutive nights from Dec. 1-3 will determine bragging rights.

The ACC was 6-0 when just nine teams played in the Challenge. It was 4-2 after ACC expansion and 11 teams played. Since going to 12 teams the Big Ten won once and the Challenge has ended in consecutive ties.

The ACC still holds an advantage winning 10 of the 15 meetings overall, but it has not won the Challenge since 2008.

Louisville (ACC) and Rutgers (Big Ten) will make their respective debuts in the Challenge this season. Clemson, Wake Forest and Virginia Tech did not participate last season for the ACC. Boston College will sit this one out this season.

As Maryland changes allegiances from ACC charter member to Big Ten expansion team, it becomes the Big Ten team with the most wins. The Terrapins have participated in every challenge and has a 10-5 record, and trails only Duke (13) for most Challenge wins. Five Big Ten teams (Illinois, Minnesota, Ohio State, Purdue, Wisconsin) are tied with seven wins in the series.

From top to bottom, here are the best matchups of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge:

1. Duke at Wisconsin: It just might be an early Final Four preview. On paper, both have the rosters that could be playing the final weekend of the season. The Badgers, led by center Frank Kaminsky, return most of the rotation that got Bo Ryan to his first Final Four during his Wisconsin tenure. Duke restocks with the No. 1 recruiting class led by center Jahlil Okafor and guard Tyus Jones. The Blue Devils were 0-4 versus top 10 teams away from home last season in a year that ended with a NCAA second round flameout against Mercer. Wisconsin will be an early test to see if Duke will write a different narrative this season.

2. Iowa at North Carolina: Expect a high-scoring game because the Hawkeyes and Tar Heels both want to run early and often. Forward Jarrod Uthoff and center Gabriel Olaseni give Iowa a formidable frontcourt duo that will put up points in Fran McCaffery’s system despite their roster losses from last season. The Hawkeyes have never won on the road (0-5) in the Challenge. UNC will be a much more athletic team than it was last season with the addition of freshmen Joel Berry, Theo Pinson and Justin Jackson. The game could offer a small bit of redemption back home for guard Marcus Paige, who is a Marion, Iowa, native, after the Heels were bounced by Iowa State in the NCAA tournament.

3. Ohio State at Louisville: The last time Thad Matta squared off against Rick Pitino, Xavier upset the Cardinals in the 2004 NCAA tournament en route to the Elite Eight. It was the run that helped Matta land the Buckeyes job. Matta will learn what he’s working with in an early road test for a young, but talented team. The game will also serve as a homecoming for Ohio State freshman guard D’Angelo Russell, a Louisville native, who had an offer from Louisville. Ironically, next season, the Cards will rely heavily on sophomore guard Terry Rozier, a Cleveland native, who is expected to have a breakout year with the departure of Russ Smith. Montrezl Harrell’s decision to return to school was like a recruiting coup for the Cards.

4. Virginia at Maryland: A new twist to an old rivalry. The two foes have literally played the past 100 years, and as ACC rivals the game had the exalted status of the final regular season game for the better part of the last four decades. It could easily be the most intense game of the Challenge since both teams know each other so well. The backcourt battle pitting Virginia’s London Perrantes and Malcolm Brogdon against Maryland’s Seth Allen and Dez Wells could determine the outcome.

5. Michigan State at Notre Dame: From 1908 to 1979 the Spartans and Irish had a healthy basketball rivalry, meeting 94 times. It’s the first meeting between the schools since MSU beat the Irish in the Elite Eight en route to its 1979 national championship. The Spartans bring back Branden Dawson, who considered turning pro. The Irish welcome back Jerian Grant, who withdrew from school at the start of conference play due to an “academic matter.”

6. Syracuse at Michigan: Think of how great this game would have been with guard Tyler Ennis and forward Jerami Grant still suiting up for the Orange and guard Nik Stauskas, forward Glenn Robinson III and center Mitch McGary playing for the Wolverines. Instead, they form an all-star lineup of NBA early entries. In a rematch of the 2013 Final Four game, only a combined five players (Syracuse: Rakeem Christmas, Trevor Cooney; Michigan: Spike Albrecht, Caris LeVert) remain who played in the game.

7. Nebraska at Florida State: If the Cornhuskers plan on improving on last season's NCAA appearance, they have to learn to win games like this. The Huskers were just 3-8 last season on the road and Tallahassee can be a tough place to play. The Seminoles missed the NCAA tournament last season due to several close nonconference losses, a trend they’ll need to reverse this season.

8. Pittsburgh at Indiana: The Panthers haven’t played the Hoosiers in Bloomington since 1941 and Pitt's experienced guards Cameron Wright and James Robinson won’t be intimidated by Assembly Hall. Noah Vonleh’s decision to turn pro possibly set IU back in its bid to rejoin the nation’s elite. But guard Yogi Ferrell and newcomer James Blackmon Jr. means the Hoosiers' cupboard isn’t bare.

9. Illinois at Miami: The Illini could be a darkhorse in league and an early road win could prove it. Guard Rayvonte Rice will be even harder to stop if he can improve his 3-point shooting from 29.5 percent last season. The Canes return just three players from last season, who accounted for just 15 percent of their scoring. Transfers Angel Rodriguez (Kansas State) and Sheldon McClellan (Texas) should make immediate impact for Miami.

10. Minnesota at Wake Forest: Guards Deandre Mathieu and Andre Hollins give Minnesota backcourt stability. The Deacons counter with their top duo of leading scorer Codi Miller-McIntyre and leading rebounder Devin Thomas, who should help Danny Manning make a smooth transition in his first season as coach.

11. Rutgers at Clemson: The Mack and Jack show is back for Rutgers. Myles Mack and Kadeem Jack were the top two scorers from last season and a formidable duo. Clemson returned everyone of impact except leading scorer and rebounder K.J. McDaniels. Guard Rod Hall will likely expand his scoring role after leading the Tigers in assists.

12. NC State at Purdue: The Boilermakers are the hottest team in the Challenge with five straight wins. Junior 7-footer A.J. Hammons gives Purdue a solid centerpiece to build around. NCSU has the monumental task of replacing 2014 ACC Player of the Year T.J. Warren. The Wolfpack's fortunes could rest with talented, yet erratic, point guard Anthony Barber.

13. Georgia Tech at Northwestern: Both teams hope to get a boost from guards lost to injury last season. Tech’s Travis Jorgenson played in just four games before tearing his ACL. Northwestern’s oft-injured guard JerShon Cobb, its leading scorer returning, missed the last five games with a foot injury. The Yellow Jackets have only won once on the road in the Challenge.

14. Virginia Tech at Penn State: The Nittany Lions return most of their rotation that lost eight games by five or fewer points. Senior guard D.J. Newbill, who led the team in scoring, is now the unequivocal leader with Tim Frazier gone. Buzz Williams begins Hokies rebuilding project with a good starting point -- guard Devin Wilson was on both the coaches and media all-ACC freshmen teams and ranked third in the league in assists.
Should North Carolina win the ACC next season, it probably won’t be criticized -- as Virginia was this season -- for catching a break in the schedule.

Virginia won the regular season by playing each of the top seven teams in the standings just one time this past season. That won’t be the case for the Tar Heels next season.

Duke and Louisville are two of the four teams Carolina will play both at home and on the road.

The Blue Devils, armed with the No. 1-ranked recruiting class, and Cardinals, who received a big boost with the return of forward Montrezl Harrell, will be projected to finish near the top of the standings. NC State and Georgia Tech are the Heels' other two home and road opponents.

The Cavaliers return most of their rotation and, despite losing Joe Harris and Akil Mitchell, should be in contention to repeat their title. Carolina again will get only one shot against the Cavs, but it will be at home.

Syracuse has a lot of restructuring to do with the early entries of Tyler Ennis and Jerami Grant to the NBA. The Orange will make their first trip to Chapel Hill in the only regular season meeting of the teams.

The Heels will make just their fourth trip to Pittsburgh and their first to the Petersen Events Center. They split with the Panthers this past season, winning in the Dean Smith Center and losing in the ACC tournament.

Pittsburgh will arguably be the toughest of the five road-only opponents. Boston College and Wake Forest are facing rebuilding jobs with new head coaches. Miami’s roster is depleted, and Clemson’s best player, K.J. McDaniels, is reportedly set to declare for the NBA draft.

Carolina’s Marcus Paige will likely be a preseason Player of the Year candidate. And despite the loss of James Michael McAdoo to the NBA draft, the Tar Heels should be a contender for their first regular season ACC title since 2011-12. That’s thanks in part to the addition a freshman class (forwards Justin Jackson and Theo Pinson and point guard Joel Berry) ranked third in the nation.

The league also released its 2015-16 men’s basketball schedules on Tuesday. The dates and times will be announced later.

2014-15 ACC opponents for North Carolina

Home/Road: Duke, NC State, Georgia Tech, Louisville

Home: Florida State, Virginia, Virginia Tech, Syracuse, Notre Dame

Road: Miami, Clemson, Wake Forest, Pittsburgh, Boston College

2015-16 ACC opponents for North Carolina

Home/Road: Duke, NC State, Boston College, Syracuse

Home: Miami, Georgia Tech, Clemson, Wake Forest, Pittsburgh

Road: Florida State, Virginia, Virginia Tech, Louisville, Notre Dame

Look back, look ahead: ACC

April, 16, 2014
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A basketball-related expansion -- an anomaly during the entire conference realignment shuffle -- was supposed to culminate by making the Atlantic Coast Conference rise above other conferences. The league was supposed to be the biggest and baddest of the major conferences thanks to its first season with Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame as league members.

However, the only thing that increased was disappointment in the league’s overall showing.

Expanding to 15 teams did little to affect the ACC’s reach in the NCAA tournament. Six teams received bids -- and that likely would have been just five until NC State’s late push (including its upset of Syracuse in the ACC tournament).

North Carolina and Duke both failed to advance into the NCAA tournament’s second weekend for the first time since 1979. The Blue Devils were upset by Mercer in the second round. The Tar Heels lost to Iowa State in the third round. The ACC has long depended on the bluebloods to carry the league’s baton, and this season did little to change that narrative.

Only Virginia, which earned a No. 1 seed by winning the league title, advanced to the Sweet 16. The Cavaliers were then eliminated by Michigan State.

The league should improve next postseason thanks in part to Carolina's and Duke's potential to have powerhouse squads.

[+] EnlargeMike Krzyzewski
Tyler Smith/Getty ImagesWith a stellar recruiting class, Mike Krzyzewski's Blue Devils may be the ACC's best in 2014-15.
What we saw this season: The Cavaliers returned to prominence by winning their first outright ACC regular-season title since 1981. Criticism followed since the Cavs, who only played Syracuse, Duke and North Carolina once each and two of those games were in Charlottesville. It took winning the ACC tournament for Virginia to erase those doubts.

Freshmen Tyler Ennis (Syracuse) and Jabari Parker (Duke) proved to be not only among the best players in the conference, but in the nation -- regardless of class.

Many ACC teams had outstanding individual talents -- NC State’s T.J. Warren (won the league’s player of the year award), Duke’s Rodney Hood, North Carolina’s Marcus Paige, Clemson’s K.J. McDaniels to name a few -- but those teams were heavily flawed. Opponents who stopped Lamar Patterson essentially stopped Pittsburgh. Syracuse had trouble scoring. Duke had a thin frontcourt. Carolina was limited by its shooting from the perimeter.

Syracuse started the season strong -- winning its first 25 games -- but faded down the stretch losing six of its last nine games, as its offense went on hiatus. The Orange did provide two classics sure to be talked about in ACC lore. Their first meeting with Duke was a thrilling 91-89 overtime win in the Carrier Dome and their 66-60 loss at Duke featured Jim Boeheim’s first ejection in a regular-season game.

As has long been a problem since the league expanded to 12 teams, the ACC failed to develop a strong second tier of added depth. The conference continued to be top-heavy as Florida State, Maryland, Clemson and Notre Dame never quite became teams to fear.

Three of the bottom four teams in the standings played poorly enough to end the season with their coaches being fired. Boston College arguably had the most disappointing seasons of them all relative to its talent level. The Eagles pulled it together long enough to hand Syracuse its first loss, which was the highlight of their season.

What we expect to see next season: More of the nation’s top freshmen. Duke’s recruiting class is considered tops in the land and is led by center Jahlil Okafor, who is ranked No. 1 overall in the ESPN 100, and Tyus Jones, the No. 1 point guard who is fourth overall. North Carolina also snagged two top-10 recruits in Justin Jackson and Theo Pinson and is ranked third as a class by ESPN.com.

Newcomers are great and all, but let’s also appreciate what we won’t see in the ACC for the first time in its existence. Maryland, a charter member of the conference started in 1953, will begin competing in the Big Ten. Let’s pause to remember the good times.

Long enough? OK.

Louisville obviously doesn’t compare to the tradition Maryland had within the league, but it could be considered an upgrade otherwise. With three national titles and a Hall of Fame coach currently on its sideline, the Cardinals fit the league’s basketball pedigree.

Their addition, plus Virginia’s returning most of its ACC title squad, should help the league become closer to the juggernaut many of its coaches expected this past season.

For all the hand-wringing over a change of guard in the ACC, the Blue Devils and Tar Heels look primed to re-establish their stranglehold on the top of the league standings. Regardless of how Parker’s NBA draft decision falls on Wednesday, Duke will have a good blend of experience (Quinn Cook, Rasheed Sulaimon and Amile Jefferson) and young talent (Okafor, Jones, Justise Winslow, Grayson Allen) at Mike Krzyzewski’s disposal.

Carolina returns the likely front-runner for preseason player of the year in Paige. Forward Brice Johnson and center Kennedy Meeks give the Heels an inside offensive scoring punch that will be hard to contain.

Because of those teams at the top, a trio of new coaches could face a harsh inaugural season in the league. Buzz Williams shocked many by leaving Marquette to take the reins at Virginia Tech, replacing James Johnson. Jim Christian (after a stint at Ohio) takes over Boston College, replacing Steve Donahue. And Danny Manning returns home to Tobacco Road to rebuild Wake Forest, replacing Jeff Bzdelik.

It could all add up and help the ACC live up to its own expectations as the best basketball conference in the nation.
The Tar Heels' short stay in the ACC tournament had a funny way of getting their attention. The loss to Pittsburgh gave Carolina some unwanted free time over the weekend. It hit sophomore guard Marcus Paige when he went to the mall and happened to walk past television sets showing Duke still playing in the tournament.

“I was like, ‘Geez, why am I at the mall right now? I need to be in Greensboro,’” Paige recalled.

Paige said the time for dwelling on losses, or wins for that matter, is gone. The players appear to have responded. UNC coach Roy Williams called Monday’s practice one of the best of the season.

[+] EnlargeJ.P. Tokoto, Lamar Patterson
Phil Ellsworth/ESPN ImagesPittsburgh had UNC on its heels in the ACC tournament, but Carolina can't dwell on that loss if it hopes to rebound in the NCAA tourney.
“We learned from it, but now we have to move past it. The only thing on our mind right now is Providence,” Paige said. “Not what we’ve done in the past, not the 12-game win streak, not the bad home losses or the great road wins that we’ve had. It’s all on Providence and what we can do to be prepared for them.”

Postseason lessons are generally the toughest to understand because the do-over doesn’t come until the next year. Paige admitted that last season he was a little too happy about beating Villanova in the round of 64 -- “I was a freshman; I didn’t know any better,” he said -- and wasn’t focused enough on preparing for Kansas.

“You have to realize that each moment matters. You play two quick games and your season can be over,” Paige said. “... The mental part of the game right now is a big part of it. Obviously everyone is tired and dinged up. How well you can prepare and how well you execute your mental game plan is what really separates teams at this point.”

Paige said he should be at full strength by the time the Heels play Providence on Friday. He banged knees in the Pitt game and said he couldn’t change directions without pain for the rest of that game. He also wore a pad and tape around his left thumb and said he still has some soreness, but that he would be fine.

"Second-Half Marcus" nearly helped the Heels complete a rally against the Panthers, and he took a personal lesson from the game that he’ll apply to the NCAA tournament.

“I might try to attack the basket more in the first half,” Paige said. “In the Pitt game, I got two wide-open shots and they didn’t fall and I kept shooting jump shots instead of trying to get to the basket. I want to just be a little more aggressive to start the game, but I’m not going to change what I do.”

Tar Heels emphasize board work

March, 18, 2014
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Watching clips of Pittsburgh’s Talib Zanna grabbing 21 rebounds against the Tar Heels – a week after the Tar Heels collected just 20 total rebounds against Duke – has North Carolina coach Roy Williams emphasizing the boards in the lead-up to Friday’s NCAA tournament second-round game against Providence.

Williams said he was sending that message before Sunday’s selection show revealed the Friars as an opponent.

[+] EnlargeBrice Johnson
Bob Donnan/USA TODAY SportsRoy Williams wants to see better rebounding from Brice Johnson and the Tar Heels.
“I told our guys we had not done a very good job of rebounding down the stretch -- 41 points off offensive rebounds against us the last two games,” Williams said. “We can’t do that again, so even if we were playing Providence or someone else, it would be probably the No. 1 thing we’ve got to work on.”

Carolina is close to having the second-worst rebounding average of Williams’ 11-year tenure in Chapel Hill. (His first season in 2003-04, the Heels averaged 39.7 boards.) This year's Tar Heels average 39.8 rebounds per game, which is an improvement after last season’s 38.5 average ranked last in the Williams era.

James Michael McAdoo, who leads the team with 6.7 rebounds per game, has totaled just 26 rebounds in the last five games. That included his foul-plagued game against Duke, when he failed to get one rebound before fouling out. Brice Johnson, second on the team at 6.2 rebounds, has grabbed 27 boards in the last five games. After Kennedy Meeks grabbed 10 boards against NC State on Feb. 26, he’s only had four total the past two games.

It’s not just the post players that have to improve. Williams wants his guards rebounding, too.

“Big guys have a better opportunity to box somebody out because usually their guy is going to the offensive board themselves,” Williams said. “So little guys should get back inside and try to help box out a big guy because their guy is usually going back for defensive balance. But it’s the whole team.”

Williams said the Heels have had all kinds of breakdowns from simply not boxing out to giving up inside position to simply not matching their opponents’ desire. And that’s unacceptable.

“Basically it’s what we consider the foundation of our whole program,” Williams said. “I’ve talked about that as being the most important thing there is in basketball.

Fortunately for the Heels, the Friars are not an especially great rebounding team. LaDontae Henton (7.8) and Kadeem Batts (7.6) lead the team, but the Friars only outrebound opponents by an average of 3.8 per game. (No. 3 seed Iowa State, a potential third-round opponent, only holds a 1.3 average advantage in rebounding margin.)

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