North Carolina Tar Heels: C.J. Leslie

Paige's improved play propels UNC

February, 23, 2013
2/23/13
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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- North Carolina coach Roy Williams didn’t have to tell point guard Marcus Paige that he needed to play a whole lot better Saturday than the previous time the Tar Heels faced NC State.

Paige knew.

And he did.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And his team.

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

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

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

“My freshman is a tough little nut," Williams said. “And he’s getting better and better.”

RALEIGH, N.C. -- Beating North Carolina, NC State coach Mark Gottfried knows, doesn’t guarantee his team anything. It could still win big. Lose late. The Wolfpack already have done both; and anything in this long, strange ACC season can still happen.

"But for tonight, this one night, it does give us a step in the right direction," the second-year Wolfpack coach said after his 18th-ranked team topped the Tar Heels, 91-83.

For all of State’s accomplishments this season -- a top-10 preseason ranking, a 10-game winning streak, an upset over No. 1 Duke -- there’s something extra significant to this particular victory.

Since the late 1980s or so, NC State has served as an oft-forgotten stepbrother to Duke and UNC in the Triangle, an "other guy" status that made Wolfpack fans seethe but foes simply shrug.

But by beating the Tar Heels for the first time since 2007 (snapping a 13-game losing streak), and topping both of their Tobacco Road rivals for the first time since 2002-03, the Pack not only tossed another monkey off their back, but perhaps their hat back into the ring.

"We feel like this is a chance to make history right now, a step forward," said senior Richard Howell, who had never beaten the Tar Heels until Saturday. “It’s been one-sided a lot between Duke and UNC and NC State, and now we’re part of the change.”

After a midweek loss at Wake Forest led to a clear-the-air Wolfpack team meeting, there was a mingled since of revelry and relief at PNC Arena after the victory.

[+] EnlargeRichard Howell,
AP Photo/Ted RichardsonSenior Richard Howell had 16 points and 14 boards in his first win over North Carolina.

State -- with its balanced offense and exuberant crowd -- dominated from the outset, using its bigger frontcourt of Howell and C.J. Leslie to get UNC forward James Michael McAdoo into foul trouble early (two in the first two minutes) and its junior point guard, Lorenzo Brown, to discombobulate Tar Heels freshman Marcus Paige often.

Playing what Gottfried called "our most fundamentally sound defense of the season" in the first 20 minutes, State outscored UNC 20-0 on fast-break points by halftime (thus beating the Tar Heels at their own usual game), and it led by as many as 28 points with 13 minutes, 22 seconds left -- because it refused to stop pushing.

"Our message at halftime was: We did not want our players to become passive," Gottfried said. "We wanted to attack them, and run and run and run."

It looked, for a while, as if it could be a 40-point slap-down; at one point, frustrated UNC had third-stringers Jackson Simmons and Luke Davis on the court at the same time.

But the Tar Heels, who had won three straight after starting the ACC season 0-2, finally chipped back with a barrage of outside shots. Sophomore P.J. Hairston’s 3-pointer, followed by McAdoo’s follow dunk, cut State’s lead to as little as 85-80 with 28 seconds left.

But senior guard Scott Wood -- yet another player in the Wolfpack’s arsenal -- made two free throws to push the cushion back to seven points.

It wasn’t easy down the stretch. But it was a win.

"It was a butt-kicking is what it was," said UNC coach Roy Williams, whose team is still trying to find an identity after losing four of last season's starters to the NBA draft.

"I’m not big into moral victories," he added, referring to his team’s rally. " ... NC State was more prepared, had a greater since of urgency, worked harder."

Indeed, in the end, the Wolfpack dominated almost every category of the game: points in the paint (44-34), fast-break points (39-19), rebounding (36-29), assists (22-21), shooting (49.2 percent)

Hairston led the Tar Heels with 19 points, but three Wolfpack players finished with double-doubles: Howell (16 points, 14 rebounds), Leslie (17 points, 10 rebounds) and Brown (20 points, 11 assists). Freshman T.J. Warren also chipped in 19 points, and Wood finished with 12.

Asked about the next step in his team’s progression, Howell said it was to keep improving its defense, win more ACC games than last year.

Added Wood: "We have to keep moving on, and when you get them down 28, you try to get them down 48. We’ve just got to continue to get better; we can't be satisfied."

That is, after enjoying this win. For a night, at least. Finally.

After all, it has been a long time coming.

"I don’t know about its cultural significance, but I just know that our program has lost a lot of games to North Carolina," Gottfried said. "And they’ve been great, give them credit. They are good, and have been good; we’re trying to get good. We’re trying to climb up the mountain, and at some point, you’ve got to turn it a little bit. And this is a start."


RALEIGH, N.C. -- Perhaps it was fitting that No. 18 NC State’s all-red uniforms Saturday made it difficult to read the names on the back of the jerseys. Because its 91-83 victory over North Carolina was a team effort.

In building a lead as large as 28 points, the Wolfpack’s big(ger) guys pulverized the Tar Heels from the inside, their shooters dominated from the outside -- and perhaps most telling, State outscored UNC 39-19 on transition points, beating the Tar Heels at what is usually their own game.

Of course there was a rally -- what else would you expect from this rivalry? -- as UNC cut it to single digits in the final minute.

But the defeat snapped a 13-game losing streak to UNC and marked only the second time the Tar Heels have lost to the Wolfpack since Roy Williams returned to Chapel Hill as head coach before the 2003-04 season.

Turning point(s): Trailing 22-10 early, UNC chipped back with an 8-0 run during a stretch in which the Wolfpack inexplicably settled for jump shots rather than feeding their big men (who had big mismatches on the Tar Heels, what with 6-foot-7 reserve Jackson Simmons in the game and James Michael McAdoo playing with two fouls).

But after a timeout, NC State solved that problem in short order, pushing and pounding to a 20-2 run that began with a wide-open 3-pointer from Rodney Purvis and included a monster jam from C.J. Leslie over Simmons. The Wolfpack sped so hard that they beat UNC down the court again and again and again, as Purvis threw down a dunk and T.J. Warren made two more transition buckets before Williams ended the breakaway -- temporarily -- with a timeout.

State led 45-26 at halftime and by as many as 28 points in the second half.

UNC made a 22-7 run of its own -- cutting it to 70-61 on back-to-back 3-pointers from P.J. Hairston and Reggie Bullock, and two free throws from Marcus Paige.

But a bucket from Leslie inside, followed by a four-point play from Scott Wood, pushed NC State’s cushion back to 15 with about 4½ minutes left. It was enough to survive the Tar Heels’ last-minute push (when a Hairston 3 and McAdoo putback cut the lead to as little as five).

Key player(s): Choose a member of the Pack: Warren finished with 19 points; Howell had 16 points and 14 rebounds; Leslie recorded 17 points and 10 rebounds; Lorenzo Brown had 20 points and 11 assists; and Wood finished with 12 points.

McAdoo posted a double-double for UNC: 13 points, 11 rebounds. Hairston led the Tar Heels with 19.

Noteworthy number: State had outscored UNC 20-0 on transition buckets by halftime.

What’s next: NC State plays at Virginia on Tuesday, while UNC plays at Boston College the same night.

Weekend Watch: UNC-NC State preview

January, 25, 2013
1/25/13
9:45
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Outlook: The painfully young Tar Heels started ACC play 0-2, and the world began to fall off its axis in Chapel Hill. NC State started ACC play 3-0, and parade routes were being planned. Fortunes turn quickly in conference play, and they can and will again before this is all done.

The Tar Heels have one of the youngest rosters in the country, ranking 308th in experience. North Carolina has a nontraditional team for baby blue, as it is primarily a perimeter team. Usually, the North Carolina attack starts and ends with big guys who run, get the ball in the post, wear you down and foul you out. The North Carolina primary break and secondary break were feared, and even though you knew they were coming, you couldn’t stop them.

This season, North Carolina’s big men are young and unpolished. Frankly, none of them are completely ready yet. James Michael McAdoo is having a normal progression for an outstanding player, but he is not where we expected him to be, whether those expectations were fair or not. McAdoo is productive but not efficient and has been up and down, as has North Carolina’s team. Carolina’s strength is still transition, but its running game is not as powerful as it was last season (how could it be, with four first-round picks gone?), and the Heels get to the offensive glass for second shots.

On the other bench, NC State has been excellent at times but has had a few slip-ups. This is an elite offensive team, with four players averaging 12 points per game or more. The Wolfpack are dynamic in transition and score off makes, misses, turnovers, free throws, you name it. This team is fast and runs. Rodney Purvis is a speed merchant, and Lorenzo Brown is as fast with the ball as most any point guard in the country. Scott Wood runs to the 3-point line, and Richard Howell and C.J. Leslie run to the rim and drag the defense with them, putting tremendous pressure on opposing big men to run the floor. T.J. Warren is also terrific in transition and really takes off the other way at conversion.

In the half court, NC State runs nine or 10 sets out of the UCLA high-post offense and keeps things very simple. With so many options to score, why complicate things? Mark Gottfried is smart not to.

The key for NC State to get to the next level is to defend and to do it consistently. Against Wake Forest, the Pack didn’t guard and just tried to outscore the Deacons. The most important player is Leslie, who, when he guards people, inspires everyone to defend better.

Carolina’s best: Reggie Bullock. The junior guard has been the Heels’ best and most consistent player. Bullock is averaging 14.3 points, 5.8 rebounds, 1.3 steals and 2.6 made 3-point field goals per game. He has shot 46 percent from 3-point range and has been Carolina’s most efficient player. Bullock is the key voice and leader of the team. Over the past two games, Bullock is averaging 20.5 points and is shooting better than 50 percent.

[+] EnlargeNorth Carolina State
AP Photo/Evan PikeC.J. Leslie has been doing it all for the Wolfpack this season, averaging 15.3 points and 6.8 rebounds.
State’s best: Leslie. The 6-foot-9 skilled forward is great in isolations on the elbow and the baseline. He is averaging 15.3 points and 6.8 rebounds while shooting 56 percent from the floor. Leslie can explode for a big night or can settle for less. He had only six points against Clemson and played just 18 minutes against Wake Forest due to fouls. But against Duke, Leslie was magnificent, scoring 25 points on just 16 shots and saving a fan from court-storming peril after the game.

Carolina’s X factor: McAdoo. The sophomore is talented and working hard to figure it out, and he will. When he does, this will be one truly outstanding player. McAdoo is averaging 14.7 points and 8.3 rebounds -- you must be good when those numbers are criticized. McAdoo needs space to operate, shooting only 45 percent from the field, and does not do as well when crowded and played with physicality. North Carolina needs McAdoo to have a good game to win in a tough environment.

State’s X factor: Brown. The junior point guard is dynamic and tough to stay in front of in the open floor. Brown averages 12.8 points and 6.9 assists per game along with 2.1 steals. Brown will be a difficult matchup for Marcus Paige and Dexter Strickland. Strickland would do the best job on him, but he is not fully himself after his knee surgery last year.

Carolina’s toughest: Roy Williams. The Naismith Hall of Famer has had to inject a lot of energy into this young team, and he has stayed patient and coached his tail off. Williams went through this same thing in 2010, and the rewards were pretty darn good. One thing is for sure: Williams will not quit on this group. His dancing in the locker room with the team after UNLV and Florida State may look funny to some, but it’s not. It’s great to see a guy who has done it all enjoying the small steps and victories of those who haven’t been there before. That’s pretty darn cool.

State’s toughest: Howell. Simply put, Howell is a man among boys, and North Carolina doesn’t have anyone who can match up with him. Howell is averaging 12.6 points on 59 percent shooting and 10.9 rebounds a game. Over the past five games, Howell is averaging 14.2 rebounds per game, including 18 against Duke and 16 against Wake Forest. Howell cleans the glass and allows his teammates to leak out and get in transition.

Key stats: Offensive rebounding and transition points. Carolina thrives off second shots, averaging 15.5 offensive rebounds per game that lead to 15.1 points, and NC State needs to hit the glass to finish defensive possessions before taking off to the other end. Both teams like to run and get easy baskets, but to keep NC State out of transition, North Carolina has to run good half-court offense and take good shots. A quick shot or a turnover will be a dunk on the other end.

Who wins: North Carolina is making strides and getting better, but winning on NC State’s home floor, especially after the Wolfpack lost at Wake Forest, may be asking too much of this young group. NC State should win this one, 79-70.
Unlike shooting or rebounding or point guard play or the variety of other specific basketball skills we’ve been highlighting in our Best of the Best lists throughout this week, the category of “most important” is far trickier to quantify. It depends not only on a player’s contributions, but on the team around him and where the two dynamics meet in the middle. There is also a constant temptation to conflate “most important” with “best” or “most valuable,” and those arguments (hello, baseball) always make my head hurt.

My editors asked me to name the 10 players most important to their teams in the country, and that’s precisely what I’m going to try to do. But I also attempted to avoid the rabbit hole that is individual talent at the mid-major level. Instead, I tried to narrow the criteria down to players most important to their teams’ chances of winning a national title, or making a deep tournament run, or maintaining some level of national relevance. Let’s give it a shot:

[+] EnlargeIsaiah Canaan
AP Photo/Dave Martin, FileWith much of last season's cast gone, Isaiah Canaan is even more key to Murray State this season.
1. Isaiah Canaan, Murray State: Last season, Canaan was hands down the best and most important player on a team that went 31–2, leading his team in minutes, points, assists, offensive rating (122.2), 3-point field goal percentage (45.6) and a wide swath of other statistical categories. He dominated the ball, scored at will and facilitated to boot. He was really, really good.

And that was on a team that included seniors Donte Poole, Ivan Aska and Jewuan Long, on a team that already was beginning to bring along guard Zay Jackson as Canaan’s new backcourt partner. The first three players are gone to graduation; Jackson is missing the entire season after pleading guilty to wanton endangerment for running over two people with his car in a Walmart parking lot. (True story.) So Canaan, already crucial to his team’s success a year ago, becomes the primary returner on a squad that still very much maintains conference-title and NCAA tournament aspirations. No one player in the country will mean more to his team this season.

2. Cody Zeller, Indiana: Zeller, the AP Preseason Player of the Year, obviously is important. He is the unifying force on a team that desperately needed exactly what he provided as a freshman: interior scoring, rebounding, strength, efficiency, you name it. He led the Hoosiers in field goal attempts by a wide margin, and Indiana fans could frequently be heard complaining that Zeller wasn’t getting enough touches. Truth is, they probably were right. Before he arrived, with similar personnel, Indiana won 12 games. Afterward, they went 27–9. He doesn’t get credit for all 15 wins of that improvement -- other players got better, too -- but there’s no question his impact was immense. You know all this already.

Here’s the twist, though: All offseason, we’ve been praising the Hoosiers’ depth, and there’s no question Tom Crean has a wealth of pieces at his disposal. But right now, aside from Zeller, the frontcourt is looking a little slim. Forward Derek Elston (better as a 15-foot jump-shooter anyway) is injured, and the eligibility statuses of freshman Hanner Mosquera-Perea (a wide-shouldered rebounding force) and Peter Jurkin (a 7-foot center) are both up in the air. Zeller already has much riding on his shoulders, and more help was supposed to be on the way. If it isn’t, Zeller’s task becomes even more daunting.

3. Doug McDermott, Creighton: Last season, there were two players in the country who used at least 28 percent of their team’s available possessions and posted offensive ratings (a measure of individual player efficiency) above 120. The first was Damian Lillard, who did this for the Portland Trail Blazers the other night. The other: Doug McDermott. He shot 63.2 percent from inside the arc (on 400 shots) and 48.6 percent outside (on 111), and he rebounded well on both ends for good measure. Creighton has guys who can play. Grant Gibbs is a sublime entry passer, Jahenns Manigat is coming on strong and Ethan Wragge can shoot it. But there’s no getting around the fact that McDermott’s incredible inside-out offensive versatility was the main reason his team boasted the fifth-most efficient offense in the country last season, per KenPom.com. Seeing as Creighton’s defense was so lackluster, the Bluejays very much needed that offense. Even assuming they improve somewhat on the defensive end this season, they’ll still need to score like crazy in 2012-13. That’s where McDermott comes in.

4. Peyton Siva, Louisville: Every time we talk about the huge talents returning at Louisville, we talk about how good the defense is going to be. This is for good reason: It was the best in the country last season, good enough to get the No. 4-seeded Cardinals to the Final Four. It will keep them in excellent shape in the season to come. It’s bankable like that. Then, after we sing the defensive hosannas, we get around to talking about how so-so Louisville’s offense was, and how if the Cardinals are truly a national title contender they have to find ways to score.

Siva is the most crucial piece in this discussion. The UL senior point guard is 5-foot-11 and quick as lightning; the problem is that he just isn’t very efficient. He shot 24.6 percent from 3 in 2011-12. He turned the ball over on nearly a third of his possessions (29.3 percent). According to Synergy scouting data, Louisville uses Siva more frequently than any other player to initiate pick-and-roll sets at the top of the key, a play type it favors as a team, but he is merely average in his execution. Why? Because defenses don’t have to respect his jumper. They play under the screen, the play dies and Louisville goes to Plan B.

To me, if Louisville is going to turn its offense to something more coherent, Siva is the key. Without a more efficient performance at the point guard spot, the Cardinals will still be a brutally tough out. But they won’t reach their full potential.

[+] EnlargeRyan Harrow
Mark Zerof/US PresswireNC State transfer Ryan Harrow takes the reins of a talented, but again young, Kentucky squad.
5. Ryan Harrow, Kentucky: The NC State transfer is getting his moment in the John Calipari point-guard spotlight this season, a vaunted role typically reserved for NBA lottery picks. That spotlight can be harsh -- never more so than from Calipari himself -- but there are good reasons for Calipari’s insistence on point guard excellence. For one, his dribble-drive offensive system (which he has used variously in recent seasons, and might return to more in 2012-13) thrives on point guard play more than most.

The second reason? Harrow, who spent last season on the bench after a freshman campaign in Raleigh, is in many ways a veteran in Kentucky’s latest amalgamation of highly talented but still raw freshmen. His ability to run an effective offense, while dealing with players still getting used to each other and the college level at the same time, will be key to Kentucky’s success this season.

6. Trey Burke, Michigan: Burke has something of a similar challenge to Harrow’s, but one accentuated by what could be a major adjustment at the offensive end. Last season, Burke sprang onto the scene at the helm of an archetypal John Beilein-style "spread the floor and fire away" 3-point-shooting team. The team’s three most efficient shooters are gone, replaced by touted freshmen (Glenn Robinson III, Mitch McGary) unlike anything Beilein has had the luxury of landing during his tenure in Ann Arbor. Now, Michigan’s best lineup will look more conventional, with big, athletic, bruising players.

This could be a boon on defense, but it will require a shift on offense; it seems almost unfathomable the Wolverines will shoot nearly as many 3s this season. At the middle of it all will be Burke, a preseason All-American who will see his distribution and leadership abilities fully put to the test.

7. Adonis Thomas, Memphis: It was tempting to put point guard Joe Jackson in this spot. The same could be said for center Tarik Black. Jackson has still yet to harness his immense talent in a totally cohesive way; Black can’t seem to stay out of foul trouble. But I decided to go with Thomas. Why? For one, he’ll be stepping into former Tiger Will Barton’s shoes, and there was no mistaking Barton was the best player on a pretty underrated 2011-12 Memphis team. But Thomas could arguably be even better, at least on the offensive end; by all accounts, the 6-6 small forward has been utterly lacing long-range shots all offseason. That versatility would make Thomas, who played power forward until his injury last season, an utter nightmare to guard and could introduce a new dynamism to a Memphis offense that was already pretty good in the first place. I’m really intrigued.

8. Lorenzo Brown, NC State: C.J. Leslie is the obvious pick here, but I think we kind of know what we’re going to get with him. He’s athletic, he’s one of the best in the country at catching on the block or elbow and diving to either side of the rim, and he should be locked in from start to finish this season. Maybe that’s presumptuous, but I’m taking Leslie’s productivity as a given. (OK, it’s definitely presumptuous. Make me look smart, C.J.) Brown, on the other hand, feels more crucial because, like some of the other PGs on this list, it is his job to make the whole Wolfpack thing work. That includes integrating Rodney Purvis; playing better defense at the point of attack; and keeping Leslie involved and finding sharpshooter Scott Wood on the wing. If Brown has a top season, NC State might indeed be worthy of that lofty, tourney-run-infused No. 6 preseason ranking. If not, the “overrated” refrain will ring out early and often.

9. Phil Pressey, Missouri: Senior guard Michael Dixon’s indefinite suspension probably won’t last too long, but that’s hardly the only reason Pressey deserves a nod here. Along with Dixon -- who is more of a catch-and-shoot player than Pressey, a gifted ball handler, penetrator and creator -- Missouri’s backcourt has kind of a crazy/thrilling challenge on its hands in 2012-13. The Tigers have to replace the losses of Kim English, Ricardo Ratliffe and Marcus Denmon with four transfers: Keion Bell (from Pepperdine), Jabari Brown (from Oregon), Alex Oriakhi (from Connecticut) and Earnest Ross (from Auburn). Those players have all been on campus for a while, and it’s not exactly like figuring out guys you just picked up in an open run ... but compared to the rest of the country, it’s not all that far off, either.

10. James Michael McAdoo, North Carolina: It will be easy, in the coming months and years, to forget just how good North Carolina’s 2011-12 frontcourt was. That’s what happens when you have gigantic expectations and bow out of the NCAA tournament short of the Final Four. But let it be known: Tyler Zeller and John Henson (and, oh yeah, Harrison Barnes) were really good. Not only did they control the paint and score easily on the offensive end, but they were fast enough to race down the floor in Roy Williams’ up-tempo system, getting easy buckets on offense and turning UNC’s interior defense into its overall team strength.

Given all that, McAdoo has a ton riding on him in 2012-13. He was a highly touted recruit who probably could have been a lottery pick last season, but he chose to avoid that route (word to Marvin Williams) and come back to prove himself on the college stage. Carolina returns some promising wings (P.J. Hairston, Leslie McDonald) and brings in a really interesting frosh at point guard (Iowa native Marcus Paige), but McAdoo will be in charge of the low block. If he lives up to his heady NBA potential, look out. If not, UNC will labor. It’s that simple.
ESPN.com’s Chad Ford wrote last week that the 2013 NBA draft list might be the weakest in more than a decade Insider (Insider Access required), thanks to a lack of top returning underclassmen and “a marginal freshman class.”

North Carolina won’t have four players go in the top 17, a la Harrison Barnes, Kendall Marshall, John Henson and Tyler Zeller last week. But one Tar Heel is already projected as a top-5 pick, and a couple of others dot his top 100.

Of course, this is an early list, and plenty of players will drop and fall over the next 11 months. But here’s where the Tar Heels currently rank on Ford’s 2013 top 100:
4. James Michael McAdoo, sophomore forward

25. P.J. Hairston, sophomore guard

41. Reggie Bullock, junior guard

UNC redshirt junior Leslie McDonald, who missed last season because of a torn ACL, currently ranks 148 on Ford’s list. And it’s interesting to note that McAdoo is currently the only ACC player projected in the top 20. NC State’s C.J. Leslie comes in at No. 21, followed by Duke’s Mason Plumlee at No. 24. Kentucky freshman Nerlens Noel currently holds the top spot.

Thoughts?

Follow Robbi Pickeral on Twitter at @bylinerp.

ATLANTA -- On Friday, the talk concerning North Carolina point guard Kendall Marshall was all about his ability to pass the ball. On Saturday, it was all about his clutch, calm demeanor, as he sank a bank shot in the final seconds to give UNC the 69-67 win over NC State.

The win moves UNC into Sunday's ACC championship game.

UNC struggled for most of the day to stop NC State in the paint without John Henson, who was out with a sprained left wrist. The Heels moved to a zone defense midway through the second half, which helped contain NC State's offense, especially inside.

NC State eventually adjusted to UNC's zone, but lost top post presence C.J. Leslie with eight minutes remaining after he fouled out. That allowed UNC to work the paint more and helped the Tar Heels execute their zone more efficiently.

Before fouling out, UNC forward Tyler Zeller scored a game-high 23 points.

NC State never backed down and had chances to reclaim the lead with under a minute left, but turned the ball over twice before Marshall's game-winning jumper.

Turning point: UNC rarely plays zone, but the Tar Heels moved to it with a little more than 13 minutes remaining in Saturday's semifinal. It helped UNC slow down NC State's offense without Henson down low. It also helped that Leslie fouled out with 8:03 left after collecting three fouls in the span of a minute and a half.

Key player: UNC guard Reggie Bullock only scored five points, but he was all over the court. He grabbed seven rebounds and dished six assists, but really helped the Tar Heels on defense. He shut down NC State sharpshooter Scott Wood, who was held to two points on 1-of-6 shooting, and smothered him on a potential game-winning 3-point shot that Wood failed to even take. He also kept things under control for UNC late in the first half when he hit two straight buckets and grabbed a couple of rebounds.

Key stat: Neither team could get much going at all from the outside as they combined to shoot 8-of-31 from beyond the 3-point line. UNC hit five 3-pointers, while NC State hit just three.

Miscellaneous: UNC has now won 13 straight over the Wolfpack. ... The loss dropped NC State to 5-6 in the ACC tournament as the No. 5 seed. ... Despite fouling out, Leslie continued his tournament tear with 22 points, seven rebounds and two steals. ... With James Michael McAdoo dealing with foul trouble, UNC's Justin Watts played both point guard and power forward.

What’s next: The Tar Heels await the winner of the Duke-Florida State game. A win over Duke would lock up a No. 1 seed for UNC in the NCAA tournament. If the Blue Devils don't make it, the Heels will likely clinch a top seed before the day is over. As for the Wolfpack, Friday's win over Virginia was huge as far as the NCAA tournament is concerned. While NC State is probably still on the bubble, its ACC tournament showing has it in much better shape than a couple of days ago.

ACC Tournament: Saturday Preview

March, 10, 2012
3/10/12
10:30
AM ET
ATLANTA – North Carolina and Duke are still vying for a top seed in the NCAA tournament.

NC State is trying to solidify a spot in the field of 68.

And Florida State – which has already secured a spot in the NCAAs – would like to become only the second team not named “UNC” or “Duke” to win the ACC tournament in 16 years.

A quick preview of today’s NCAA semifinals at Philips Arena:

No. 1 seed North Carolina vs. No. 5 seed N.C. State, 1 p.m. EST

Will he play or won’t he play? The status of UNC forward John Henson’s left wrist – which he sprained in the first half of his team’s quarterfinal win over Maryland on Friday – hasn’t reached the scrutiny level of “Ty Lawson Toe-Gate”, circa 2009 (when the starting point guard sat out the entire ACC tournament, and part of the NCAAs, en route to a national title).

But give it time.

Official word Friday was that the 6-foot-11 junior would test his pain threshold Saturday morning to see if he would be able to play against the Wolfpack. But frankly, it would make sense to be cautious with the ACC’s leading rebounder, blocker and defender. UNC, after all, has wrapped up an NCAA tournament berth, and it’s just a matter of whether it ends up with a No. 1 or No. 2 seed.

If Henson doesn’t play, it opens up more room the lane for NC State forward C.J. Leslie, who has come on particularly strong of late. He’s averaging 18.9 points and 11 rebounds over his past seven games – including 19 points and 14 rebounds in Friday’s quarterfinal victory over Virginia.

“He [Henson] is a great player – first-team All-ACC, Defensive Player of the Year; we want him to play,’’ Wolfpack guard C.J. Williams said. “We don’t want to give a team an excuse, ‘Oh, we didn’t have one of our best players.’ He’s definitely a matchup problem for us, with his length and his size … but we want him to play.”

The Tar Heels beat their in-state rival in both match-ups this season.

No. 2 seed Duke vs. No. 3 seed Florida State, approximately 3:30 p.m. EST

Duke, which lost to Florida State on its home court in January, offered up a little bit of payback last month, when it beat the Seminoles in Tallahassee, Fla.

Guard Andre Dawkins was 6-for-12 for 22 points that game, with all six of those made shots being 3-pointers.

But since then, however, he’s made only 1 of his 12 shot attempts over his past four games. Not a good stat for the Blue Devils, especially since they are also missing forward Ryan Kelly for the ACC tournament because of a foot injury.

The key for FSU will be to limit Duke’s outside scoring while taking advantage of the Devils’ thin depth inside.

And if it’s close at the end, they have a couple of clutch options in Michael Snaer and Ian Miller, who have both buried game-winners this season.

“We know we have a tremendous opportunity to do something great,’’ Snaer said. “My team is really confident in our abilities, and we’re playing like it. We’re playing together. … We know how important this game is to us, and to our program and to the history of our program. And I can’t wait for it to get started.”

Rapid Reaction: UNC 86, NC State 74

February, 21, 2012
2/21/12
10:09
PM ET

RALEIGH, N.C. -- A quick look at North Carolina’s 86-74 win at NC State.

Why it happened: NC State plays in spurts, but it didn’t play in enough of them against a hot-shooting Tar Heels team. North Carolina scorched the Wolfpack from beyond the arc, connecting on 10-of-19 3-pointers. UNC shot 53 percent from 3 and 51 percent overall.

What it means: NC State’s uncomfortable bubble seat just got a little more uncomfortable. The Wolfpack had three chances (at Duke, vs. FSU, vs. UNC) to make their case and failed in all three. Now NCSU has to win out against Clemson, Miami and Virginia Tech and hope for a little help from other bubble dwellers. North Carolina, meantime, is trying to build a case for a No. 1 seed, an argument that got a little stronger with Missouri’s loss to Kansas State. A lot still has to happen for the Heels to secure a top spot, but winning out will make it an interesting debate for the Selection Committee.

Star of the game: Kendall Marshall isn’t known for being a scorer. That doesn’t mean he can’t score. The North Carolina point guard had a career-high 22 points, 13 assists and most impressive, no turnovers. He was 4-of-5 from long range. Not much more you can ask a point guard to do.

For starters: North Carolina rode hot shooting from the 3-point line to stake a 46-41 lead at the half. The Tar Heels hit 7 of 14 from the behind the arc. But credit to the Wolfpack, which rallied from an early 10-2 hole to make this a game. C.J. Leslie, who needed to be big against UNC’s bigs, was in fact that. He had 14 and 7 in the first 20 minutes, helping the Pack stay tight with the Heels on the boards, 22-21.

Simply not good enough: NC State turned it over just four times, but was 3-of-13 (23 percent) from long range and just 13-of-23 (57 percent) from the free throw line. That's simply not going to get it done against a team as talented as the Heels.

What’s next: NC State’s NCAA tournament hopes are dangling by a thread, especially since some of its fellow bubble brethren (Seton Hall, Kansas State, etc.) took care of business on Tuesday night. That means every game is huge and the next one is awfully dangerous. Clemson has won three of its past four. The Tar Heels, trying to win the league crown, travel to Virginia, host Maryland and then finish the season off with the remach against Duke.

UNC-NC State: Halftime thoughts

January, 26, 2012
1/26/12
8:05
PM ET
A few quick thoughts as No. 8 North Carolina leads N.C. State 37-23 at halftime at the Smith Center:
  • It would have been hard enough for the Wolfpack to handle UNC 7-footer Tyler Zeller -- and on top of that, the senior showed up to play. He has a double-double (13 points, 12 rebounds) already, has made 6 of his 7 shots, and helped push State big man Richard Howell into picking up three fouls early.
  • With first-time UNC starter Reggie Bullock guarding him, Wolfpack leading scorer Scott Wood is 0-for-3. State has made only 25 percent of its tries for the game, and its best shot may have been the 70-footer that guard Lorenzo Brown lucked in at the halftime buzzer.
  • A few other numbers: UNC is outrebounding State 29-15 … The Tar Heels have an uncharacteristic assist-to-turnover ratio so far (9-to-10) … C.J. Leslie leads State with seven points. … UNC freshman point guard Stilman White, UNC’s new back-up ballhandler after Dexter Strickland’s knee injury, has picked up an assist and a foul in one minute of play.

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