North Carolina Tar Heels: Isaiah Hicks

Position series: Post players

November, 13, 2014

North Carolina forward Brice Johnson and center Kennedy Meeks played so well together as an offensive frontcourt tandem in limited minutes last season that it was fair to wonder how would they do with an increased load.

The answer comes this season as both are in the starting lineup and both will be key to establishing an inside presence for the Tar Heels.

James Michael McAdoo's decision to turn pro opened the way for increased playing time for Johnson at power forward. He averaged just 19.4 minutes per game last season while coming off the bench in all but two games.

Johnson, who led the team shooting 56.6 percent from the field, adds a different dynamic than McAdoo did offensively.

"Where James Michael was more of face-up, slashing forward, Brice is a guy who is going to go to straight to the block and shoot jump hooks," guard Marcus Paige said. "That's what we want and that's going to give us more of an efficient option inside."

Meeks' improved conditioning will allow him to log more than the 16.3 minutes per game he played as a freshman. The 6-foot-9 sophomore trimmed down to around 270 pounds after arriving on campus last season weighing almost 320.

Despite his limitations last season, Meeks ranked 10th nationally in offensive rebounding percentage according to Ken Pomeroy. He finished just 23 rebounds short of McAdoo's team-leading total (230) despite playing 470 fewer minutes.

"A key to our basketball team is which post players or are there post players that are going to step up and be big-time players for us?" coach Roy Williams said. "Brice and Kennedy are those two that are probably going to be asked to do more than anybody else."

Williams can expect more out of Isaiah Hicks this season too. The 6-8 sophomore looked all out of sorts as a freshman while having to play out of position at small forward. He'll spend all of his time at power forward as a sophomore where his skill set will often give him an advantage.

He's not exactly a stretch-4, but his jumper has to be respected enough to where he can also dribble past would-be defenders.

"His skill set is different because he can step out, he can shoot those free throw jump shots," said junior J.P. Tokoto. "… He's a lot quicker than a lot of guys, even wing players. I feel like he'll use that quickness against big men that are slow."

Depth is a reason why the Heels could be much improved defensively in the post. Williams can tap Desmond Hubert, Jackson Simmons or Joel James when the situation warrants.

Johnson led the team with 43 blocks, but Hubert is the team's best post defender. Simmons' rebounding and hustle saved theTar Heels at Florida State his sophomore season. James is largely still a project, but he did start 13 games last season and has only received the dreaded DNP-coach's decision four times in his first two years.

By the time Florida's Chris Walker was cleared to play last season, it was difficult for the freshman to have any sort of real impact. Walker played in just 18 games and didn't even average five minutes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Duke notebook: Let it snow?

February, 12, 2014

Among the many intriguing angles for North Carolina’s battle with Duke on Wednesday night is that the potential winter storm might play a factor in the outcome. Seriously.

The forecast projects two to four inches of snow for Chapel Hill and the surrounding area during the day. That first wave is supposed to make way for another half-inch of ice by night. The game, by all accounts, will likely be played regardless. (The ACC by rule states postponements can only occur if teams, officials and essential game personnel cannot arrive at the arena safely.)

What if the scenario unfolds like the Tar Heels' win over Maryland in 2000, when snow kept away most fans from the Smith Center? Carolina announced general admission seating, so whoever made it to the arena packed the lower-level seats. The crowd’s demographics were students who walked to the game and those crazy enough to value basketball over hazardous conditions.

The result was an atmosphere that former UNC point guard Ed Cota likened to Cameron Indoor Stadium, and the unranked Heels upset the No. 22 Terrapins 75-63.

Generally speaking, the Duke game always has the most charged atmosphere in the Smith Center, but an inadvertent boost from Mother Nature could turn Wednesday night’s game into another special chapter in the rivalry.

Avenging Tyler?

The student basketball managers for both schools engaged in a heated moment during their annual game before The Game. One of the Carolina managers, trying to clear out space after a rebound, caught a Duke manager with an elbow to the nose. Tempers flared as players had to be separated, but the game continued. (It happened at the same basket that Tyler Hansbrough had his nose bloodied by Gerald Henderson in the closing seconds back in 2007.) The Heels’ managers ended up winning the game 38-33.

Matchup within

Duke’s frontcourt isn't big enough or deep enough to match up with the Tar Heels. But it’s not like that’s a newly discovered weakness; the Blue Devils have been playing that way all season. They’ve done a good job compensating for their shortcomings while winning seven of their last eight games.

Carolina guard Marcus Paige said center Kennedy Meeks would play a key factor in exploiting the Heels' advantage.

“We really want to establish our big guys in the paint, especially Kennedy. He’s got size that no one else on the court is going to have,” Paige said. “We’d like to get him going. Our best offense is when we get to the basket or in the paint. I think we realize that. I think they know that and that’s what we’re going to try to do.”

[+] EnlargeDez Wells
Bob Donnan/USA TODAY SportsKennedy Meeks' size could prove to be a big matchup factor in Wednesday's game against Duke.
Keep an eye on the amount of minutes Duke’s Marshall Plumlee plays. The 7-foot sophomore only averages 7.5 minutes per game, but if he plays more it could be an indication that Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski is conceding he needs a bigger lineup. That would be a small victory for the Heels, an indication that the Blue Devils are playing Carolina’s game.

Conversely, Meeks’ time on the floor could be a similar barometer. He didn’t play much in the second half against Maryland because the Terps had enough perimeter-savvy frontcourt players to make it difficult for him to defend. Instead, Brice Johnson played extended minutes because he was better suited to guard pick-and-rolls. If Johnson plays more at center than Meeks against Duke, that too could be an indication Carolina is playing into Duke’s game.

UNC coach Roy Williams said if Duke plays Rodney Hood and Jabari Parker at the 4 and 5, it could be a matchup nightmare for the Heels.

“It depends on who else is in the lineup with them because it can get to be almost an unbelievable matchup problem,” Williams said. “Or it can be we have a couple of guys who are similar and have a chance of staying with them.”

Advice to the freshmen

Carolina’s freshman trio of Meeks, Nate Britt and Isaiah Hicks will get its first indoctrination into the rivalry tonight. Sophomore J.P. Tokoto said he’s been telling them to look at it as “just another game.”

“My experience last year was limited, but for guys like Kennedy and Nate, they’ve been playing big minutes,” Tokoto said. “I’ve pretty much have been telling them to look at it as another game and just play their game.”

Asked if he personally viewed it as just another game, Tokoto broke out laughing. “Nah, I don’t," he said. "Not me, but I feel like that would help them out mentally.”

Keys for a UNC win

No help: With Duke shooting 42 percent from 3-point range, this should be the one game the Heels abandon their typical defensive philosophy. Whenever the Blue Devils get dribble penetration, Carolina should employ a no-help strategy. Better to give up a layup than to watch Duke kick it outside for an open 3-pointer.

Capitalize on putbacks: Carolina leads the ACC in offensive rebounds with a 14.1 average per game. The Heels have turned that into a 13.4 average in second-chance points, which should actually be higher. Williams has consistently emphasized that his team has to be better at finishing through contact. Syracuse is the only team in ACC play to outscore the Heels in second-chance points.

Run off turnovers: During the Heels’ five-game winning streak, they’ve consistently pushed the pace and gotten out in transition more than at any other time during the season. They’ve also capitalized by converting points off turnovers. Duke, however, only averages 9.5 turnovers per game, so chances might be limited.

Isaiah Hicks slowly figuring it out

January, 1, 2014
Several times throughout the season when North Carolina coach Roy Williams was asked about forward Isaiah Hicks somewhere in his response Williams said he needed to get the 6-foot-8 freshman more playing time.

[+] EnlargeIsaiah Hicks, Anthony Monaco
Robert Willett/Raleigh News & Observer/MCTIsaiah Hicks is settling into a new position and finding his role with the Tar Heels.
Now we’re starting to see why.

Hicks is slowly finding his comfort zone. He no longer has those games or those moments where he looks out of place on the court.

“As a freshman, and I can relate, it’s hard coming into a new environment you get a little bit timid,” senior guard Leslie McDonald said. “You can see he’s developing each and every game and every practice you can see him being more aggressive to the basket and just knowing the plays. So in the beginning it was a slow start but you can see Isaiah really coming along.”

Hicks earned the team’s top defensive honor against Northern Kentucky for the first time. He followed that with a career-best seven points against UNC-Wilmington. He showed range he hadn’t previously revealed by making good on his first 3-point attempt this season.

Hicks is doing all of this having moved from power forward -- the only position he’s known -- to small forward. Thing is, Williams said Hicks could develop into a natural small forward before his career is over.

“It’s similar somewhat to John Henson,” Williams said of Henson’s freshman season. “We’re trying to allow him play on the perimeter. He’s not really a perimeter player, but yet he might be before it’s over. Long term, this might be something that’s good for him.”

Hicks averages just 2.1 points and 1.5 rebounds per game, but his comfort level at small forward can’t be quantified in stats. It’s more in the nuances, like when he anticipated and made the perfect help-side defensive rotation against UNCW. Hicks is looking less like a player who overthinks every possession and is acting instinctively now.

“Basically that’s the only spot I’m playing, so practice I get more time playing that position so it’s coming to me more natural,” Hicks said.

The better suited Hicks becomes at playing small forward, the better off the Tar Heels will be. He could potentially be a matchup problem for opponents because of his length. Hicks described himself as “like a big, small forward.”

“His length, athleticism and his ability to get in there and be big for a 3 is his biggest asset right now,” sophomore guard Marcus Paige said. “When he finally gets to play the 4, he’s going to be a beast.”

Freshman guard Nate Britt and center Kennedy Meeks have played considerably more than Hicks. (Hicks averages just 8.8 minutes per game.) But Hicks looked at the early contributions of Britt and Meeks as motivation.

“I just looked at it like if they’re out there, they can do it,” Hicks said. “I just have to work harder because I can do it too.”

UNC freshmen ready for ACC grind

December, 31, 2013
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – After North Carolina handled UNC Wilmington 84-51 to complete its non-conference schedule, coach Roy Williams warned the young Tar Heels of what lies ahead in the ACC. Williams told the team as a whole, but the rookies in particular, the intensity in conference play “goes up about 10 levels and you better be ready to go up with it.”

Coming from Williams, it was taken as hyperbole by freshman guard Nate Britt. So he approached sophomore Marcus Paige for confirmation.

[+] EnlargeNate Britt
Grant Halverson/Getty ImagesNate Britt has been a solid contributor, but ACC play can be hard on a freshman.
“He asked me if it’s really that much of a difference,” Paige said. “I was like, ‘Uh, yeah.’ I struggled a lot the first few games of conference just because the attention to detail, the effort, and the level of intensity in every game just jumps to a whole ‘nother level, but I think he’ll be ready for it.”

The Heels trio of freshmen in Britt, center Kennedy Meeks and forward Isaiah Hicks each developed on his own time, but all seem to now be prepared.

Meeks nearly had a triple double against Louisville with 13 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists. However, his first start against UNCW wasn’t his best showing. The 6-foot-9 center from Charlotte has averaged 7.3 points and 6.0 rebounds but was held scoreless for the first time this season.

Britt, who has started every game, had two of his best games in the wins against Louisville and Michigan State. Britt has had 19 assists and six turnovers over his last five games that included his six assists and no turnover performance against UNCW. He averages 6.2 points and 3.0 assists.

“Nate and Kennedy really stepped up, it seemed like they’re not even freshmen,” Hicks said. “Kennedy at Louisville had probably the best game he’s played. Nate at Michigan State came through with the clutch free throws and all that. Me, I’m just now stepping up and feeling more comfortable out there.”

Hicks’ development has been slower because he has had to learn how to play small forward, but he appears to be turning a corner now, too. He scored his season-high seven points including making his first 3-point attempt of the season.

“I didn’t even know it was a 3 until coach told me after the game,” Hicks said. “I would have shot another one if I would have known.”

He believes playing against ranked teams including the road trip to Michigan State has prepared the freshman trio for what is to come in ACC play beginning Sunday at Wake Forest.

“Marcus told me it will be close to the Michigan State game,” Britt said. “We’re playing away at the No. 1 team. He told me the intensity of conference play will be around what that game was.”


Heels sluggish in win over Norse

December, 27, 2013
North Carolina coach Roy Williams blamed an extended break for his team's sluggish start in a 75-60 win over Northern Kentucky at the Dean Smith Center on Friday. Williams gave his team Sunday through Wednesday off for Christmas, and the Tar Heels didn't practice until Thursday night.

"I probably gave them too much time," Williams said. "We were not sharp, to say the least, and that was a huge part of the game. At the same time, I didn't think we had the intensity and concentration level that we needed to have."

The Heels finished with 14 turnovers, several of the unforced variety, such as when Marcus Paige passed up an open 3-pointer to dish to James Michael McAdoo. The problem was McAdoo was expecting Paige to shoot, and the ball sailed out of bounds.

[+] EnlargeIsaiah Hicks, Anthony Monaco
Robert Willett/Raleigh News & Observer/MCTFreshman Isaiah Hicks asserted himself Friday night with four points, three rebounds and three blocks.
Williams could tolerate those mistakes, but he said, "I was ticked off" by his team's first-half defense. It led Williams to start a second-half unit of Luke Davis, Isaiah Hicks, Jackson Simmons, Desmond Hubert and Paige.

"My staff did a great job, because what I wanted to do was stay out at halftime and run sprints the entire friggin' half," Williams said. "They thought it was not the right thing to do, but, god, I wanted to do that so badly. I will never ask them again, because I'm going to do that one of these days. I know by god we'll make 'SportsCenter' then."

The second-half starting five did set the tone for the Heels defensively. The group held the Norse scoreless for three-plus minutes to start the half on 0-for-5 shooting, including a shot-clock violation.

"I thought they gave us a tremendous lift defensively," Williams said. "They did some really good things for us that sort of turned it around."

Other game observations:

• Carolina had been outscored in points in the paint only in losses to UAB and Texas -- until the undersized Norse did it. NKU starting center Jalen Billups stands only 6-foot-6, but the Norse attacked the rim and the Tar Heels did not. UNC lost that battle 28-26, with the Norse attempting seven more shots in the paint.

"We had a tremendous size advantage, and one of our goals was to attack the basket, and we didn't get a single, low post-up or taking the ball to the basket the entire first half," Williams said.

• Freshman forward Isaiah Hicks played arguably his best game to date. It started with his defensive effort on NKU's Tyler White, who had 11 points in the first half. Hicks' long arms deterred White from getting any good looks. Hicks finished with four points and three rebounds.

"I guess I showed my presence more," Hicks said.

• Carolina recorded the second-most blocks in school history with 15. It was the most since recording the same number on March 8, 2008, against Duke. That included career highs from Brice Johnson and Hicks with three each.

• P.J. Hairston was not on the bench for the first time this season at a Carolina home game. The junior guard missed the first nine games before the school announced it would not petition the NCAA to have his eligibility reinstated. He was present on the bench for the Davidson game last Saturday, despite the news. Asked if he would be back, Williams said he didn't know.

"I'm trying to coach the guys I have; I have no idea," Williams said. "He's not on our team. I love him to death, but he's not on our team."

Williams hopes to simplify small forward

December, 3, 2013
Out of necessity, North Carolina coach Roy Williams has used junior James Michael McAdoo and freshman Isaiah Hicks for stretches at small forward. Out of necessity, Williams has to tweak their responsibilities when they play the position.

Power forward and center are interchangeable in Williams’ system. So are shooting guard and small forward. But McAdoo and Hicks are in uncharted territory trying to play both small and power forward.

[+] EnlargeJP Tokoto
Robert Willett/Raleigh News & Observer/MCT/Getty ImagesJ.P. Tokoto is probably the Tar Heels' best option at small forward.
“I’m asking James Michael to cross over and play some 3 and some 4. It’s even harder right now for Isaiah because Isaiah’s a freshman trying to cross over 3 and 4,” Williams said on his radio show Monday. “Part of this is my fault; I thought James Michael would be able to handle it better. We talked [Monday]. I’m going to talk again [today].”

J.P. Tokoto continues to show flashes that give Williams hope he can develop into a consistent contributor. (His steal after an in-bounds pass and dunk against UAB reminded me of when Maryland’s Len Bias did the same against Carolina in 1986.)

He’s the only natural small forward on the roster, and he scored a game-high 16 against the Blazers. But when Tokoto is in foul trouble, Williams plays with a big lineup that moves Tokoto to shooting guard, or when he simply needs a breather, McAdoo or Hicks has to be able to fill in.

This is the reality while the statuses of P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald are unsettled and, depending on the outcome, could be the case all season.

So far, watching McAdoo and Hicks play the 3 looks a lot of John Henson’s freshman year in 2009-10 when he played some at small forward. That experiment only proved that he was woefully out of position. (Henson recently cracked the Milwaukee Bucks' starting lineup at center.)

McAdoo’s overall game is suffering. Sunday’s loss at UAB marked the third straight game that he hasn’t reached double digits in scoring – this after scoring more than 20 in two of the Heels' first three games.

Six games into the season, I still don’t feel like we’ve really seen what Hicks can do. He’s averaged 8.3 minutes per game and scored a total of nine points, grabbed eight rebounds and totaled five blocks. Part of that is a direct result of having to play small forward.

“I’ve got to simplify – particular for Isaiah – to get him to be in the game and understand what’s going on a little more,” Williams said. “And James Michael is just trying to do too much right now. We’ve got to limit some of the things he’s doing. If we do that, I think he’s going to bounce back and do some good things.”

Roy Williams news conference notes

November, 21, 2013
UNC coach Roy Williams addressed the media before the Tar Heels travel to Uncasville, Conn., for the Hall of Fame tipoff this weekend.

[+] EnlargeRoy Williams
Denny Medley/USA TODAY SportsRoy Williams wasn't pleased with the Tar Heels' defensive effort against Belmont.
The Tar Heels face Richmond on Saturday and either Fairfield or No. 3 Louisville on Sunday.

Some topics Williams covered:

  • P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald will not travel with the team. The duo has yet to play this season while awaiting the NCAA to rule on their eligibility.
  • The Heels took a step forward offensively against Belmont from their sluggish performance against Holy Cross, but Williams said they took a step back defensively, allowing the Bruins to shoot 40 percent from the 3-point range. “I wasn’t pleased at all, and when I looked at the tape, it was even worse,” Williams said. “It’s a strangeness to it because I thought we did make some great strides and were much better offensively against Belmont, but defensively we were not there.
  • Williams said their 22-for-48 free throw performance will go down as one of the two worst of his coaching career. It was particularly perplexing because both James Michael McAdoo and J.P. Tokoto had shot better than 80 percent from the line during a recent practice. McAdoo was 11 of 19 and Tokoto 4 of 16 in the loss to Belmont. “If two guys make 81 and 84 percent on their own, I can’t simulate what their thought process is in a game,” Williams said. “We’ve got to be able to handle that part of it. We do shoot them, more than likely we’re going to shoot more.”
  • Richmond has made only 17 total 3-pointers this season and shot 18.7 percent from behind the arc. (Belmont had made only 15 overall entering Sunday’s game before duplicating that number and shooting 40 percent from 3-point range against the Heels.) Williams said he watched half of the Spiders win over Belmont on Wednesday after returning from the Medal of Freedom ceremony at the White House, whose honorees included Dean Smith.“It should get our guys' attention the team that beat us lost to the guys we’re playing next,” Williams said. Williams later “knocked on wood” first tapping his desk then his head when adding that the Spiders, “haven’t shot it great from the 3-point line yet.”
  • Freshman forward Isaiah Hicks logged just two minutes against Belmont, which happened in part because of matchup problems, but Williams said that will change. “It was the only thing at the end of the game I was mad at myself about,” Williams said. “I should have given him more opportunities. We’re going to give him more opportunities.”

Heels need to be a first-half team

November, 14, 2013
North Carolina coach Roy Williams hopes his team looks a lot more like their start against Oakland than their finish as they prepare for Game 2 against Holy Cross on Friday at 8 p.m.

The Tar Heels shot 74 percent en route to scoring 58 points against the Grizzlies last Friday in the season opener. They outscored Oakland 14-0 in fast-break points and 15-4 in points off turnovers.

The second half reversed all their progress. Carolina was outscored 17-2 in points off turnovers and committed 11 turnovers. It shot just 40 percent and scored just 26 points in the second half.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Paige
Bob Donnan/USA TODAY SportsMarcus Paige will start again at shooting guard against Holy Cross.
“We played better then than we have any day in practice and the second half we played about as poorly as we have in any day of practice,” Williams said. “Probably somewhere in between is the real team. Hopefully, we can push each and every day try to get them closer to that first half. It was pretty basketball.”

Carolina did not have any updates on the status of guards P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald. They will be held out of their second consecutive game while the school waits for the NCAA to weigh in on possible infractions.

That means a second straight start for Marcus Paige at shooting guard. He said it was frustrating not knowing if or when the pair would return to the lineup. Until then, he said it would be hard to predict which half they will mostly resemble.

“It’s hard to know what type of team we’re going to be yet, just because we’ve only had one game,” Paige said. “We’re not too worried about that. And we’re not too worried about the kind of second half we had. We’re just trying to improve to play the highest-caliber teams we’re getting ready to play in the next couple of months.”

Hicks slowly progressing

Of the Heels’ three freshmen, forward Isaiah Hicks was the only one not filling an immediate need. Both guard Nate Britt and center Kennedy Meeks have been a bit more in the spotlight simply because Carolina needs them to fill big voids from the start.

Hicks has seemingly been the quiet one, able to learn in the shadows behind power forwards James Michael McAdoo and Brice Johnson. Williams said he’s pleased with Hicks’ progress.

“It’s difficult for him right now because he’s also having to try to spend some time at the 3 spot,” Williams said. “So as a freshman, trying to learn different positions is very difficult. Mentally he’s being challenged with what he’s doing out there.”

Hicks grabbed five rebounds in just 11 minutes against Oakland. He also made his only shot of the game and had two points.

“I told him I wanted him to be not just more aggressive, but better words, more assertive,” Williams said. “He’s just happy to be out there sometimes. But he’s getting better and better.”

Tokoto continues to grow

November, 12, 2013
Did we just witness the reinvention of J.P. Tokoto?

The first half of his performance against Oakland would suggest so. Tokoto netted his career high in scoring with 13 points on 5-of-6 shooting in the first 20 minutes against the Grizzlies.

[+] Enlarge J.P. Tokoto
AP Photo/Gerry BroomeJ.P. Tokoto showed an improved shooting touch and ability to see the floor against Oakland.
His first two baskets came in transition, which has always been his strength. But his final three gave glimpses of how much he’s developed from last season:

  • Tokoto’s crossover left Oakland’s Duke Mondy, who led the nation in steals last season, stumbling on the floor. He then pulled up and made a 15-footer.
  • Out in transition, instead of trying to force his way into the lane, Tokoto pulled up and made an 18-footer in rhythm.
  • After making just 1 of 11 3-point attempts last season, Tokoto matched that when he floated to an open spot in the Grizzlies’ zone and took a pass from Isaiah Hicks from the high post to make a 3 from the right wing.

“His shot is better,” UNC coach Roy Williams said. “We wanted him to understand it’s a work in progress; he’s going to get better and better and better.”

It’s not just his shot.

Tokoto had 26 assists all of last season. He dished a career-high five assists against Oakland, including four in the first half. In an interview before the season, that was one area Tokoto said he’d improve.

“A lot of people get caught up in the highlight videos and the mix tapes. It overshadows my actual basketball abilities,” Tokoto said. “For one, I think people don’t really admire the way I see the court. Definitely in high school, I think that was left out a lot.”

After showing what he hadn’t shown, Williams will like to see more of what Tokoto has proven he can do, and that’s rebound.

Tokoto had just one rebound against Oakland in the first half and finished with three, two of which were on the offensive glass. Williams said on his radio show Monday night that Tokoto had the potential to be the best offensive rebounder he’d ever coached.

“He could be one of those guys because his athleticism is unbelievable. He gets to the boards,” Williams said.

Tokoto wasn’t as sharp in the second half of the game, as indicated by his four turnovers in the second half. Maybe it was a function of the lopsided score or maybe it was proof that he has more work to do. Based on his sophomore debut, he’s at least shown the potential to be a factor.

“He has an ability to do some things that jump out at you,” Williams said on his radio show. “If he can focus on the little things and be fundamentally sound with the basketball, he's going to be a really good player.”

Thought of the Week: Bench play

November, 11, 2013
With regards to Dean Smith’s old practice plans and the “thought of the day,” a tradition that has carried on under coach Roy Williams, here’s a thought of the week after North Carolina opened the season with an 84-61 win over Oakland:

The Tar Heels’ bench could be the difference-maker this season.

[+] EnlargeKennedy Meeks
Grant Halverson/Getty ImagesFreshman center Kennedy Meeks is starting to solidify his grip on the starting spot for the Tar Heels.
Carolina outscored the Grizzlies 28-11 off the bench. Forward Brice Johnson and center Kennedy Meeks were especially effective with identical 10-point, 5-rebound performances in reserve.

“We need to have that kind of performance from our bench every night, too," Williams said.

The frontcourt figured to make the biggest improvement over last season and nothing from its performance Friday disproved the theory. Johnson, Meeks and forward Jackson Simmons even added an element not many saw coming with their ability to pass from the post.

Meeks connected with Marcus Paige with cross-court passes from the post for his first two 3-pointers. Johnson, who had a career-high four assists, always seemed to make the right pass against the Grizzlies' zone defense. Simmons found James Michael McAdoo cutting through the lane for a highlight reel dunk in the first half.

“The big guys did a nice job moving the ball,” Williams said.

They also did a god job rebounding as freshman forward Isaiah Hicks added five boards in just 11 minutes.

If and when P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald get cleared to play, the bench only figures to improve. Imagine bringing point guard Nate Britt off the bench to push tempo as he clearly has shown he’s capable of doing. And McDonald would add another perimeter shooting threat.

As long as Hairston and McDonald are out of the lineup, the play of guard Luke Davis will be crucial. Davis, who had two points, two rebounds and two assists, doesn’t have to do anything special. He just needs to be reliable enough to relieve Paige.

For a game that was out of hand early, Paige still logged a team-high 32 minutes. Williams plans to monitor Paige’s minutes to ensure he doesn’t get worn down too early in the season.

“I can’t play him that much, 32 minutes, I don’t want to play him any more than that because it’s a long, long season,” Williams said. “Luke struggled at times but I think late in the second half Luke got better himself and that’s going to be important for us, too.”

Heels run through lineups, UNC Pembroke

November, 1, 2013
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Talk about a rotation.

No. 12 North Carolina dizzied itself with at least 13 different lineup combinations in its 82-63 exhibition win over UNC Pembroke tonight before 10,458 at the Dean E. Smith Center. And that was before the bench emptied with reserves to close out the game.

[+] EnlargeMichael McAdoo
AP Photo/Gerry BroomeJames Michael McAdoo played exclusively at small forward Friday against UNC Pembroke.
Thing is, the lineup carousel could continue heading into the season opener next Friday against Oakland. Carolina is still waiting for the NCAA to weigh in on disciplinary action for P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald and held them out of tonight’s game. J.P. Tokoto, who played in two unsanctioned summer league games, also sat out, but will return for the opener.

UNC coach Roy Williams said he was “not close to a set lineup” due to the uncertainty, which could make strange lineup combinations the norm until further notice.

“Well, that’s a big part of it because we don’t know who we’ll have back yet, there’s no update on that,” Williams said.

In some years, the lineup of Nate Britt, Luke Davis, Isaiah Hicks, Jackson Simmons and Kennedy Meeks would have certainly been viewed as the Blue team. Against the Braves that was a combination that took the floor not even halfway through the first half. Williams said Hicks played small forward even though he had never practiced at the position.

Forward James Michael McAdoo has practiced playing small forward, but didn't anticipate having to spend the entire game at the position. Williams said he posted impressive numbers with 19 points, 10 rebounds and three assists -- until he looked at turnovers.

McAdoo, who had the dubious distinction of leading the team in turnovers last season, had five against the smaller, quicker lineup Pembroke had on the floor.

“A lot of my turnovers were just dumb trying to dribble between two people a couple of times I tried to pass the ball in close when I should have just shot the ball," McAdoo said. "(I’m) just trying to cut down on little stuff like that that’s easily fixed.”

With Williams forced to use combinations that might not be seen again, the Tar Heels lacked chemistry for some stretches of the game. After holding as much as a 24-point lead in the first half, they allowed the Braves to cut it to 59-53 with 8:53 left in the game.

That was partly due to 23 turnovers -- and Pembroke didn’t use its full court press like it did against N.C. State on Tuesday.

“I just think we had some sloppy possessions overall as a team -- it was like the ball was greased up before the game or something,” said sophomore Marcus Paige, who had five turnovers.

Paige, like McAdoo, essentially didn’t play his normal position the entire game. He played shooting guard, with either with Britt or Davis handling the ball.

Paige said he had to keep reminding himself not to be a stand-still shooter when playing off the ball.

“I have a tendency to stand on the wing and not be active, not screen, and just sit and wait for the ball,” Paige said. “I’m still getting used to being active as a 2 rather than just, you know, being the 2.”

There’s a lot of that going around. Center Joel James admitted the team was still learning how to play with each other, “especially with McAdoo at the 3, it’s kind of awkward.”

Until the NCAA rules on Hairston and McDonald, Carolina will have to make awkward feel and look like normal.

“And the end of the day, like coach always says, we’re basketball players,” McAdoo said. “He didn’t recruit us all necessarily to play one solid position. But to go out there and play with each other and win a basketball game.”

Other notes:

• Williams is still looking for a starting center. James started the game there and both Meeks and Desmond Hubert also got their time.

“Tonight was a little shaky at the 5 spot,” James said. “Coach is looking for a guy, ultimately, who can rebound. In the first part of the game, we were just giving up all the loose rebounds so he kept rotating 5s in and out.”

James finished with three rebounds in 16 minutes. Meeks came off the bench for 11 points and six rebounds in 13 minutes of play. Hubert had six rebounds -- four offensive -- and added eight points.

• Paige had a 2-on-1 fast break and tried to complete a behind-the-back pass to Brice Johnson, but he wrapped the ball too tight and his pass went out of bounds.

“[Williams] didn’t say anything to me, he turned around to the crowd and told them ‘that’s the dumbest basketball play he’d ever seen,’ and then he just looked at me,” Paige said. “He didn’t have to say anything -- I already knew as soon as it hit my foot. Yeah. That was a great decision on my part. It’s good to get it out of the way when it doesn’t count I guess.”

Position series: Power forward

October, 24, 2013
This is the fourth installment of a position-by-position look at the Tar Heels.

Power forward should be a position of strength for Carolina this season. Junior James Michael McAdoo returns after starting every game last season. Sophomore Brice Johnson gained much-needed strength to his thin frame and will be able to hold his own. Freshman Isaiah Hicks adds a touch of athleticism and is arguably better than both McAdoo and Johnson at scoring around the basket. Junior Jackson Simmons has the experience and trust to contribute without trying to play outside of his skill set.

[+] EnlargeUNC/Kansas
Denny Medley/USA TODAY SportsJames Michael McAdoo should benefit from playing alongside a true center this season.
The Heels aren't as deep or as talented at any other position. That might be part of the reason why coach Roy Williams expects them to rebound better. Last season the Heels outrebounded opponents by an average of only 1.6 per game. That was by far the lowest margin in the Roy Williams era.

This group shouldn't have that problem, and the newcomer Hicks could be a big reason why.

"They always say rebounding is one skill that translates from level to level," sophomore guard Marcus Paige said. "I've seen it so far. He can go up and get a lot of balls that guys aren't able to get."

McAdoo led the team in rebounding last season at 7.3 per game. His average collapsed almost a full rebound per game the last quarter of the season, when he found himself playing against centers in the Heels' four guard lineup.

Williams expects McAdoo will thrive playing in a lineup with a center again.

"The only time he's had a five-man in there to play the post defense and post up was his freshman year, those few games after John (Henson) was out and he played with Tyler Zeller," Williams said. "Those were pretty doggone good times. It's been a shame that he hasn't had that low-post presence to play with and enable him to do some other things."

He should have that opportunity this season, especially if the Heels find consistency at center between Kennedy Meeks, Joel James and Desmond Hubert.

Williams will have all kinds of versatility at power forward thanks to each player having a different niche. Johnson could be the best defender of the four due to his ability to block shots.

"He has the quick bounce to be able to block some shots, and I think he's shown some of that in practice," Williams said. "And hopefully he'll show it in games too."

Simmons, a former walk-on, proved himself at Florida State with a career-high eight points including the game-winning basket.

"He adds a great deal to our team," Williams said. "Last year he was very significant in a couple of games, and I think he'll be very significant in more games this year."

Power forwards

  • James Michael McAdoo 6-9, 230, Jr., 14.4 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 44.5 FG%
  • Brice Johnson 6-9, 210, So., 5.4 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 51.1 FG%
  • Isaiah Hicks 6-8, 220, Fr., n/a
  • Jackson Simmons 6-7, 225, Jr., 1.8 ppg, 1.7 rpg, 65.8 FG%

Position series: Shooting guard

October, 22, 2013
This is the second installment of a position-by-position look at the Tar Heels.

With the length of P.J. Hairston's pending suspension still up in the air, the shooting guard position is a bit of an unknown . Hairston, the Heels’ leading scorer last season, is clearly the best suited to start. He led the team in made 3-pointers (89) and shot the highest percentage (39.6 percent) from behind the arc of any returning player.

Once he returns to the lineup, Hairston will likely reclaim the status as the team’s most gifted scorer. In the meantime, Leslie McDonald and J.P. Tokoto will be among those who will be relied upon the most to fill the void.

[+] EnlargeP.J. Hairston
Cal Sport Media via AP ImagesP.J. Hairston's suspension opens up opportunities at shooting guard at North Carolina.
McDonald, the lone scholarship senior on the roster, has played in 100 games during his career – the most of any player on the roster. But he’s just started once during that span. Last season against UAB he responded with a career-high 24 points in his lone start.

While coach Roy Williams doesn’t expect McDonald to produce career-highs every time he starts, he believes McDonald is poised for a career season.

“I expect him to play his best basketball,” Williams said. “He’s a shooter, but yet he’s been a streak shooter. I need him to be a consistent shooter. I need him to make it in multiple games. He understands that. I think this will be his biggest year.”

Tokoto provided most of his value as a tough defender last season. He’ll look to score more this year, especially with a renewed confidence in his mid-range jumper. Tokoto made 1 of 11 attempts from 3-point range as a freshman. He made most observers cringe when he stepped to the free-throw line as well, shooting a horrid 10-for-26 (38.5 percent).

Assistant coach Hubert Davis spent the offseason working with Tokoto on his shot and he’ll likely be much more of an offensive threat now.

“J.P. is more confident, and he should be because he’s shooting it better,” Williams said. “But I also want him to understand great players understand their strengths and their weaknesses. I don’t want him going out thinking that he’s going to shoot five or six 3s every game and never go to the offensive rebounds, 'cause that’s not very intelligent and I think he’ll understand that, too.”

Tokoto could be used at shooting guard if Williams decides to go with a bigger lineup that wold use James Michael McAdoo at small forward and Brice Johnson or Isaiah Hicks at power forward.

It’s all experimental right now, but Williams indicated he’ll show that look in the season opener as well as a lineup that moves Marcus Paige to shooting guard with freshman Nate Britt running point guard.

“I would say that I’m convinced that the first game when we play Oakland that you’ll see two little point guards out there together,” Williams said. “I’m convinced in the first game against Oakland you’ll see James Michael as a small forward. It is something that will be a continual process throughout the season.”

Paige playing off the ball would force him to become a little more selfish and look to score more. It’s something he was reluctant to do last season while running the point, but Williams believes he could be effective at shooting guard.

“Last year you heard me say 50 times Marcus is really a big-time shooter and the numbers didn’t show that,” Williams said. “I think Marcus’ numbers will show this year.”

Shooting guards

  • P.J. Hairston: 6-6, 220, Jr., 14.6 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 39.6 percent 3-pt FG
  • Leslie McDonald: 6-5, 215, Sr., 7.2 ppg, 2.1 rpg, 35.9 percent 3-pt FG
  • J.P. Tokoto: 6-5, 200, So., 2.6 ppg, 1.2 rpg, 9.1 percent 3-pt FG
  • Marcus Paige: 6-1, 175, So., 8.2 ppg, 2.7 rpg, 34.4 percent 3-pt FG
Last year’s freshmen class of Marcus Paige, J.P. Tokoto, Joel James and Brice Johnson contributed from the outset. Paige started in 34 games, Johnson appeared in all 36. Tokoto played in 35 and James in 30.

This year’s trio of freshmen will be relied on in a similar manner. Center Kennedy Meeks has the best chance to become a starter out of the class, but guard Nate Britt and forward Isaiah Hicks will have an opportunity to play immediately.

[+] EnlargeKennedy Meeks
Miller Safrit/ Freshman center Kennedy Meeks has dropped 36 pounds since arriving on campus.
Meeks, who coach Roy Williams said has dropped 36 pounds since arriving on campus, is competing with Joel James and Desmond Hubert to solidify the Heels inside. Offensively speaking, Meeks has an edge.

“He gives us an inside scorer, a strictly low-post, inside scorer, that we didn’t have last year,” Williams said.

The challenge for Meeks, a 6-foot-9 Charlotte native, is keeping his weight down. He arrived on campus weighing 317 pounds. As of last week, Williams said he was at 281. For Meeks, stamina might factor into how much he plays as much as skill does.

“Somebody asked me what weight do I want him to be,” Williams said. “I can’t give you a number, but I know how fast I want him to get up and down the court.”

Williams has raved about Meeks’ ability to make outlet passes to start the Heels in transition, calling him “the best outlet passing big man I’ve ever had.”

The only two players locked into the starting lineup are Paige and forward James Michael McAdoo. That’s why it’s unlikely Britt and Hicks will crack the starting five. Although from Williams’ lineup experiments, there’s a scenario where McAdoo plays small forward in a big lineup and Hicks could play power forward.

Britt, who is 5-11, doesn’t need to challenge Paige in order to be effective for Carolina.

“Nate gives us another true point guard that we hadn’t had the last couple of years,” Williams said. “So I love that he really is understanding pushing the pace. Now we've got to get him to get under control when he does get there.”

Hicks, arguably the biggest signing of the trio, has been compared to former Cincinnati standout Kenyon Martin. Williams loves his athleticism but said right now he’s “just roaming around trying to figure out where he’s supposed to be.” Once he does figure things out, Williams believes the 6-8 Oxford, N.C., native has a chance to be special.

“Isaiah’s a guy that got 30 rebounds in the state finals,” Williams said. “That’s as big as it can get in high school basketball. So if he can rebound it like that on that stage then we expect him to do the same things.”