North Carolina Tar Heels: Jackson Simmons

The real Tar Heels finally have been revealed.

It is a flawed team, but that’s OK; which team in college basketball isn’t? North Carolina has accepted shortcomings and knows it has to overcome them through effort. It is a team that can depend on junior forward James Michael McAdoo for energy and leadership, even if he still struggles from the free-throw line. It is a team that needs sophomore guard Marcus Paige to lose his humility and play like the best offensive threat, even though that's not in his nature.

For half the season, Carolina's up-and-down pattern of big wins and bad losses had everyone puzzled. The first nine games were especially confusing, too. Back then, there was still a vision of the team that would emerge that would include P.J. Hairston.

Even after the school opted not to seek reinstatement for Hairston and Leslie McDonald returned, the Heels had trouble finding their identity. They’ve got it now.

[+] EnlargeJ.P. Tokoto
AP Photo/Gerry BroomeJ.P. Tokoto, James Michael McAdoo and the Tar Heels seem to have finally forged an identity.
“It does say a great deal about the character of the kids we have that they didn’t get down when it was 0-3 (in the ACC) and 1-4,” UNC coach Roy Williams said. “They didn’t start pointing fingers at anybody else. They accepted the coaching that we were trying to do and they are getting better.”

To be clear, Carolina’s three-game winning streak has come against teams it was supposed to beat in Clemson, Georgia Tech and NC State. But there’s also no denying, being in the league cellar stripped the Heels of their cool. They’ve shown more grit and hustle in the past three games than they had in any other three-game stretch this season.

Carolina hasn’t won four games in a row this season. The Heels host Maryland on Tuesday and a victory would lift UNC above .500 in league play for the first time all season.

“I really believe we’re getting better as a team,” Williams said. “I told them that this week that I think we’re really close to really becoming a good basketball team, but we’ve got to take some more steps and got to maintain that intensity level for a longer period of time.”

Williams has said he doesn’t intentionally tighten his rotation during the course of the season. But a pattern is starting to show itself.

Carolina going forward will have freshman center Kennedy Meeks logging more time in the middle. He has had only four games this season when he played more than 20 minutes, and three of those came in the past four games.

That means, barring foul trouble or injuries, scaling back opportunities for Joel James, Jackson Simmons and Desmond Hubert.

Expect more from McDonald, the lone scholarship senior on the roster, moving forward. He has averaged more than 30 minutes in the past three games and responded with a season-high 20 points against the Wolfpack on Saturday.

By default, that means a little less time for freshman guard Nate Britt in the backcourt and more time for Paige at point guard.

The Heels won’t likely run the table in the regular season. But at least now their failures won’t be from a lack of urgency or from players still feeling out their roles. They know who they are. And they're finally playing like it.

Heels sluggish in win over Norse

December, 27, 2013
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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."

2014 class could be right piece

November, 14, 2013
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Roy Williams won two championships in Chapel Hill thanks in large part to three standout recruiting classes. On paper, he just landed a fourth on Wednesday.

Williams delivered one of the nation’s best recruiting classes and gave a comment on each:

Theo Pinson, a 6-foot-8 wing, is ranked eighth in the ESPN 100: “He can do almost everything on the court and do it well. He can handle the ball, pass, defend and he has tremendous savvy.

[+] EnlargeJustin Jackson
Chris Williams/Icon SMI2014 UNC signee Justin Jackson is the nation's top-ranked small forward.
Justin Jackson, a 6-foot-6 wing is ranked 13th: “He’s 6-8 with perimeter skills. He performed well last summer against tough competition, including at USA Basketball events.”

Joel Berry, a 6-foot-1 point guard, ranked 15th: “He is a true quarterback on the floor, but he has the ability to score as well.”

It matches the 2010 class of Harrison Barnes, Reggie Bullock and Kendall Marshall for the highest average ranking. But the formula for winning titles doesn’t come with a talented class alone.

Williams has proven when he stacks classes the right way, Carolina contends for the title.

As you recall, Matt Doherty recruited the classes who proved to be the cornerstones of the 2005 national championship team. That included the 2002 class that featured Sean May, Rashad McCants and Raymond Felton.

Marvin Williams, from the class of 2004, proved to be a key addition to that team and was in Roy Williams’ first full recruiting class in Chapel Hill.

The starters for the 2009 title team came from portions of the 2005 (Tyler Hansbrough, Danny Green) and 2006 (Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington, Deon Thompson) classes.

The team built to win in 2012 had key starters from three classes in Tyler Zeller (2008), John Henson and Dexter Strickland (2009) and Marshall and Barnes (2010).

Even if James Michael McAdoo and P.J. Hairston are not on next year’s squad, the Heels will still have a nice blend of old and new talents from three straight classes. That once again could be the formula for a serious Final Four contender.

Pinson and Jackson in particular will give Carolina the depth and athleticism on the wings that it has lacked. Berry will team with Marcus Paige and Nate Britt to form one of the fastest back courts Williams has had at UNC.

UNC recruiting classes under Roy Williams

2004
J.R. Smith, SF
Marvin Williams, PF
Quentin Thomas, PG

2005
Tyler Hansbrough, PF
Danny Green, SG
Bobby Frasor, SG
Marcus Ginyard, PG
Michael Copeland, F

2006
Wayne Ellington, G
Ty Lawson, PG
Brandon Wright, PF
Deon Thompson, PF
Alex Stepheson, PF
Will Graves, SF

2007
None

2008
Ed Davis, PF
Tyler Zeller, C
Larry Drew, PG
Justin Watts, SG

2009
John Henson, PF
Dexter Strickland, SG
Leslie McDonald, SG
David Wear, PF
Travis Wear, PF

2010
Harrison Barnes, SF
Regge Bullock, SG
Kendall Marshall, PG

2011
James Michael McAdoo, PF
P.J. Hairson, SF
Desmond Hubert, C
Jackson Simmons, PF
Stillman White, PG

2012
Marcus Paige, PG
Joel James, C
Brice Johnson, PF
J.P. Tokoto, SF

2013
Isaiah Hicks, PF
Kennedy Meeks, C
Nate Britt, PG

2014
Theo Pinson, SF
Justin Jackson, SF
Joel Berry, PG

Thought of the Week: Bench play

November, 11, 2013
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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
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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: Center

October, 25, 2013
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This is the fifth and final installment of a position-by-position look at the Tar Heels.

Every other starting position might be claimed before coach Roy Williams names his starter at center. Freshman Kennedy Meeks, sophomore Joel James and junior Desmond Hubert are all in the mix and -- if there’s anything to be taken from Williams’ preseason lineup experiments -- he’s even used Jackson Simmons with the first five.

[+] EnlargeKennedy Meeks
Miller Safrit/ESPN.com Kennedy Meeks, a highly decorated recruit, is in the mix to start at center for North Carolina.
“Nobody has stepped up and taken it yet,” Williams said last week, adding that he didn’t anticipate naming a starter anytime soon. “That’s going to be not just a couple of days; it’ll be a couple of weeks, maybe even longer.”

Williams’ dilemma? He’s looking for someone who can be the consistent offensive threat inside to keep opponents honest.

“Kennedy, Joel and Desmond, if we throw the ball to them inside, they need to be able to convert,” Williams said. “We’ve spent a great deal of our time in preseason and we’ll continue to do that, too.”

Hubert is limited offensively, although he does give the Heels their best shot-blocking presence inside. He appeared in every game last season and led the team with 30 blocks, which nearly matched his total of 41 points scored.

James is still very much a work in progress. Williams said he had a good offseason, particularly in shedding some pounds and building his stamina. Oh, and his game improved, too.

“He played, very, very well. All the pros were talking about Joel and the nice things he was doing,” Williams said. “Now, he’s got to do it with this team. If he does it with this team, I’ll be as happy as all get out.”

Meeks could be that reliable scorer in the paint. He’s the most gifted offensively of the bunch, but he’s also the least experienced. Aside from questions about his conditioning – despite losing nearly 40 pounds to weigh in around 280 – there’s still a question if can he run in the offense.

“You’ve got to be able to carry it from the practice court to the game,” Williams said. “You’ve got to be able to carry instruction from the bench to the court. Every freshman has got some problems with that right now.”

Meeks has no problem with making outlet passes, though, which became a theme whenever Williams discusses his skill set. And in an offense that wants to run, that, too, could give him an advantage over James and Hubert. But Williams isn’t crowning anyone the starter just yet.

“It remains to be seen,” Williams said. “The big guys have to show that they can do more than last year. If one of them steps forward, then that will be great. But I do think I want a more balanced, inside scoring and outside scoring [team].”

Center

  • Kennedy Meeks: 6-9, 281, Fr.
  • Joel James: 6-10, 280, So., 2.3 ppg, 2.4 rpg, 51.7 FG percent
  • Desmond Hubert: 6-10, 225, Jr., 1.1 ppg, 1.7 rpg, 30 blks, 54.3 FG percent
  • Jackson Simmons: 6-7, 225, Jr., 1.8 ppg, 1.7 rpg, 65.8 FG percent

Position series: Power forward

October, 24, 2013
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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%


Paige's improved play propels UNC

February, 23, 2013
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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.”
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Asked who was going to guard Virginia Tech senior Erick Green, who leads the nation in scoring at 25.5 ppg, North Carolina coach Roy Williams offered a quick answer Friday: Everybody.

“We’re thinking about playing box and one -- four guys on him, and one guy in the middle of the lane,’’ he said.

OK, so Williams quickly said he was kidding about the box-and-one defense; the Hokies, despite their 2-5 ACC record, have too many other capable players to defend to solely focus on the 6-foot-4 guard Saturday at the Smith Center.

But Green is, as Williams put it, “really frickin’ good.” So good he’s seemingly gotten even better as the season has progressed; he's averaged 30 points over his past four games.

“He is a load right now,’’ Williams said. “… He’s always under control, his jump shot at the 3-point line is effortless; it’s almost like it’s a 12-footer. He takes it to the basket and … he gets fouled and makes free throws.

“To be leading the nation in scoring, and shooting over 50 percent [in ACC play], as a guard, is just off the charts.”

A few other things to watch when UNC (14-6, 4-3 ACC) tips off against the Hokies (11-9, 2-5) at noon:

LESLIE MCDONALD’S RETURN

With reserve guard P.J. Hairston, who hasn’t practiced since suffering a concussion at Boston College on Tuesday night, still doubtful to play, the Tar Heels will be looking for some solid minutes from junior guard Leslie McDonald in his return. The reserve has missed six straight games, three because of a sore knee and then three because of an academics-related suspension.

“If you don’t have P.J., that means you’re losing one of your good shooters,’’ Williams said. “And when we lost Leslie, P.J.’s numbers sort of picked up … so now it’s just 180 degrees away from that.

“Leslie has to give us some points, from deep hopefully to stretch their defense -- or if he wants to take it to the basket and dunk it, I don’t care. But we do need him to do a good job defensively. …. We need him to play every phase of the game; we need him to come back in and not take any steps back.”

McDonald is averaging 8.4 points, and 43.1 percent from 3-point land this season.

DEXTER’S DEFENSE

Some folks credited starting shooting guard Dexter Strickland for playing a better game at BC because the senior hit a couple of jump shots and went 6-for-6 from the free throw line.

Not Williams. He thought Strickland played a better game because of his defense.

“The fact of the matter is, it was his best defensive game in -- pick a number,’’ Williams said. “He and Marcus [Paige, UNC’s starting point guard], it was collectively the first time they’ve had really, really high defensive grades in several games.”

Williams said Strickland has not been the same defensive player since he tore the ACL in his knee at Virginia Tech last February, and needed reconstructive surgery. “I don’t think he has that burst,’’ Williams said. “But, I’ll say this, he showed more [Tuesday] than any game he’s had this year.”

Still, Strickland -- who had to be pulled from conditioning in September because he hadn’t quite recuperated enough to run -- has drawn the ire of some fans because he’s struggled so much on offense, making only a third of his shots in league play. But Williams said he has stuck with him because of his defensive ability, his tenacity, and his larger-than-the-stat-sheet role on the team.

“The scoring part of it is emphasized way, way too much,’’ Williams said. “It’s like putting together a puzzle; you’ve got to put together all the pieces, and you can’t just leave one out. And I think Dexter is a huge part of our puzzle.”

ETC...

It’s easy to be wowed by Green, but the Hokies have some other talent to watch out for, beginning with junior forward Jarell Eddie (14.4 ppg). … UNC has won seven of its past eight meetings with Virginia Tech. … Tar Heels reserve Jackson Simmons has scored a total of 26 points while averaging 13.4 minutes over UNC's past five games.
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.

Hoopsbag: North Carolina edition

January, 17, 2013
1/17/13
11:00
AM ET
Each week, I’ll try to answer your queries, comments, raves and rants about North Carolina hoops (and other related issues/teams). Send your interrogatives by visiting this page. You can also email me at bylinerp@gmail.com or contact me via Twitter at @bylinerp.

UNC has had an open week since winning at FSU last Saturday; the Tar Heels play Maryland on Saturday. Some recent questions ...

Isaac Schade from Webb City, Mo., writes: Despite all the other crazy talent last year, Kendall Marshall was the truly one "indispensable" player amongst the group (and probably least likely to leave of the group). How different does this year's UNC squad look if he's running the point with Paige as the back-up? Or does the lack of experience inside too far outweigh his playmaking ability? Thanks.

Pickeral: Hi, Isaac. No doubt this team would be different if Marshall was still in Chapel Hill. Not only would it have more on- and off-court leadership, but a guy who would know where and when to get each of his teammates the ball -- including those inexperienced big guys. Boasting the best point guard in college solves a lot of problems, and it would give freshman ballhandler Marcus Paige the best mentor from whom to learn.

I still argue that what this team is missing most, though, is a confident, well-rounded big man. For instance, put a Tyler Zeller -- even the equivalent of a sophomore Tyler Zeller -- on this team, and it opens things up more for forward James Michael McAdoo. It gives Paige a confident target in the post. It allows coach Roy Williams the more balanced inside-out game that he wants, and opens things up for all of the 3-point shooters that were dubbed the strength of this team (without putting pressure on them to be the strength of this team).

It’s an interesting ‘what-if’?


Jeremy from Minneapolis writes: This team needed some heart and Jackson Simmons plays with his. He may not be the most athletic player out there but he gets the job done. Do you think we see him being the first big off the bench going forward?

Brandon from Winston-Salem, NC writes: What do you think about the way Jackson Simmons played against FSU? It looked like someone finally claimed the 5 spot to me.

Pickeral: Guys, you’ve got to be happy for Simmons, who had eight points and four rebounds in 15 minutes to help UNC win at Florida State last Saturday (and on his birthday, no less). And you’ve got to be happy for the Tar Heels, to have a guy who doesn’t play all that much help them to a win when they really, really needed a win.

As Jeremy mentioned, he played with heart. But has he “claimed” the 5-spot? Doubtful.

Williams has said he doesn’t want to play “small” the majority of the time, and a 6-foot-7 center makes for a pretty short lineup. As Williams said on his Monday night radio show, Simmons earned his minutes by becoming the best screener in practice, and pulling down offensive rebound after offensive rebound. No doubt he could (and likely has) earned more opportunities -- especially if Williams isn’t getting what he wants out of centers Desmond Hubert, Joel James and Brice Johnson.

But the reality is, this team needs more out of Hubert and/or James and/or Johnson. Perhaps Simmons will serve as an inspiration.


Earl from NC writes: I read somewhere that Miami has an assistant coach for defense and one for offense. How does UNC split up its assistant coaching duties, especially with a new assistant [Hubert Davis] on the staff?

Pickeral: According to Williams on one of his recent radio shows: “Everybody’s involved in everything. I felt like when I left here to go to Kansas, Coach [Dean] Smith had prepared me every day to be a head coach, because I was involved in everything, and that’s the way I’ve run my staff for 25 years.”

On UNC’s staff, the assistants split up the scouting assignments -- Steve Robinson was responsible for Virginia this month, for instance, while C.B. McGrath had Miami -- and those assistants give the scouting report to the team prior to each game.

During practice, McGrath and Williams primarily coach the big guys during individual drills, while Robinson and Davis work with the perimeter players.

And during the course of a game, Williams said: “Coach Robinson has got fouls and timeouts; CB’s keeping more or less the time clock, how long a guy’s been in the game, when he came out, those kind of things. … Hubert, I say things to him and tell him to write things down to remind me at the timeouts. And then at every timeout, I say something to open the timeout, and then I give each assistant a chance to say something at that moment. And then we get out and I bring it all together.”

In addition, McGrath began the season coaching the junior varsity team, with the idea that Davis would eventually take over.

“I feel very fortunate to have the staff I do,’’ Williams said. “If I go in the tank one night, or get thrown out out of the game -- which is a possibility -- if that happens, our team will get be very well-coached.”


Anonymous from NC writes: Are you ready to concede yet that P.J. Hairston should be in the starting lineup?

Pickeral: As long as he's playing enough minutes -- and he's averaged 27 over the past four games -- then no, I still don't think it matters whether he starts or comes off the bench (although I know there are many fans with a very different opinion).

It's been impressive, the way Hairston has expanded his offensive game, improved his defense, and been able to play the '4' when UNC goes to a four-guard line-up. There are times when the sophomore wing been the best player on the floor -- starter or reserve. But it sounds as if he will keep his back-up role, at least for the time being. Williams said earlier this week that he thinks Hairston is more valuable coming off the bench.
Some notes from North Carolina coach Roy Williams’ radio show on Monday night:

SHOULD HAIRSTON START? Sophomore P.J. Hairston has been invaluable to North Carolina this season. He’s averaging 12.3 points and 4.4 rebounds; he’s expanded his offensive game by driving to the ball to the basket more often; he’s improved his defense; he plays the "4" when the Tar Heels go to a smaller lineup; and he scored a career-high 23 points to help his team win at Florida State last Saturday.

And it sounds like he’ll continue to do all of those things in a reserve role.

“Right now, I think he’s more valuable coming off the bench,’’ Williams said when asked about Hairston’s chances of moving into the starting lineup. “I can go all the way back to ’05; we didn’t start Marvin Williams, but he was pretty doggone important for us. But it was important to start Jawad [Williams], and get those great minutes out of Jawad.

“But who knows? I really don’t. I know that, unless someone really screws something up in practice, I know who’s going to start Saturday [versus Maryland]. But I don’t know who’s going to start the next game. It just depends on how they play in practice -- unless it’s someone that’s just earned it over the course of a whole season, or two whole seasons.”

Dexter Strickland, the team’s only scholarship senior, continues to start at shooting guard, while junior Reggie Bullock (the team’s second-leading scorer) starts at small forward.

And although he isn't in the opening five, Hairston’s playing time has increased of late. Over his last four games, he’s averaging 27 minutes per outing.

“P.J.’s really given us a lift,’’ Williams said. “When he comes in the game, the other team’s defense has to change.”

INJURY UPDATE: Williams said there’s a 99.9 percent chance backup point guard Luke Davis (sprained ankle) will not play against Maryland on Saturday. He’s still hopeful that redshirt junior Leslie McDonald, who has missed the last two games because of soreness in his right knee (the same knee that caused him to miss last season, after reconstructive surgery in the summer of 2011) will return.

“Leslie, we did some restricted things with him during practice [Monday], and now we have to see how he responds to the work,’’ Williams said. “First part, he looked like he was going to be OK. And then I think it started bothering him more toward the end, so we sent him out and sent him over the stretch a little bit more.”

SIMMONS SHINES: How did reserve Jackson Simmons -- who ultimately recorded eight points and four rebounds in 15 key minutes during the win at FSU (and on his birthday, no less) -- earn his chance?

By doing some key things really well in practice.

“We’ve tried to work on our freelance half-court offense in the last two to three weeks, and he’s the best screener we have,’’ Williams said. “He’s not running around, doing jumping jacks, hoping someone will throw him the basketball. He’s running around and setting screens and getting his teammates open. You add that together with the fact that he’s getting more offensive rebounds than anyone else in practice.”

Asked if this is now a long-term thing, where Simmons (who is averaging 5.6 minutes for the season) could be inserted to play a bit more in upcoming games, Williams said: “We’ll see.”

FAMILIAR FACE: Former UNC player Matt Doherty, who was fired as UNC’s head coach after the 2002-03 season, was back at the Smith Center last month for the Tar Heels’ win over UNLV. Williams said he gave Doherty the ticket, and although they didn’t get to chat much, Williams was glad to see him back.

“Regardless of what happens, he’s a Tar Heel, he’ll always be a Tar Heel,’’ Williams said. “He worked for me [at Kansas], he played for the team I helped coach, I helped recruit him, and he’s always going to be part of the family. It’s just unfortunate that it didn’t work as well as he wanted it to, and everyone else wanted it to [when was UNC’s head coach]. But Matt Doherty is a Tar Heel, that’s the bottom line, and he always will be.”

SUITED FOR GAMES: Some coaches have taken to wearing more casual attire (such as a polo shirt) during games. Not Williams (except for the during the Maui Invitational).

“Coach Dean Smith once said that if you want to be respected like a businessman, you should look like one,’’ Williams said. “If he ever comes up and tells me not to wear a coat and tie to a game tonight, then I won’t wear it. But I don’t think the man’s ever going to tell me that.

“Ninety-eight percent of the stuff I do, I do because I copied from Coach. He believes that, and I believe it. So that’s the way we do it.”

BRIEFLY: Williams said his team will continue to work on zone defense, even though the lone time they played it at FSU didn’t work out very well.

“We played one possession, and they scored three points out of it. But we worked on it again [Monday]. It’s something we’ve got to continue to work on, because I do believe we’ll play it some more."
Notes, quotes and other tidbits from North Carolina’s 76-59 season-opening win against Gardner-Webb on Friday night:

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Freshman Marcus Paige grew up a huge fan of North Carolina point guards Ed Cota, Raymond Felton, Ty Lawson and Kendall Marshall.

So his feeling as he sat on the bench at the Smith Center on Friday night, waiting for his name to be announced as part of UNC’s starting lineup?

“It’s tough to explain, it’s tough to find words to explain,’’ he nonetheless tried to explain. “… I’ve always wanted to come and play basketball here, so that was a special moment for me. I tried to get past [the emotions] as quick as possible and concentrate on the game -- because if you get caught up in all that stuff, you might have a couple mental lapses on the court. But I did definitely enjoy my name being called as part of the starting lineup for the first time.”

Although coach Roy Williams was pleased that Paige “was in charge out there,” the rookie struggled in the stat box. He finished 3-for-9 with zero assists and four turnovers.

“It’s not good, obviously as a point guard, and I definitely wasn’t happy with that,’’ Paige said of his lack of assists. But Williams pointed out that Paige had multiple passes that would have been assists -- had the teammates on the other end of those passes not missed layups or been fouled.

The four turnovers were of concern to both Williams and Paige, “but he’s freshman, and he’s going to be really good,’’ Williams said.

And the fifth starter is: Sophomore Desmond Hubert (0-for-2, 4 rebounds, 13 minutes) started the game at forward, and then freshman Joel James (3-for-3, 4 rebounds, 4 fouls in 14 minutes) began the second half in his slot.

Williams said Thursday -- when he hadn’t decided who would start in the post with James Michael McAdoo -- that the big-man lineup could keep changing for a while. And it sounds like that hasn’t changed.

“We’re going to play all those guys,’’ Williams said, also referring to freshman Brice Johnson (3-for-6, 5 rebounds, 12 minutes) and sophomore Jackson Simmons (1-for-3, 4 rebounds, 7 minutes).

Strickland returns: Senior shooting guard Dexter Strickland was back in the starting lineup Friday, and he didn’t look like a guy who had ACL surgery last February. He finished with 13 points, looking as speedy as ever as he raced and drove to the basket.

“I thought he did some good things,’’ Williams said. “We’re still not as smooth as I want us to be, whoever is in the game. I get on Dexter a lot for dribbling too much, and one time at the end he’s dribbling but nobody is doing anything to get open. That’s not his fault.

“He does a nice job of attacking the basket, and I think he did that tonight.”

Briefly: Williams opened his post-game news conference with a moment of silence for Eddy Landreth, a long-time ACC sports writer who passed away on Tuesday. ... UNC was 1-for-12 from 3-point land, but Williams still believes UNC will be a good outside shooting team. "Reggie [Bullock] was almost unselfish to a fault tonight. He's got to take a couple more of the shots, and guys have got to be willing to screen for him to get him open, too."

Follow Robbi Pickeral on Twitter at @bylinerp.

PG Luke Davis is UNC's fastest miler

October, 9, 2012
10/09/12
12:30
PM ET
North Carolina sophomore point guard Luke Davis -- who sat out last season per NCAA transfer rules -- ran the fastest mile time (5 minutes, 14 seconds) in UNC’s annual test Saturday.

Senior Dexter Strickland, who had ACL surgery in February, was the only player who didn’t run.

Here is the full list of times, which were released by UNC on Tuesday:
  1. Luke Davis - 5:14
  2. J.P. Tokoto - 5:30
  3. Jackson Simmons - 5:34
  4. James Michael McAdoo - 5: 40
  5. Reggie Bullock - 5:45
  6. P.J. Hairston - 5:46
  7. Desmond Hubert - 5:52
  8. Brice Johnson - 5:53
  9. Marcus Paige - 5:54
  10. Leslie McDonald - 5:55
  11. Joel James - 5:56
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – As he looked around the locker room after North Carolina’s loss to Kansas in the NCAA Regional finals last March, forward Desmond Hubert couldn’t help but grow a little anxious about all the talent the Tar Heels would lose to the NBA.

But after playing additional offseason pickup games with his teammates, putting on a few more pounds, and gaining confidence in his still-developing hook shot, “I’m a lot more excited now than nervous.”

Which, the Tar Heels hope, is a good sign. Hubert, who averaged 4.9 minutes in 25 games as a freshman, will likely need to play a much bigger role on UNC’s front line next season, considering the losses of ACC Player of the Year Tyler Zeller and ACC Defensive Player of the Year John Henson to the NBA draft. (Both are expected to be first-round picks next week, along with fellow starters Harrison Barnes and Kendall Marshall.)

[+] EnlargeDesmond Hubert
Cal Sport Media via AP ImagesDesmond Hubert says he learned plenty during a freshman year of watching Carolina's stars at work.
Sophomore James Michael McAdoo, who came on strong late in the season, will start at one forward slot. Hubert, incoming freshmen Joel James and Brice Johnson, and also-sparingly used sophomore Jackson Simmons will be competing for the other starting spot -- as well as reserve minutes at both positions.

“I think some people are going to be surprised,’’ said Hubert, whose thin 6-foot-9 frame, expansive 7-3 wingspan, and Gumby-like defensive-mindedness have drawn plenty of comparisons to Henson.

“I know we’re going to be young, but we have a lot of talent. The freshmen coming in are really good. As soon as we start learning from each other, learning how to play together, to get rid of those early jitters and stuff like that, I think we’re going to be really good."

Hubert said he learned plenty of lessons from Zeller and Henson last season: timing, preparation, work ethic. But having to sit and watch wasn’t always easy, especially after averaging 16 points and 9 rebounds as a senior at New Egypt (N.J.) High.

“I remember playing a couple good minutes in one game [last season] … then not playing for two or three games in a row,’’ he said. “It was kind of hard. I guess that kind of hurt my confidence a little bit. But I had some great guys ahead of me, so at the end of the day … I couldn’t be mad or anything like that, because the guys ahead of me were just terrific guys.”

Plus, he said, he got to learn from those guys each day -- watching how Zeller sprinted down the court; emulating how Henson used his timing and reach to block and out-rebound bigger, broader opponents.

“When I first started practicing against them, it was really a one-sided match,’’ Hubert said. “And as the season started to go on, I feel like sometimes -- it didn’t happen many times -- but I could say there were a few times when I won out over Z or John. It didn’t happen very often, but it happened sometimes.”

Enough to take pride in, and build upon.

With Zeller and Henson gone, Hubert smiles and shakes his head at the fact that he’s now one of the “veterans” of the front line. But he’s working hard to set a good example.

By hitting the weight room often and eating up to six meals a day, he now weighs in at 220 pounds -- up from 193 when he first arrived in Chapel Hill last summer. A defensive specialist (he recorded 17 points and 37 rebounds, total, last season), he’s also been developing a go-to move: a right- and left-handed hook shot. Former Tar Heel forwards Rasheed Wallace, Marvin Williams and Deon Thompson have also taken him under their collective wing, offering tips and tricks and even more competition.

Now, Hubert is anxious about next season in a good way.

“When I first got here, I had no idea what I was in for, I had no idea what to expect at all,’’ he said. “… Now I feel like I’m in a position where I have to teach the freshmen that are coming in some of the things that John and Z taught me. I’ve got to be a major part of the team this year. It’s kind of different, but it’s a challenge I’m willing to accept. I’m kind of excited for it.”

Follow Robbi Pickeral on Twitter at @bylinerp.

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