North Carolina Tar Heels: Joel James

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 turning the corner?

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North Carolina has a chance to pull to .500 in ACC play with Saturday’s game against rival NC State. Just striking even seemed like an oasis not too long ago when the Tar Heels got off to an 0-3 start.

Count Georgia Tech coach Brian Gregory among those who think North Carolina is beginning to turn the corner. After the Tar Heels used a strong second half to beat the Yellow Jackets 78-65, he remarked that they looked nothing like the team that struggled at the onset of ACC play.

“In North Carolina you are starting to see the team that was 10-3 in the nonconference and had the No. 1 strength of schedule,” Gregory said. “… Those guys are starting to play really well. Their upperclassmen are starting to play extremely well and those guys are pulling some of those younger guys along.”

[+] EnlargeKennedy Meeks
Grant Halverson/Getty ImagesFreshman center Kennedy Meeks is starting to solidify his grip on the starting spot for the Tar Heels.
It could be argued the younger guys are holding their own. How else would you explain when both James Michael McAdoo and J.P. Tokoto sat on the bench in foul trouble against Tech, the Heels actually expanded their lead?

Freshman center Kennedy Meeks had another performance that only solidifies his grip on a starting spot. UNC coach Roy Williams has said since preseason no one had stepped forward to claim the position.

Meeks is starting to separate himself from Joel James and Brice Johnson. Meeks’ nine points against the Jackets snapped his string of three straight games in double figures, but he added 10 rebounds and is beginning to execute on defense better.

There was a lot for Williams to like in the second half at Georgia Tech, especially the free-throw shooting late in the game. Leading by only eight, Carolina converted 11 of 12 free throws in roughly the final 90 seconds -- this from a team that has shot just 59.7 percent from the line in conference play.

Now if the Heels can just get Marcus Paige to put two halves together on offense. Paige made all six of his second-half shots against Tech, including three 3-pointers, and scored 17 of his 19 points. It’s become a puzzling trend for the sophomore.

“It’s been weird; we've played 20 games and I bet he’s had one half that’s much better than the other in 15 of those 20 games,” Williams said. “I can’t explain it. If I could explain it, I’d make him sit on the bench in the bad half and play him the other half.”

Gregory said if Paige does figure it out, Carolina could be a contender.

“When he plays well they are an elite-level team, there’s no question about it,” Gregory said. “When you put the athletic ability of Tokoto, and you have Meeks, McAdoo and Leslie McDonald. Then Brice Johnson would start on 99 percent of the teams in the country. When Marcus Paige plays at that level, they are a Final Four-caliber team.”
North Carolina coach Roy Williams said center Joel James would return to the lineup for Wednesday’s game against Miami. James has essentially missed the past five games after suffering a sprained medial collateral ligament in the opening minute of the Tar Heels’ loss to Texas on Dec. 18.

James participated in pregame warmups on Sunday in their loss at Wake Forest, but Williams said the plan was only to use him in an emergency. Williams said James participated fully in the Heels’ Monday practice.

“We wanted him to get one more day of just shooting layups and letting his knee rest,” Williams said.

“I think that he’ll be ready to go for Miami.”

Williams did not indicate whether James would return to the starting lineup. In the four games without him starting, neither Brice Johnson nor Kennedy Meeks had standout performances. Johnson termed his two starts as two of the worst games he has played this season. When he returned to his role coming off the bench he was again effective combining for 26 points and 16 rebounds.

Meeks had his first scoreless game of the season in his first start against UNC Wilmington. He scored seven points and had nine rebounds against Wake Forest, but missed many attempts around the rim in shooting 3 of 8.

Meeks wasn’t the only one. Despite the Heels' 24 offensive rebounds against Wake, they only had 24 second-chance points. Williams wasn’t pleased with the Heels’ 38.7 percent shooting performance either, which was the second lowest of the season.

It led to a grueling practice Monday with his frontcourt. Williams said he drilled them on staying low while posting up and going strong to the rim.

“We worked on that about 45 minutes and finishing plays, it was the most physical practice we have had for an hour all year long,” Williams said on his radio show Monday. “They were beating each other up and it didn’t bother me in the least bit. We’ve got to be more forceful around the basket and finish plays and hopefully it helped us today and we’re going to try to do the same thing [Tuesday].”
North Carolina center Joel James, who has missed three games since suffering a sprained medial collateral ligament against Texas, will likely add another to his total with Sunday’s ACC opener at Wake Forest. The sophomore started the first 10 games for UNC, but went down less than a minute into the Tar Heels' loss to the Longhorns.

“He did participate in some of our [practice] stuff today, but I think it’s a little bit of a push to try to get him there,” coach Roy Williams said. “I’m not going to say completely, but I don’t think so.”

[+] EnlargeJoel James
Mike Carter/USA TODAY SportsJoel James has a sprained knee ligament.
James averages 3.7 points and 4.3 rebounds.

Williams did not say whether Brice Johnson or Kennedy Meeks would start in James’ absence, but both players have struggled when thrust into a starting role. Johnson called his two starts the worst two games he’s played this season.

“I don’t think it had anything to do with starting for Brice. I think he was just in a little bit of a funk,” Williams said. “… I could very easily start Brice again [Sunday].”

Meeks was held scoreless for the only time this season when he made his first career start against UNC Wilmington. Williams believed simply that jitters got the best of Meeks.

“The consistency of his effort is what has been lacking,” Williams said. “He’s had some big-time games.”

Regardless of who starts or who finishes, Williams pointed to rebounding as a key to the game. Wake Forest is outrebounding its opponents by an average of 7.3 per game. “That’s one of the places, in the past, I think we’ve been able to hurt Wake Forest,” Williams said.

" Forward James Michael McAdoo said he doesn’t know where or why he developed shooting a rainbow arc at the free throw line, but he’s worked to flatten it out. McAdoo, who leads the team in free throw attempts (114), is shooting a dismal 57 percent from the line. He said he’s been working with assistant coach Hubert Davis to change his technique.

“As far as from my jump shot, where I don’t have that much arc, transitioning to the free throw line where I was watching film, I was having a lot of arc,” McAdoo said. “I don’t really know where that came from, but it happens, so just minor adjustments.”

Weekend homework: UNC coaching effort?

December, 19, 2013
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North Carolina coach Roy Williams scheduled a 5 a.m. Thursday practice immediately following the Tar Heels' 86-83 loss to Texas on Wednesday night. He’s tired of preaching effort to his team, which has had a tendency to elevate its play against ranked teams and go through the motions against the rest.

Davidson normally would command respect, but this season it’s not a team that has proved capable of an upset. The Wildcats will stumble into Chapel Hill on Saturday with a 4-7 record. They lost leading scorer De’Mon Brooks to a knee injury after just five games.

In other words, Williams should have an indication pretty quickly about the Heels' effort levels because the opponent isn’t inspiring. One barometer will be rebounding, as they were outrebounded for the second consecutive game and the third time this season.

[+] EnlargeLeslie McDonald, Isaiah Taylor
Rob Kinnan/USA TODAY SportsLeslie McDonald made his season debut and made four 3-pointers, but was part of the problem at the free throw line.
Sophomore guard Marcus Paige said he hopes it doesn’t take more early-morning practices -- or losses -- to learn their lesson.

“If we didn’t give enough effort in the game, he’s got to drill it in somehow,” Paige said. “I mean, we’ve had a couple of games now where we’re saying the same thing. Effort is what got us. Effort is what got us. Either we have to change it or it is going to be forced to be changed.”

Williams is also looking to force a change from the free throw line. The Heels missed 23 free throws against Texas, which wasn’t even the worst this season. That number is 26, from their 83-80 loss to Belmont.

Paige is shooting 91 percent from the line, while the rest of the team is making just 52 percent. Even senior Leslie McDonald, a career 73 percent shooter, seemed hexed. Although he made 4 of 9 3-pointers, he was just 3-of-8 from the free throw line against the Longhorns.

McDonald played his first game this season after being cleared by the NCAA on Wednesday afternoon. An announcement was forthcoming on junior guard P.J. Hairston, but he is likely out for the season, based on the fact that the school did not submit his reinstatement papers to the NCAA.

The Heels could also be without center Joel James, who was injured just seconds into the game against Texas. The coaching staff will have to make more adjustments if James is out, but Paige said effort should never be one of them.

“You come here to play for North Carolina, you shouldn’t be coached on effort,” Paige said. “Effort is something you bring because you want to be here and you want to be successful. It’s frustrating.”

Davidson has lost to Duke by 34, Virginia by 13 and Clemson by 31. In other words, it's exactly the kind of opponent that the Tar Heels should overpower. Will they? That’s been question North Carolina hasn't answered consistently all season.

Tar Heels dig in defensively

December, 10, 2013
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The unexpected benefit of North Carolina not having P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald in the lineup as scorers has been an increased focus on getting better defensively.

The Tar Heels are currently holding opponents to 37.6 percent shooting from the floor, which ranks 17th nationally and second in the ACC. (Clemson leads the league and is No. 1 nationally at 35.0 percent.)

[+] EnlargeMarcus Paige, James Michael McAdoo
Zumapress/Icon SMIThe Tar Heels have been much improved on defense this season, holding opponents to 37.6 percent shooting so far.
Carolina hasn’t had a defensive percentage that low since the 1959-60 season. In fact, since then the Heels have only held opponents below 40 percent shooting six seasons: 1960-61, 1993-94, 1997-98, 1998-99, 2000-01 and 2011-12.

UNC assistant coach C.B. McGrath, who filled in for coach Roy Williams on his radio show Monday night, said the team has had a renewed focus on stopping opponents.

“In some of the past years it’s been harder to get the guys to buy in defensively because we outscore people,” McGrath said. “No matter what we said defensively, they’d be like, 'You know what, that’s true, but I’m going to score.'”

That former mentality was evident in the Belmont loss. The Bruins shot 45 percent, which remains the season high allowed against the Heels, and made 15 3-pointers, including the game-winner that was poorly defended by J.P. Tokoto.

“Potentially J.P. Tokoto could be an unbelievable defender for us,” McGrath said. “But sometimes he gets too locked in on his man, he doesn’t get in help position enough, and he takes possessions off and isn’t consistent enough. Marcus Paige by far right now has been the most consistent.”

McGrath said Paige has graded out as the team’s defensive player of the game seven times. Joel James won the honor for the Michigan State game.

Williams has also sprinkled in more zone than he’s played in the past to stop teams from dribble penetration. But the key to Carolina’s improvement has been its on-ball pressure. Freshman Nate Britt in particular has improved defensively at stopping drives.

“We’re doing better guarding the ball,” McGrath said. “It’s so hard to guard the basketball this day and age, you just have to try and make them change their path a little bit.”

Since the Belmont loss, Richmond is the only opponent that has shot better than 40 percent against the Heels' defense. UNC held Louisville to 38.8 percent and Michigan State to a season-low 35.9 percent.

“This year we don’t necessarily have that where the mentality is, 'I’m going to score, I’m going to score,'” McGrath said. “They’re thinking about, ‘OK, I need to stop my guy and see if he will score.’ So I think the mentality has helped to where we can get better defensively.”

Heels making unconventional the norm

November, 23, 2013
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UNCASVILLE, Conn. -- Erase for a minute everything you’re used to assuming about a North Carolina basketball team under coach Roy Williams.

The No. 24 Tar Heels are not that team.

This team can’t impose its pace and use the fast break to outrun teams. It can’t merely overpower an opponent on sheer talent. It will have to grind out wins much in the fashion of Saturday's 82-72 victory over Richmond in the Hall of Fame Tip-Off Tournament at the Mohegan Sun Arena.

North Carolina (3-1) trailed for much of the first half, and its lead didn’t reach double digits until 1:35 remained in the game.

Because P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald have yet to suit up for the Heels, every game could present something new. Williams agreed it’s probably the least conventional team he’s coached since arriving in Chapel Hill.

“By this time of the year most times, it’s fairly close to a set lineup,” Williams said.

Nothing is set this season.

Not the lineups.

Not even the playing style.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Paige
AP Photo/Michael DwyerMarcus Paige made a career-high six 3-pointers and played point guard for much of the victory over Richmond.
The Tar Heels were so unpredictable against the Spiders that sophomore Marcus Paige, who made a career-high six 3-pointers and set a career high with 26 points, even played point guard.

Paige is a point guard, but he’s had to play shooting guard with their current roster situation. When he moved back to point for a span against Richmond, forward J.P. Tokoto played shooting guard for the first time this season.

“I played more minutes at point guard in this game than I probably did all year so far,” Paige said. "That was a little different."

Williams generally avoids playing zone defense. But Spiders guard Cedrick Lindsay couldn’t be defended in man-to-man as he scored a career-high 29 points against the Heels.

Lindsay almost single-handedly forced the Heels to unveil a 1-2-2 zone for stretches throughout the game as he was successful driving the lane for baskets. After this game, zone isn’t likely to be a one-time occurrence for Carolina either.

“We have been working more on the zone with this team than any team I’ve ever had,” Williams said. “We gave up some straight drives to the basket, which the zone is supposed to stop that kind of stuff. We’ve got to get a lot better at it, but we’ll play it some more -- there’s no question.”

The game ventured into uncharted territory for senior guard Wade Moody, a walk-on who had played a total of 60 seconds through the first three games. He entered the game with four minutes left in the first half and played three minutes.

“Wade can shoot the ball,” Williams said. “I wanted to give him some time today. You never can tell; he may get more time later on.”

Forward Brice Johnson is making his case for more time -- whether it comes at center or power forward. He came off the bench to record career highs with 24 points and 12 rebounds, his first double-double.

In the past three games, Johnson has played center with James Michael McAdoo at power forward during the deciding stretches. It gives the Heels their best scoring options in the frontcourt while Kennedy Meeks and Joel James are still developing.

“I did it last year, so it’s whatever they need,” Johnson said. “I might now be able to guard the biggest guy, but I’ve added a little bit of weight and a little bit of strength so I can hold my own now.”

What the Tar Heels lack in flash, they make up with toughness. Williams said he wanted to see how they would bounce back from their first loss.

They showed their resilience from the free throw line after missing 26 free throws in the loss to Belmont. Carolina responded against Richmond by shooting 70 percent from the line. They showed it during the game after falling behind by nine in the first half but taking a 36-33 lead into halftime.

“With North Carolina basketball, you’ve got five guys on the court that are all capable of going off for big games,” McAdoo said. “I think that’s really what you just saw today -- them trying to take certain things away and other guys stepping up, which is huge, definitely, as the season goes on.”

Johnson makes case for center

November, 21, 2013
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North Carolina coach Roy Williams wondered aloud throughout the preseason about who among sophomore Joel James, freshman Kennedy Meeks and junior Desmond Hubert would solidify the center position.

[+] EnlargeBrice Johnson
Grant Halverson/Getty ImagesBrice Johnson has given North Carolina a boost at center.
Through the Tar Heels' first few games, the answer has actually been forward Brice Johnson. He may continue to be their best option while James and Meeks slowly grow into the position.

Both James and Meeks have steadily shown signs of development. James has started every game and averaged 4.0 points and 4.3 rebounds. Meeks’ numbers are slightly better off the bench with 6.7 points and 5.7 rebounds.

But it’s telling that in games against Holy Cross and Belmont, Williams went with Johnson at center for the deciding minutes. Alongside James Michael McAdoo at power forward, that has been the frontcourt tandem which has given the Heels an offensive boost whenever Williams has used them.

It’s no coincidence that Johnson and McAdoo happen to be UNC's most-experienced and skilled frontcourt players.

“It was effective last year when I did it for the first half of the season,” Johnson said. “Me and James Michael know how to play with each other. We know where to be at the right time or what pass to throw to each other. So that’s what makes that more effective for us.”

Just how effective? Johnson’s 66.7 shooting percent from the field leads the team among players with more than five attempts. He is the team’s third double-figures scorer with a 12.0 average despite not starting a game. (His 6.3 rebounds also ranked third on the team despite averaging just 19.0 minutes per game.)

Most importantly, Johnson hasn’t been a defensive liability in those games. In fact, Williams said he used Johnson against the Bruins because James and Meeks had trouble playing against smaller frontcourts that liked to move to the perimeter.

Johnson’s slight frame at 6-foot-9, 210 pounds makes it tough for him to defend a physical center. But most of the Heels’ nonconference slate is littered with teams that don’t play a true center.

That trend will continue against Richmond on Saturday and possibly Louisville on Sunday.

The Spiders have a smaller frontcourt rotation of Derrick Williams, who is listed as 6-foot-6, 270 pounds, Terry Allen, 6-foot-8, 235; Alonzo Nelson-Ododa, 6-foot-9, 210, and Deion Taylor, who is 6-foot-7, 200.

The trick for Williams in the rest of the nonconference schedule -- as long as P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald are still sidelined -- will be balancing the need to develop James and Meeks and actually playing his best at the 5. At this point in the season, there’s no question Johnson is that option.

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

Heels leadership a work in progress

November, 7, 2013
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Are the Tar Heels being too polite on the floor?

Sophomore Joel James thinks so.

[+] EnlargeUNC/Kansas
Denny Medley/USA TODAY SportsJames Michael McAdoo is learning a new position this season, but the Tar Heels might need his leadership more.
The 6-foot-10 center said, while they have stayed upbeat in the face of pending suspensions for P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald, they’re taking it too far. Taking responsibility can be as important as encouragement.

“We’re a very enthusiastic group, we believe in each other,” James said. “I feel like sometimes we need to get on each other more, hold each other more accountable for our mistakes and what we do in practice and games.”

Point guard Marcus Paige and forward James Michael McAdoo are the team captains, but with two upperclassmen out, leadership is apparently in short supply during these early stages of the season.

Coach Roy Williams stripped McDonald, the lone scholarship senior, of that responsibility. He did the same to Hairston, who is a junior, after his troubled offseason.

Back on ACC media day, Williams said McDonald and Hairston handled it well and that they had to work to incrementally re-establish themselves as team leaders.

“It’s a role that I don’t take lightly, they’ve lost some confidence by some actions,” Williams said. “With Joel and Kennedy (Meeks) in particular I tell them, ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day, but it was worked on every day.’ If you lose some opportunities in leadership, it’s not regained in a day but it’s worked on every day.”

Paige and McAdoo have to work on it every day too, especially while the pair is learning second positions. It could be harder for them to instruct others while they’re still trying to figure things out themselves. Paige and McAdoo are still adjusting to playing shooting guard and small forward in some lineups with Hairston and McDonald out of the rotation.

McAdoo is still growing into the leadership role. When he does speak up, he believes he has enough credibility that his teammates listen.

“Definitely I want what is best for the team so when guys are messing up it looks a lot better coming from me than coming from Brice (Johnson) or somebody, just because I’ve been here a long time,” McAdoo said.

Ultimately, Williams believes Paige can also be that vocal leader, especially when he’s in a lineup where he’s back playing point guard.

“I just think he’s truly a fantastic point guard who understands the game, is a coach out there on the floor, knows where everybody is supposed to be and is a true leader out there,” Williams said.

UNC passing the boards with ease?

November, 6, 2013
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While pondering what North Carolina won’t be as long as P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald are out of the lineup (hint, proficient from the perimeter), there’s one area where the Tar Heels should dominate.

On the boards.

Rebounding was most certainly a struggle last season when the Heels were forced to play a four-guard lineup that moved forward James Michael McAdoo to center. Carolina held its lowest rebounding margin (+1.6) of the Roy Williams era and came close to being the first team since 2003-04 to get outrebounded.

It shouldn’t be that close this season.

While UNC awaits word from the NCAA regarding eligibility issues for Hairston and McDonald, Williams will be forced to use a big lineup at times. He could even potentially (however temporary) use a lineup that features J.P. Tokoto at shooting guard and McAdoo at small forward.

Having the team’s two best rebounders paired with a frontcourt that could include forward Brice Johnson, who had the second highest rebounds per minute last season, would be an overpowering matchup for most of their non-conference foes.

Carolina doesn’t face a team that finished on the plus side of rebounding margin until the fifth game of the year when it will play either Fairfield or Louisville in the Hall of Fame Tipoff Tournament.

Consider UNC's 2013-14 non-conference opponents' rebounding margin (& national rank) from last season:

Oakland -0.8 (205)

Holy Cross 0.0 (142)

Belmont -1.5 (T-240)

Richmond -5.8 (331)

Fairfield +0.8 (153) or Louisville +3.6 (66)

UAB +1.7 (120)

Michigan State +7.6 (10)

UNCG -0.9 (209)

Kentucky +4.3 (48)

Texas +0.9 (149)

Davidson +2.0 (114)

Northern Kentucky -5.0 (N/A)

UNCW -1.5 (233)

Rebounding has also been a point of emphasis with Williams in determining who will get to start at center. It’s why Joel James is more focused on his rebounding technique than he is post moves.

“I feel like if you make that contact first, you have a better chance of rebounding the basketball,” James said. “It’s coming slowly, but it’s coming.”

Statistically speaking, the Heels controlled the boards better in 2007-08 than any team during the Williams’ 10 seasons. They enjoyed a rebounding margin advantage of 11 per game. While the 2011-12 team grabbed the most total rebounds, averaging 45.0 per game, their rebounding margin was slightly behind at 10.4 per game.

This team might not quite reach that stratosphere, but all signs indicate rebounding will be once again be a strength this season.

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.”

New rules could both help, hurt Tar Heels

October, 31, 2013
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Few programs will benefit offensively from the new rules in college basketball limiting physical defensive play like North Carolina will. Defenders won’t be able to impede cutters and hand check ball-handlers like they used to, which presumably will open up scoring.

That happens to be what the Tar Heels have always done well. Carolina has led the ACC in scoring in five of coach Roy Williams’ 10 years in Chapel Hill.

“I like anything that gives you freedom of movement,” Williams said. “I have not liked the physical game and I’ve said that for years.”

[+] EnlargeUNC/Kansas
Denny Medley/USA TODAY SportsA face-up post player like James Michael McAdoo could be a huge beneficiary of the new hand-check rules.
A player like forward James Michael McAdoo, whose face-up game already poses matchup problems, could benefit greatly. It could also allow a player as quick as Nate Britt a chance to penetrate the lane more often. But not everybody likes the idea of eliminating some of the physical play from the game.

Sophomore forward Joel James generally likes being able to throw his 6-foot-10, 280-pound frame around.

“Personally, I don’t like [the rule changes]. I feel like that kind of takes away from my physical game,” James said. “But then again, I feel like it can also help me because at the same I can’t put an arm on a big man, a big man can’t hit me more than twice without having a greater chance for an offensive foul. It kind of balances out.”

What the new rules do to help Carolina on offense, the rules regarding hand checks as well as blocks and charges could also balance out that advantage on defense.

The Heels had problems stopping dribble penetration when they could use a well-placed hand check to impede progress. What will they do now? (Dribble penetration is partly the reason why Carolina opponents always seem to have career days shooting from 3-point range. The defensive rotation generally has to make up for weak on-ball pressure, which leaves the wing unattended for an open 3.)

Once an opponent gets in the lane, Desmond Hubert and Brice Johnson are Carolina’s best shot blockers but haven’t risen to the level of being deterrents.

Williams noted that taking charges sometimes compensated for not having that established intimidator in the middle and that teams “still need to be able to teach a guy to take a charge 'cause everybody can’t block shots.”

“Every team doesn’t have a 7-footer or a John Henson around the rim to block a shot, so you have to think of a different way to try to defend people,” Williams said. “In the past, drawing a charge has been a part of that.”

Williams said he believes a lot more blocks will be called early in the season while players adapt to the new rule.

“You’ve got to really do a great job of getting there before the upward motion of the shot,” Williams said. “Everybody thinks it’s the gather, but it’s not the gather. It’s as you start up with the ball, so you’ve really got to get there early.”

Joel James has a big number to fill

October, 29, 2013
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Sophomore forward Joel James willingly abandoned the No. 0 jersey he wore last season to allow freshman Nate Britt to wear it. The 5-foot-11 guard wore it throughout high school -- with the exception of his lone season playing at Oak Hill Academy last year – and wanted it back.

James, who averaged 2.3 points and 2.4 rebounds as a freshman last season, had no sentimental attachment. He was one of just two players (Jesse Holley) to ever wear the single zero at Carolina so he gladly released it to Britt.

“I wanted to keep him happy,” James said. “He wore it his whole life that was my first time wearing it.”

Before choosing his next number James said he wanted a greater meaning behind it and settled on No. 42 for a reason.

There are three honored jerseys hanging in the Dean E. Smith Center rafters from players who wore 42 -- Brad Daugherty, Jerry Stackhouse and Sean May. It is tied with six other numbers (22, 30, 34, 35, 40 and 44) for the most players with honored jerseys. James literally wanted to elevate his game to their levels.

“I wanted to change my number just to set a goal for myself,” James said. “Great players wore that number -- Big May and Stack -- I set a challenge for myself.”

May did some of the challenging as well. May was talking on the phone to director of player development Eric Hoots, who informed him James would be wearing 42 this season. Given that James is the first player to sport the number since May in 2005, May wanted a few words with James.

“Hoots gave me the phone, (May) said, ‘Hey I don’t want you dropping any passes. I had great hands in that number so you’ve got to represent,’” James said. “I was like, ‘I’ll do as best I can.’”

James might not reach the heights of getting an honored jersey (which the criteria is one of the following: ACC Player of the Year, first or second team All-America, team MVP of NCAA title team, Final Four MOP, or Olympic gold medalist) unless he breaks the cycle.

The next player to wear the number after an honored jersey hasn’t maintained the same success. Scott Williams wore it after Daugherty and Kris Lang had it after Stackhouse. (That’s not to say they weren’t successful, after all, Daugherty, Stackhouse and May were all NBA lottery picks.)

For James, who has only played organized basketball since the 10th grade, Williams might be the best measuring sticks. Williams improved from his freshman to sophomore season going from 5.5. points and 4.2 rebounds per game to 12.8 points and 6.4 rebounds.

James probably won’t notch double figures scoring this season, but all signs point to him being an improved player.

“I feel like I’ve developed a lot of things, I’ve sharpened some tools,” James said. “I feel good about it.”

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

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