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Just how good is North Carolina?

December 20, 2014 Columns No Comments

Last year, North Carolina was a team that no one could figure out. Lose to Belmont, beat Louisville. Lose at UAB, beat Michigan State. Beat Kentucky and Texas, lose at Wake Forest.

This year? The question is whether or not the Tar Heels can really challenge for the top of the ACC, and perhaps most of all, if they have enough to complement star guard Marcus Paige. The Tar Heels haven’t been quite so hard to figure out on a given night, but we’re still trying to figure out just how good this team is and will be.

Maybe that’s why Roy Williams didn’t bother to name one area where he’d like to see his team improve on Saturday.

“Nothing other than the game of basketball,” said the North Carolina head coach. “There is not one phase that we can’t get a lot better at, which is good. We need to shoot it better, we need to rebound it better, we need to defend better, we need to talk more on the defensive end.”

North Carolina has actually been a pretty good defensive team. Opponents are shooting under 36 percent from the field, including 26 percent from long range. They force over 14 turnovers per game and are out-rebounding teams by nine per game. So while they can get better, it doesn’t seem they can do so by much at that end of the floor.

The Tar Heels certainly have plenty of talent surrounding Paige. Kennedy Meeks actually leads them in scoring and rebounding, and Brice Johnson is getting better as well, so they’re in reasonably good shape up front. That’s more the case when you add in freshman Justin Jackson contributing right away, and he has a world of upside. There’s also Isaiah Hicks, so you get the idea: the frontcourt is fine.

But alongside Paige, it’s a different story. For offense, at times they might be best served sliding Paige off the ball and having Nate Britt or Joel Berry run the team, but that can’t happen all game. The problem is that none of the shooting guards have distinguished themselves enough, especially shooting the ball. The only Tar Heel other than Paige who shoots better than 34 percent from long range is J.P. Tokoto, and he’s only taken 14 on the season. Plus, he will never be mistaken for a shooter; his game is with his athleticism.

Williams has tried a few different players off the ball, as Paige and Jackson are the only players to start every game thus far. He’s tried starting Britt and moving Paige, he tried Theo Pinson (who has hardly been the impact player he was projected to be), and he’s tried Tokoto there instead of at small forward. Jackson has played there almost by default for a big lineup, but he hasn’t clicked from long range yet.

For his part, Paige has shot below 35 percent from the field, and that’s not much better than his three-point percentage. That’s more evidence of the load he is trying to carry. The fact that they have won despite that is one more reason Williams is optimistic about this team, and that’s understandable. However, Paige needs help on the perimeter.

The good thing for North Carolina is that few ACC teams play a zone defense. They are a team ripe to be zoned often, with strength up front and a weakness shooting the ball. But not facing such teams doesn’t mean they can get away with this much longer. Teams will key even more on Paige and the interior players, and make them have to prove themselves from the perimeter.

North Carolina is 8-3 after beating Ohio State 82-74 in Chicago on Saturday. None of the three losses – to Butler in the Battle 4 Atlantis, Iowa at Home and at Kentucky – are bad ones, though they would surely love to have the home loss to Iowa back. They have wins over Davidson, UCLA, Florida and now Ohio State, but none of those are terribly impressive. Davidson is 9-1 against a soft schedule, but Atlantic 10 play looms. UCLA and Florida have proven to be good, but not very good (and the former was throttled by Kentucky on Saturday in the game immediately following theirs). The jury is still out on just how good Ohio State is, and will be even more so now.

UAB and William & Mary are the only games left before ACC play begins. Both are at home, and both are games they should win. That would put them at 10-3 and still with wins whose quality is up for debate. We will start to get a sense of just how good they are after a few ACC games. For now, we have to wait.

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