Brice Johnson

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While a major question remains unanswered, No. 4 North Carolina can be special in 2015-16

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LOS ANGELES — There’s no denying the fact that the 2014-15 season was a difficult one for North Carolina head coach Roy Williams. There was the passing of his friend and mentor Dean Smith, and there was also the NCAA investigation that’s still ongoing. Add in the fact that his team didn’t truly hit its stride until March, and Williams certainly had his hands full throughout the 2014-15 campaign.

North Carolina’s season came to an end Thursday night in the Sweet 16, as they fell 79-72 to West regional champion No. 1 Wisconsin, but the finish to the season is something that Williams and his players can build on this offseason. The Tar Heels hung with the Badgers throughout, but a couple key lapses on the defensive end proved costly down the stretch. Wisconsin rebounded nearly 39 percent of its misses Thursday night, and while the Badgers scored just ten second-chance points having to defend Bo Ryan’s team for longer stretches than one would want can add up over the course of a game.

North Carolina played arguably its best basketball of the season in March, winning three games in Greensboro before falling in the ACC tournament final to Notre Dame and then beating Harvard and Arkansas to reach the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2012. Outside of center Desmond Hubert, who missed the final 16 games due to a torn ACL, everyone should be back next season led by guard Marcus Paige, wing Justin Jackson and big men Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks.

With that being the case the Tar Heels will be one of the early favorites in the ACC. And as we’ve seen, being a favorite in the ACC means that you’re a national title contender as well.

“If you think about it, you take away six minutes in the Notre Dame game and we would have had a great run here in the end, but you can’t take away the six minutes,” Williams said following Thursday’s defeat. “You take away the 7- or 9-0 stretch (in the second half), and we had a great run today.

“I want them to use this as fuel. The little lapses that Justin mentioned and that I mentioned to a failed boxout here or missed free throw there were important,” Williams continued. “And if we can take care of those little lapses, then we’ve got a chance to be one of those teams that has a chance to talk about winning the whole thing.”

The biggest development for North Carolina was the growth displayed by some of their supplementary options, with Johnson and Meeks being two of those players. While Meeks was hobbled by a sprained knee suffered against Arkansas Johnson played well against Wisconsin, accounting for 15 points and four rebounds despite playing just 22 minutes due to foul trouble. Both players made noticeable strides this season, with Johnson (13.1 ppg, 7.8 rpg) raising his scoring and rebounding averages by nearly three points and two rebounds per game and Meeks (11.4 ppg, 7.1 rpg) improving his scoring by nearly four points per contest while also being able to play more minutes.

Receiving increased offense from those two, not to mention the freshman Jackson (10.6 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 2.3 apg), ensured that North Carolina would have a fighting chance against quality competition on nights in which Paige wasn’t at his best offensively. Against Wisconsin the junior guard scored six of his 12 points in the final two minutes, with the shots keeping the Heels within striking distance, but it was the play of players such as Johnson and Jackson (15 points) that kept North Carolina afloat.

That should only help the program moving forward, as a more potent rotation means that Paige won’t be required to save the day as often as he has in the past. What will also help North Carolina is the bond they managed to create in the midst of what was a tough season for reasons both on and off the court.

“It was a tough year for us as a program and for coach especially with everything that happened,” Paige said. “But we have a great group of kids that enjoy being around each other more so than my freshman year, more so than last year. And we’re going to have a lot of the same kids next year.

“It hurts for the seniors because they don’t get another opportunity at this, and in college it goes so fast in those four years. You only get four cracks at it,” Paige continued. “Obviously it hurts right now because we’re such a close group of guys. But for the guys that do get to come back next year, we’re going to try to come together even more as a team and try to execute better and make something special out of it.”

North Carolina had to navigate a lot this season, including multiple injuries and an NCAA inquiry that has yet to be completed, but by the end still managed to finish a couple plays away from the Elite Eight. And the status of that NCAA inquiry will have an impact on what the Tar Heels are able to do next season.

But even with that cloud hovering over the program, with no one having much of an idea as to what will happen, the players can’t control that. What they can control is how they prepare for 2015-16, a year in which much will be expected of them. The depth and talent are there for North Carolina to put together a special season. What the Tar Heels do this offseason will determine whether or not that turns out to be the case.

No. 4 Duke survives No. 15 North Carolina in a thriller

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Tyus Jones had 22 points, eight assists and seven boards and Quinn Cook added 22 points as No. 4 Duke knocked off No. 15 North Carolina, 92-90, in overtime on Wednesday night.

The Tar Heels were down 49-36 late in the first half, but they used a 41-18 run over the course of about 15 minutes to take a commanding, 77-67 lead. But Duke came storming back, led by Jones, who made big shot after big shot down the stretch. With Duke down 81-76 with less than a minute left, Jones finished an and-one, and after Brice Johnson missed the front-end of a one-and-one, Jones scored with 27 seconds left to tie the game and force overtime.

In the extra fame, Justise Winslow drew the fifth foul on Brice Johnson, who had 18 points and 12 boards, on Duke’s first possession. Jahlil Okafor was slowed with an ankle injury and finished with “just” 12 points, 13 boards and three assists, but he had a pair of critical buckets, backing down Kennedy Meeks and scoring through him.

North Carolina is going to leave Cameron Indoor Stadium as frustrated as they’ve been all season long. The Tar Heels put together about as good of a performance as you are going to see out of them this season despite the fact that their star, Marcus Paige, finished with just five points on 2-for-11 shooting on the night.

Duke blitzed UNC early, but beginning late in the first half and throughout the second 20 minutes, the Heels absolutely dominated Duke on the glass, getting 19 offensive rebounds despite going the first 12 minutes of the game without one. UNC’s four big men — Meeks, Johnson, Joel James and Isaiah Hicks — combined for 54 points and 27 boards, completely controlling the lane. It’s not easy to come back on Duke anywhere, let alone in a rocking Cameron Indoor Stadium, and North Carolina did just that, putting themselves in a position where they should have left with a season-defining win.

But ill-timed turnovers and costly missed free throws eventually did them in.

On the other hand, Duke will take this win knowing that they escaped in a game they probably shouldn’t have won. North Carolina’s big men rendered Marshall Plumlee and Amile Jefferson more or less ineffective defensively. Okafor’s ankle, which he rolled in the first half, was clearly bothering him, as he was even less mobile than usual defensively and limited on the offensive end of the floor.

The Blue Devils blew a 13-point lead, played their now-typically shoddy perimeter defense, shot 16-for-31 from the free throw line — Okafor was 0-for-6 — and gave up 19 offensive rebounds and still managed to win despite being down nine with 2:30 left.

You don’t complain about that.

New Year’s Resolutions: North Carolina Tar Heels

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Conference play is right around the corner, so over the course of the next two weeks, College Basketball Talk will be detailing what some of the country’s best, most intriguing, and thoroughly enigmatic teams should resolve to do with the New Year right around the corner. What can we say, we’re in a giving mood. Thank Jessica Simpson.

MORE: The rest of our New Year’s Resolutions | Midseason catchups

NORTH CAROLINA PROMISES TO: Continue to get more from Joel Berry II

  • It will happen because: In the last four games, freshman point guard Joel Berry II has seen a spike in action, logging 13.0 minutes per game. As noted in this piece on Marcus Paige’s offensive woes, the Tar Heels are in need of Berry or Nate Britt to step up and run the offense to shoulder some of the pressure put on Paige. On Saturday, Berry scored five points and dished out four assists in North Carolina’s 82-74 win over No. 12 Ohio State. Two of those dimes resulted in seven points for Paige. In the first setup, Berry drove into the lane in transition, attracting three defenders before finding the trailing Paige open on the left wing. Berry will be a better offensive option than fellow reserve point guard Nate Britt.
  • It won’t happen because: While the his performance against Ohio State is encouraging, it’s still a small sample size. Berry will have to continue this production in a larger role moving forward, in a conference that has talented guard play all around. Berry is also part of a bigger issue for North Carolina: its 3-point shooting. Berry is 3-of-16 shooting through the first 11 games.

NORTH CAROLINA ALSO SWEARS THEY WON’T: Struggle with perimeter scoring

  • It will happen because: Paige, who was not only being tabbed as a preseason All-American, but also a player of the year candidate, has seen his points per game and shooting percentages take a considerable dip this season. That is a byproduct of North Carolina’s lack of perimeter scoring options surrounding Paige. The Tar Heels are 47-of-165 from three with Paige hitting 25 of those shots. Defenses are not only keying in on Paige, they are packing the paint, which also makes it difficult for Kennedy Meeks to operate in the post. This can change if several highly-regarded freshman can pick up their production offensively. As mentioned above, Berry looked more comfortable in UNC’s win over Ohio State, which in return could have positive effects on Justin Jackson moving forward as suggested here.
  • It won’t happen because: North Carolina has only connected on 28 percent of its threes, as a team. The Tar Heels can improve on that end of the floor if someone else on the perimeter can become a consistent offensive threat, whether it be Berry or Jackson. If/when that does happen, will it before enough to push the Heels into title contention with the ACC’s elite teams. Duke, Louisville and Virginia — all in kenpom’s top 5 — posses some of the top defenses in the country, all holding opponents to under 28 percent from beyond the arc. North Carolina could have a second perimeter option emerge, but that doesn’t mean it’ll be enough for UNC to compete with the nation’s best.

No. 24 North Carolina handles No. 12 Ohio State

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CHICAGO — North Carolina has struggled to get Marcus Paige going on the offensive end this season and its part of the reason the Tar Heels sat at No. 24 in the country entering Saturday’s game against No. 12 Ohio State.

Even though the junior guard didn’t have a big game against the Buckeyes at the United Center, North Carolina used a balanced attack, shared the ball and dominated on the interior in an 82-74 win over Ohio State.

Paige scored 16 points on 4-for-12 shooting on the afternoon, but because the Tar Heels had solid performances from other guards and moved the ball well around the perimeter, they were able to crash the offensive glass and find open looks for other players in spots where they were effective.

Junior forward Brice Johnson finished with 18 points on 8-for-10 shooting while freshman Justin Jackson pitched in 11 points. Despite only shooting 3-for-13 from the three-point line, North Carolina was able to crack Ohio State’s 2-3 zone and extended second-half pressure because they have so many talented passers who can get easy looks for teammates.

“When we make the easy play, that’s a good thing for us,” Paige said. “Some games we’ll try to thread the needle and be too cute with the ball.”

J.P. Tokoto led the Tar Heels with six assists — to go along with eight points and eight rebounds — and he was one of four North Carolina players with at least four assists. The Tar Heels had 29 field goals and 23 of them came off of assists, including their first nine field goals of the game. Perimeter shooting is still a major weakness for North Carolina, but if you don’t pressure their guards and let them work it around while spacing the floor, they’ll find a way to get Johnson a short-corner jumper or work the ball into a good shot by getting the ball in the middle of the zone.

“We had good movement. Movement of the ball and movement of bodies. Always say move the ball and move the ball intelligently and we did that,” North Carolina head coach Roy Williams said.

While Paige once again seemed to have an invisible lid on the basket — he missed two open, point-blank layups on the afternoon — because backup point guards Nate Britt and Joel Berry II played so efficiently, Paige was able to play off of the ball more and draw a lot of defensive attention from Ohio State. Britt and Berry II combined to score 11 points (on 3-for-3 shooting), had five assists and only one turnover. If those two provide a steady presence with the ball in their hands, it lets Paige be aggressive when hunting his own offense and forces defenses to pay more attention to more perimeter threats.

“I’m more aggressive when I have the ball in my hands, but obviously playing shooting guard allows me to be [aggressive too],” Paige said. “I just feel that I have to attack better when I’m the point guard and when I’m the shooting guard I tend to settle for jump shots, so I’m trying to attack more [off-the-ball].”

It didn’t help that Ohio State’s interior play was atrocious. The Buckeye big men midway through the second half had more fouls than points or rebounds and Amir Williams, Trey McDonald and Anthony Lee all gave Ohio State next to nothing.

Even with the Buckeyes getting productive efforts from D’Angelo Russell (11 points, eight rebounds, five assists), Marc Loving (19 points), Shannon Scott (10 points, eight assists) and Sam Thompson (17 points), without any kind of interior presence on either end of the floor, Ohio State had no real chance on Saturday.

Ohio State only led for 22 seconds of the game and played most of the game behind by 8-to-15 points.

It’s hard to say if North Carolina is an improved team or if Ohio State’s lack of interior play just made for a real mismatch, but this was a comfortable win for the Tar Heels while the Buckeyes have yet to win against a legitimate opponent in 2014-15.

Film Session: What’s plaguing Marcus Paige?

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Marcus Paige was supposed to turn into a star this year. He was the Preseason ACC Player of the Year. He was an NBCSports.com Preseason All-American, and that was far from the only All-American team he was named to. He was supposed to be the focal point offensively for a North Carolina team that was going to compete with Duke and Virginia and Louisville for an ACC title.

But here we are, more than a month into the season, and North Carolina is only in the Top 25 because there really aren’t 25 teams deserving of being ranked. They’re 7-3 overall with losses to Butler, Iowa (at home) and Kentucky. Those wins against Davidson, Florida and UCLA are solid — and will likely look better as the season progresses — but you can watch this team play and realize they’re not the North Carolina we expected them to be.

Paige isn’t the Marcus Paige we expected him to be, either. He’s averaging just 13.5 points, down from 17.1 last season, and shooting 34.8 percent from the floor and 35.4 percent from three.

To get to the bottom of what’s ailing the Heels, you first have to understand what they want to do.

North Carolina, as always, wants to run off of misses and off of makes. They’re 12th nationally in tempo, according to Kenpom.com, and that’s not by accident. And while it may seem unorganized at times, there really is a method to the madness. It works like this: the point guard is supposed to receive the outlet pass on the right side of the floor at or above the free throw line. As he’s receiving the ball, the two is streaking up the right side of the floor and the three is streaking up the left side of the court while the four-man is sprinting to the block:

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Screengrab via CBS Broadcast

Ideally, the one will hit ahead to one of those three, getting an easy look at the rim … :

Or an open three or driving lane on the wing:

If nothing is there, North Carolina can pull the ball out and run their secondary break, which is essentially a four-out, one-in system that has a number of different reads, set plays and quick-hitters:

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Screengrab via CBS Broadcast

Now the problem with this is that Paige is, by far, the best offensive weapon that North Carolina has on their perimeter. In an ideal world, he’s not the guy making the pass-ahead, he’s the guy spotting up on the wing. He’s the guy looking to finish in transition, not the guy sparking the fast break. He’s not bad at it, per se, but J.P. Tokoto and is not Rashad McCants. Justin Jackson is not P.J. Hairston. Theo Pinson is not Wayne Ellington.

In other words, the guys that Paige is putting into a position to score in transition aren’t your typical, high-scoring Carolina wings.

The other problem is that Roy Williams doesn’t appear to trust the other two point guards on UNC’s roster — sophomore Nate Britt and freshman Joel Berry — with the reins offensively quite yet, meaning that Paige is, in a sense, being asked to play out of position. He’s a scorer at heart, not a facilitator. Kendall Marshall he is not.

That limits their effectiveness in transition, which is only half of the problem right now.

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North Carolina just does not have any weapons on their perimeter outside of Paige, and all you have to do is look at their three-point shooting to understand that. On the season, the Tar Heels have hit 44 three-pointers. Paige has 23 of them. No one else has more than six, and that number belongs to Nate Britt, who is shooting 28.6 percent from three on the season and actually had to change which hand he shot with during the offseason because he’s struggled so much. He’s right-handed this year. Last season, he was a lefty.

That not only allows teams to focus their defense on Paige beyond the arc, it allows them to sag off of the other non-shooters, crowding the paint for North Carolina’s big men, namely Kennedy Meeks and Brice Johnson. That front court in UNC’s strength this season, which means that lack of shooting not only limits Carolina’s ability in transition, it hurts them when they can’t get easy buckets off the break.

All of this leads me to believe that, more than anything, we overrated North Carolina in the preseason.

You see, the two players that made the biggest improvements during the summer were Meeks and Johnson, but having those two get better without adding any perimeter firepower didn’t really solve any of the major issues that last season’s No. 6 seed had. Justin Jackson was supposed to be the guy that would provide some perimeter scoring pop, be he’s 4-for-22 from beyond the arc this year and doing most of his damage as a slasher, scoring in the mid-range and around the rim.

And unless Jackson makes a notable improvement once we hit ACC play, it looks that is going to be an issue for the Heels all year long.

Now, the Tar Heels do have some problem areas where they can improve. They are abysmal of the defensive glass right now, allowing opponents to collect 35.6 percent of the available offensive rebounds. And to be frank, Paige is missing a lot of clean looks from the perimeter, shots that he’s going to make far more often than he misses. Those will eventually start going down, and at some point, you have to think a team with this big of a front line and this many athletes on the wing will get better on the defensive glass.

In other words, the trio of Paige, Meeks and Johnson will be enough to keep Carolina in the top 25 and ensure them a spot in the NCAA tournament. The sky isn’t falling just yet.

But unless one of the young point guards becomes a viable option to play starter’s minutes, and unless Williams can find some kind of consistent production from his wings, the Tar Heels look much more like a No. 6 seed again than they do a legitimate ACC title contender.

No. 6 North Carolina refuses to settle offensively in blowout win

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After being forced to play at a slower pace than they would prefer in Friday’s win over North Carolina Central, No. 6 North Carolina performed far better offensively Sunday in their 103-59 beating of Robert Morris. Unlike Friday night the Tar Heels didn’t settle offensively, working the ball inside consistently against the Robert Morris zone, and that approach paid off in a big way for Roy Williams’ team.

Sixty of North Carolina’s 103 points were scored in the paint, with Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks being the chief beneficiaries of the Tar Heels’ improved approach. Johnson finished the game with 23 points, eight rebounds and three assists, with Meeks adding 21 to go along with 12 rebounds. North Carolina shared the basketball and they were “greedy” offensively for most of the night, refusing to fall into the trap of looking to shoot RMU out of its zone.

In total 29 of North Carolina’s 36 made field goals were assisted, with the percentage (80.6%) being higher than any assist percentage produced in a game last season (UNC assisted on 70 percent or more of its baskets in just three games in 2013-14). J.P. Tokoto scored just five points, but he paced the Tar Heels with a career-high ten assists.

Perimeter shooting remains a concern for North Carolina at this early point in the season, as the Heels shot just 4-for-16 from deep with players other than Marcus Paige combining to shoot 1-for-11. But unlike last season, when finding shooting from players other than Paige was a major issue, the Tar Heels are more capable of hurting teams in the paint.

Both Meeks and Johnson are better equipped to impact games offensively than they were a season ago, with the former losing weight and the latter gaining it. Obviously they’ll see tougher competition in the coming weeks, but Sunday night’s performance is a step in the right direction for those two.