North Carolina, a team many expect to contend for a national title next season, will have to account for the loss of one of its key contributors in order to do so. According to Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports, 6-foot-6 junior forward J.P. Tokoto has decided to enter his name into the 2015 NBA Draft.
Tokoto, a starter each of the last two seasons for the Tar Heels, averaged 8.4 points, 5.6 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game for a team that won 26 games and reached both the ACC tournament title game and the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament. A very good athlete and defender, Tokoto’s currently considered to be a second round pick in this year’s draft.
His perimeter shooting ability, as he shot just over 42 percent from the field and 35.5 percent from three (which was a substantial improvement from his sophomore year) this past season, is the primary reason why he isn’t thought to be an even better prospect by NBA decision-makers.
Tokoto acknowledged that he needs to put in a lot of work to improve his shot in the weeks leading up to pre-draft workouts in speaking with Wojnarowski, and he’s yet to hire an agent but intends to remain in the draft. Tokoto also provided an interesting reason as to why he’s decided that moving to the professional ranks would benefit him more than staying in Chapel Hill for another season.
“I feel like there can be a lot more to me as a player, more than just the defensive player who can occasionally dunk the ball,” Tokoto told Yahoo Sports. “I know I can be so much more, but I’m not sure that I’m pushed to be that much more [in college].
“I want to focus on my game, working with trainers and pro coaches over the summer and next year. I think that’ll give me the best chance to grow than staying school and being that player that fit into the mold of my first three years [at Carolina].”
With Tokoto no longer in the fold, more minutes open up for rising sophomore Theo Pinson with classmate Justin Jackson already firmly entrenched in the starting lineup. Pinson missed 14 games due to injury this season, and the time away from the court impacted his minutes upon his return as one would expect.
Pinson didn’t play more than seven minutes in any of the five games he played in after returning in early March from a foot injury suffered in late January. Prior to the injury Pinson played 12 minutes or more in each of North Carolina’s first 18 games.
No. 4 North Carolina beats No. 5 Arkansas but loses Kennedy Meeks to sprained knee
Mike Anderson’s Arkansas Razorbacks like to play “the fastest 40 minutes in college basketball,” a style in which they use full court pressure to turn over opponents and cash in on the resulting fast break opportunities. However in No. 4 North Carolina, Arkansas ran into a team that also prefers a faster tempo, and the Tar Heels had the advantage in both turnovers and fast break points as they won 87-78 in Jacksonville.
As a result of the win Roy Williams’ team is headed to the West regional semis next week in Los Angeles, where they’ll play either No. 1 Wisconsin or No. 8 Oregon Thursday night.
North Carolina committed 16 turnovers, just over three turnovers per game more than their average on the season (12.7), but that was still better than Arkansas when it comes to ball control. The Razorbacks committed 21 turnovers, which were converted into 23 points by the Tar Heels (plus-six edge in points off turnovers). Also of note regarding the turnovers committed by North Carolina is the fact that not many of those mistakes led to fast break opportunities for Arkansas.
The Razorbacks scored just seven fast break points, seven fewer than North Carolina. Forced to find the majority of their looks against a set up North Carolina defense, Arkansas shot 36.9 percent from the field and 8-for-25 from beyond the arc. Michael Qualls (ten rebounds) led all scorers with 27 points but shot 8-for-19 from the field, and Bobby Portis finished with 16 points on 5-for-15 shooting while also grabbing 12 rebounds.
By comparison North Carolina shot 45.0 percent from the field and 4-for-10 from three, and they also outscored Arkansas 29-22 from the foul line. Marcus Paige scored 20 of his 22 points in the second half, but the efforts of J.P. Tokoto were of greater importance especially when it came to handling the Arkansas pressure. Tokoto, who also scored 13 points, finished with eight assists and no turnovers.
Add in fellow perimeter players Justin Jackson (16 points, three rebounds) and Nate Britt (ten points, four rebounds), and North Carolina had enough productivity to beat Arkansas despite quiet evenings from the majority of their big men.
The front court is where the concern lies for North Carolina in regards to next week, especially if they face Wisconsin, in the aftermath of Saturday’s win. Kennedy Meeks (nine points, four rebounds in 15 minutes) left the game in the second half with what was termed as a sprained left knee, and while the Tar Heels do have options they need Meeks available.
Brice Johnson scored seven points and grabbed 13 rebounds before fouling out, and neither Isaiah Hicks nor Joel James were all that effective against Arkansas. North Carolina will need all four to be productive (with Johnson and Meeks being the key cogs) if they’re to be successful in Los Angeles if they’re to advance. The good news for North Carolina is that they’ll have another game to prepare for, thanks in large part to the play of their perimeter.
North Carolina’s J.P. Tokoto finishes with authority in win over UAB (VIDEO)
After knocking off North Carolina in Birmingham last season, Jerod Haase’s UAB Blazers looked to duplicate said feat Saturday afternoon in Chapel Hill. Unfortunately for UAB things didn’t work out that way, with the 20th-ranked Tar Heels controlling the game from start to finish and winning by the final score of 89-58.
The highlight of the day for North Carolina: the above dunk by junior forward J.P. Tokoto on UAB forward William Lee. Tokoto finished the game with just three points to go along with four rebounds and three assists, but it didn’t matter much as Marcus Paige led six Tar Heels in double figures with 16 points.
Now 9-3 on the season, Roy Williams’ team will host William & Mary December 30 in their final non-conference game before beginning ACC play January 3 at Clemson.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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:
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.
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.