The North Carolina Tar Heels are the latest team to be featured in our series of ACC Basketball previews to help get you ready for the 2014-15 season.
We’re going in alphabetical order through every team in the new-look ACC, but we’ll be excluding Duke – seeing as how the Blue Devils already receive a fair amount of coverage on this site.
If you’ve missed any of our previous previews, I encourage you to check them out to get an idea of the landscape around the ACC. We’ve already covered Boston College, Clemson, Florida State, Georgia Tech, Louisville and Miami.
As much as we like to see our rivals down Tobacco Road struggle, it looks like it could be a very good year in Chapel Hill. Here’s more about this UNC squad.
2013-14 Record: Overall – 24-10 | ACC – 13-5 (4th Place)
Games against Duke this season: Wednesday, February 18 at Duke & Saturday, March 7 at UNC
North Carolina started last season as one of the most puzzling teams in the country. The Heels were incredibly impressive in three wins over Louisville, Kentucky and Michigan State, but were equally disappointing in losses to Belmont, UAB and the first three conference games, which they lost.
After losing to Virginia on January 20, North Carolina was 11-7 and 1-4 in league play and people were wondering if the Heels would find themselves on the bubble for the NCAA Tournament.
Then, Roy Williams turned things around and guided UNC to 12 straight wins and a tie for third place in the ACC standings.
Marcus Paige was one of the best players in the country and made up for the loss of P.J. Hairston, and James Michael McAdoo put together a very solid junior season before departing for the NBA this past offseason.
The Heels were eliminated in heartbreaking fashion by Iowa State in the NCAA Tournament, but it was an impressive run considering where the team stood midway through the year.
Key Players: Marcus Paige, Kennedy Meeks, Brice Johnson
Marcus Paige returns to Chapel Hill for his junior season and a strong case could be made that he’s the best player in the ACC. Some are predicting Duke’s Jahlil Okafor will be the ACC Player of the Year, but Paige has the experience and all the talent to lead the Heels to a big year. The main criticism of him last season was that he’d disappear at certain times in games. If he can become consistent every game, he will likely even be in the conversation for National Player of the Year.
Kennedy Meeks has the opportunity to make the biggest jump of any player in the ACC from last season. The sophomore big man averaged over seven points and six rebounds per game last year, but his minutes were limited because of his weight and conditioning. Reports from Chapel Hill are that he’s transformed his body over the summer and lost over 60 pounds, meaning he has the opportunity to be a force in the paint for Roy Williams.
Along with Kennedy Meeks getting in better shape, Brice Johnson is another player who’s put lots of time into re-shaping his body. Johnson is extremely athletic and has great length, but now he’s expected to be much stronger. If he and Meeks can pair together, it gives North Carolina a very formidable front line.
X-Factor: The Freshman Class – Theo Pinson, Joel Berry, Justin Jackson
If UNC is to reach its full potential this season, it will be because someone from the freshman class steps up. Justin Jackson appears to be the most likely candidate and can serve as a valuable weapon who provides the offense with a three-point shooting threat, but Joel Berry and Theo Pinson should also be able to give added depth, which Roy Williams prefers so he can implement an up-tempo style that wears down opponents.
It pains me to say this, but I really like this North Carolina team. Many of the key pieces from last season’s team are back and it’s a group that has already been through plenty of adversity.
Unlike many of the other top contenders around the country, the Tar Heels are an experienced group who should be balanced in the frontcourt and backcourt. Also, with an extra year of becoming a more assertive leader, Marcus Paige is an All-American type talent who can put the team on his back in late-game situations.
With a relatively favorable nonconference schedule, UNC should stay near the top of the polls for most of the season and has a great chance to contend for the ACC Championship and a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.