Marcus Paige begins his college career as the starting point guard at North Carolina. How ready is he? ROBERT WILLETT
CHAPEL HILL — It’s here. Basketball season is here. Finally. It never really goes away in Chapel Hill, but it returns tonight when North Carolina begins the season at the Smith Center against Gardner-Webb.
Around this time a year ago, the Tar Heels began the 2011-12 season with national championship aspirations. Entering this season, though, who knows what to expect? I wrote some about that in a story we ran earlier in the week, which you can read right here.
The headline tells the story: “More questions than answers” for UNC.
I found insightful Roy Williams’ quote at the bottom of the story. Williams said:
“The easiest way to say it is this team has got to play as close to their potential as they possibly can to be successful. We’re not going to be like last year – well, if this don’t work then (Tyler Zeller) will score anyway or Harrison (Barnes) will get a shot or John (Henson) will block a shot and then Kendall (Marshall) will find somebody on a break. This team’s got to play as close to their potential as they possibly can.”
In a piece that ran today, we examined several questions that will face Duke, UNC and N.C. State in their season-openers and, likely, beyond. Here are those questions, and others, that surround the Tar Heels at the start of the season. At the end of the season, we’ll take a look back and see how UNC answered each of these:
--With an abundance of perimeter players and shooters, can North Carolina (finally) become a good shooting team?
UNC coach Roy Williams thought he had a capable shooting team a season ago and, he said after the Tar Heels’ exhibition victory against Shaw, “I think this is a team that’s going to be even better than that.” Problem was, UNC rarely proved it was a good shooting team last season. The Tar Heels made just 33.4 percent of their 3-point attempts, which ranked eighth in the ACC. In conference games, UNC was second-to-last in the league in 3-point shooting. Reggie Bullock, P.J. Hairston, Leslie McDonald and Dexter Strickland all believe they are good shooters, and now is the time to prove it.
--How prepared is freshman Marcus Paige to run the offense at point guard?
Williams has been in this position plenty of times before, starting a freshman point guard. He did at Kansas, with Jacque Vaughn and others. He’s done it at UNC, with Bobby Frasor and Ty Lawson and Kendall Marshall. And now, Williams is confident that Paige is ready to run his offense. Paige isn’t as pure of a passing point guard as Marshall was, but few are. Paige will provide more of a consistent scoring threat, but it’s a given he’ll struggle at times as he adjusts to the college game. The most important question might be how well he responds to those challenges.
--How does UNC go about generating offense in the post?
Williams’ best offenses at UNC have benefited from productive post players. Sean May. Tyler Hansbrough. Tyler Zeller. Outside of sophomore forward James Michael McAdoo, UNC enters the season without a proven presence in interior. And McAdoo, for all his positives, isn’t a traditional back-to-the-basket player. Williams said on Thursday that his starting lineup still hadn’t been set, outside of McAdoo, Paige, Strickland and Bullock. If the 6-foot-10, 260-pound freshman Joel James doesn’t start tonight, it’s likely only a matter of time before he does. His size and skills offer UNC its best chance for offense in the interior.
And more questions:
--Can James Michael McAdoo take the next step and become a consistently productive offensive player? We all remember McAdoo’s impressive play in the ACC and NCAA tournaments last March. But now McAdoo will be the focus of opposing defenses, as well as a focal point of the Tar Heels’ offense. Is he ready?
--Will Reggie Bullock prove he’s more than a shooter – and can he emerge as an aggressive scorer that the Tar Heels need? Bullock effectively played his role – first as a sixth man, then as a starter – last season. Now he’ll be asked to penetrate and score far more often than he has in the past.
--How will Dexter Strickland handle added responsibility in the offense? Strickland’s defensive prowess has been well documented but he enters the season with a desire to prove that he’s more than just an outstanding perimeter defender. He wants to prove he can score, too. Can he do that while playing in the confines of the offense?
--Down by a point in the final seconds, who takes the last shot? Is it Bullock? McAdoo? Someone else? The Tar Heels don’t enter the season with a clear candidate to take the last shot in critical late-game situations. Who becomes that player?
--After sitting out a year, what can we expect from Leslie McDonald? McDonald believed he was poised for a breakout junior season until suffering a knee injury in the summer of 2011. Finally, he’s back. Like Bullock and Strickland, McDonald has an opportunity to play a larger role in the Tar Heels’ offense.
--Will P.J. Hairston rediscover his shooting stroke – and keep it? Hairston arrived on campus with the reputation as a dangerous shooter, and he was at the start of last season. A confidence-sapping slump, though, lasted most of the second half of last season. Hairston says he solved his mechanical problems during the summer.
--Which under-the-radar player emerges to become a key contributor? To reach its potential, UNC will likely need someone we’re not immediately thinking about to play a significant role this season. Will it be sophomore forward Desmond Hubert? Sophomore forward Jackson Simmons? Freshmen Brice Johnson or J.P. Tokoto?
Answers start coming tonight …