Dexter Strickland gives the home crowd a final good-bye.
The long haul of the regular season is finally over for UNC basketball, and the final grades are in.
The Tar Heels finished 22-9 overall and 12-6 in the ACC, in one of the most up-and-down seasons witnessed under the guidance of Roy Williams. And after an 0-2 start to the conference schedule, this team was beginning to look destined for another NIT postseason.
But Coach Williams and the players never quit.
They adapted, they fought and they clawed their way back into relevance. By no means has this team become the title-contending force fans have become accustomed to. But they showed a lot of character to fight through all the adversity.
A lot of pressure comes with donning that uniform, and these players have been sitting on the hot seat through much of the season.
The following is not a grading of the players' skill sets or how they translate to the NBA.
Rather, it is a grading of their production and proper use of their skills, along with how well they have developed throughout the season. Consistency and shot selection also factor into the grades the players receive.
Every Tar Heel, including Roy Williams, has been given a grade for their performances up to this point. The players are in order from the lowest to the highest grade.
Desmond Hubert's minutes have plummeted since the lineup change that moved him out of the starting spot. He is only averaging four minutes over that eight-game stretch.
So there isn't really much to go on since the midseason grades went out.
But Hubert has provided the Tar Heels with energy and has proven to be the best shot-blocker on the squad. He averages one block every 11.4 minutes on the floor.
In fact, Hubert leads the team with 0.9 blocks per game, despite averaging just under 10 minutes per contest.
The offensive end of the floor has been a different story for Hubert, however. He is rarely fed the rock, but he is partially to blame for the lack of attention. He doesn't do a very good job of positioning himself in the post.
His rebounding has also been suspect this season. He only snags 1.8 per game, and both Joel James and Brice Johnson have been more efficient in that area.
Overall, Hubert has been a welcomed surprise from what we saw last season. But there is still plenty of room for improvement.
Must Improve: Post moves
Many fans were hoping for big things from Joel James, but we quickly learned he is a project player.
James has shown flashes of future greatness with his shooting touch and defensive prowess. He has also been prone to making silly mistakes through much of the season.
That should be expected from someone with only three years of prior experience playing organized basketball. That doesn't make it any less frustrating when he gets called for a travel or when a post feed bounces off his mittens, though.
Unfathomable mistakes aside, James has a bright future ahead of him in Chapel Hill.
He snatches a board every 3.9 minutes on the floor, which makes him the second-most efficient rebounder on the team. And though looks are limited, he is also knocking down 51.8 percent of his shots.
We probably won't see his true potential for another year or so, but James appears to be a solid center in the making.
Must Improve: Hands
J.P. Tokoto hasn't had much of an opportunity to showcase those highlight reel dunks we were drooling over in the offseason. But that doesn't mean he hasn't impressed.
Tokoto's defense has been stellar for a freshman that only gets on the floor for 9.5 minutes per game. He still has trouble fighting off screens, but his one-on-one defense puts his length and agility on full display.
When Reggie Bullock leaves, you can fully expect Tokoto to be labeled the top defender on the squad.
He is just a highly active player, and that also translates to excellent rebounding from his position. He is averaging 1.9 rebounds per game, which is nothing to be ashamed of from a guard/small forward—especially when he comes flying through the lane to jam it back in the cylinder.
Tokoto has a nice stroke, but he just needs to work on his body mechanics. He is rarely lined up properly when he shoots, which limits his range. He is very effective in the mid-range, but he has only converted one of his 11 three-point attempts.
Equally disappointing has been his free-throw shooting. He is only shooting 38.5 percent from the line and joins Hubert as the only Tar Heels under 50 percent.
Tokoto still has a ways to go in his development on both ends of the floor, but he will be something special when he gets there.
Must Improve: Shooting range
Leslie McDonald has had as much an up-and-down season as any Tar Heel on the roster. He started off hot, and then cooled off right before getting handed a suspension from the program.
He hasn't been right since.
McDonald is just 12-of-42 from downtown since returning to the floor, and that's usually where the junior guard makes his living. He did tweak his repaired knee before the suspension, and perhaps that's had something to do with his decline.
Aside from the threes, McDonald has contributed with fairly solid defense and the occasional dribble-drive. Unfortunately, there hasn't been enough of the latter to consider him as much more than a jump-shooter.
Overall, McDonald has put up some decent numbers across the board. He averages 7.4 points, 2.1 rebounds, 1.4 assists and 0.6 steals over just 18 minutes per game. And even with his current slump, he's still shooting 37 percent beyond the arc.
Those numbers keep him out of the "C" range, but it has been a disappointing season for those that expected McDonald to be a premiere player for this squad.
Must Improve: Shooting off the dribble
Luke Davis has only played nine minutes since handing out the midseason report cards, so nothing has really changed here.
Davis is a strong, fundamentally sound point guard without a lot of upside. He isn't very fast or skilled as a marksman, though he is perfect on all four of his shot attempts.
He is 2-of-2 from three and 2-of-2 from the line.
Davis is also dishing out an assist every 3.4 minutes, and his assist-to-turnover ratio sits at 3.3-1.
Naturally, those numbers would change if he was given the bulk of the minutes. But he has been thrown in the line of fire quite a few times this season. Not all his minutes have come at the end of a blowout.
They have also come when Roy has been frustrated with his other two point guards.
It's hard to knock Davis for what he has done this season. But he hasn't really shown enough spark to bump his grade any higher.
Must Improve: Unknown
It's been a trying season for Marcus Paige. He had to take over the point guard position from Kendall Marshall, who simply ran it to perfection.
And with the struggles of the team, there was very little patience in Tar Heel Nation for a freshman trying to develop his game at the next level. But Paige stood tall through all the verbal abuse, and that has paid dividends in this final stretch.
Paige truly started to shine when Roy switched to the smaller lineup. That allowed the spacing necessary to open up driving lanes for the new floor general.
Now he appears to be a more confident distributor and shooter. He is shooting 11-of-25 behind the arc since the move and has gotten to the line much more frequently.
He shot 25 free throws in his first 22 games. He has attempted 23 over the last eight.
Paige's distribution has taken a hit over the last two games, as he has only dished out nine assists to a whopping 13 turnovers. In the six games prior, he was on a roll, averaging five assists and just 1.7 turnovers per game.
As bad as the last two games were, Paige has shown enough since midseason to warrant a bump in his grade. He is well on his way to becoming the point guard everyone was hoping for, but there will still undoubtedly be some more bumps in the road along the way.
That's just the reality of the toughest position in basketball.
Must Improve: Decision-making
Paige wasn't the only Tar Heel feeling some serious heat this season.
Dexter Strickland wasn't playing the level of defense fans had been accustomed to watching from the combo guard. His lateral movement took a hit from his ACL tear, and it showed on the defensive end.
To top it off, Roy was favoring Strickland over the dynamic scoring ability of P.J. Hairston. With each ill-advised three Strickland jacked up, the heat on him got cranked up a notch.
In half a season, Strickland went from fan favorite to the official scapegoat of UNC basketball.
Like Paige, Strickland ignored the noise and just kept fighting. I can only imagine the relief he felt when Roy managed to a adjust the lineup for Hairston without having to be benched.
And since Strickland is the best slasher on the team, the small lineup allowed him the space to showcase what fans had been missing all season. It also kept him from forcing up so many bad shots.
Strickland has only attempted one three since the change, and his shooting percentage has skyrocketed. He's converting 49.1 percent of his shots, compared to his season mark of 43.7. He is also 17-of-20 from the free-throw line over that stretch.
Strickland has also been very impressive as a distributor all season. I still wouldn't classify him as a true point guard, but he does average four assists and just 1.2 turnovers per game.
Hopefully his solid play will continue through the remainder of the season. It'd be a shame for a guy as classy as Dexter Strickland to go out on a sour note.
Must Improve: Shooting range
The last time I graded Jackson Simmons, he was coming off a series of huge games for the Tar Heels. Then the lineup change happened, and he went back to mostly riding the pine.
Though his minutes have been limited, Simmons has made the best of his time on the floor. His is rarely out of position, and he has only turned the ball over six times in 206 minutes of action.
At 6'7", 220 pounds, he lacks the size and athleticism to blow away his competition at the 4. He does make up for that with his high basketball IQ, technique and hustle.
If there is a 50-50 ball in play, you can bet Simmons will be a part of the pileup.
His consistency through technique can easily be read on the stat lines. He is 23-of-35 from the floor and 8-of-10 from the free-throw line. He is also good for two points and 1.8 rebounds during his 7.6 minutes per game.
It's a shame he didn't go to a smaller school to put his talents on display. But I'm sure most fans will tell you they are happy to have him sporting Carolina blue.
Must Improve: Strength
It's been tough to get a grip on James Michael McAdoo during his sophomore campaign. One game he looks like he is becoming the dominant player so many anticipated; the next, he looks like he needs another year or two collegiate experience.
But through it all, we must remember he has been struggling with back issues this year. It's hard to imagine that not having a negative impact on his performance.
Especially now that he's banging with centers.
McAdoo has still managed to average 14.6 points, 7.6 rebounds, 1.2 assists and 1.5 steals per game over the course of the season. He has also produced five 20-point games and nine double-doubles this season.
He is an active player that excels in the motion offense.
But that fact remains he has a consistency issue that was present before his ailing back.
His lack of physicality hinders him from snagging boards on the block and from having an effective post game. He also has a tendency to play too fast, which is the primary reason for his team-leading 2.7 turnovers per game.
McAdoo has the tools to become a dominant player at the 4, but he still needs a lot of development before he can reach his full potential. He will also have to find a way to improve on his field-goal (44.8) and free-throw (57.4) percentages.
But even through his back problems and deficiencies in his game, McAdoo is still a vital part of this Tar Heels squad.
Must Improve: Post moves
Though his minutes have suffered with the lineup change, Brice Johnson still makes an impact every time he is on the floor. He is easily the most efficient post player on the team this season.
Johnson's shots aren't falling as often as they were earlier in the season, but he is still shooting 52.7 percent from the floor. For a long stretch, it seemed his turnaround jumper was just automatic.
Even though his shooting hand has gone cold over the last few weeks, his activity hasn't slowed down. He's the only player anyone seems to be able to connect with on an alley-oop, and nobody is a more efficient rebounder.
He snags a board every 3.2 minutes he is in the game.
What's most impressive about Johnson is that he plays like he is totally unaware of the size mismatches. At a slim 186 pounds, Johnson is pretty much guaranteed to give up at least 20 pounds to the opposing power forward or center.
That doesn't keep him from backing guys down or boxing them out for a rebound.
Johnson is a raw combination of skill, guts and athleticism. When he adds some beef to those bones and refines his post game even more, he is going to be a force in the ACC.
Must Improve: Strength
It's a shame we had to wait so long for P.J. Hairston to be inserted into the starting lineup. It's a shame for him, too, because he surely would have earned some awards for his play.
Even though he has only started nine games, Hairston is still third on the team in scoring with 13.6 points over 22.1 minutes per game. Add to that his 4.2 rebounds, 1.4 assists and 1.2 steals, and you have a pretty complete player.
This is a far cry from the Hairston we saw during his freshman season. His field-goal and three-point percentages are up 10 points from last year.
He also has a swagger that nobody on the team can match. And his insertion into the starting lineup has certainly helped boost the confidence of his teammates.
Since joining the starting five, he has racked up three 20-point games—including a career-high 29—and is averaging 17.1 points per game.
The biggest issue with Hairston has been his consistency. He seems to either make or miss five threes a game. Improved shot selection would go a long way in increasing his efficiency.
Must Improve: Shot selection
Finally, we land on the most consistent Tar Heel this season: Mr. Reggie Bullock.
Not only is Bullock second on the team with 14.2 points per game, he is also second in rebounds (6.4) and steals (1.3) and third in assists (2.9). He leads the team with a three-point percentage of 44.2.
Bullock has scored 20 points or more five times this year. Prior to this season, he only had one 20-point game under his belt.
This was a guy that was pretty much just a shooter at the 2 last season. I'd say he's transitioned to small forward just fine.
When Strickland went down last season, Bullock was able to step up his game on defense. That progression continued this year, as he became the undisputed top defender on the squad.
As complete as Bullock's game has become, he could stand to improve his shot selection and tighten up his dribbles. His dribble is a little high, which can be troublesome when working through traffic. He also relies on the three ball too much when he could be creating a much easier shot for himself.
Overall, it's tough to make a case against Bullock. He is just about even with Hairston as the most complete player on the team.
Must Improve: Dribble
It's been a mess of a season for head coach Roy Williams. With his top four players jetting to the NBA, Roy was left with one of the youngest teams he has ever coached.
Strickland was the only senior left on scholarship, and junior guards McDonald and Bullock rounded out the upperclassmen. That isn't an easy assignment—even for a Hall of Fame head coach.
Especially one that has been maligned for his stubborn ways. One of the biggest knocks on Coach Williams over the years is that he fails to adapt his scheme to fit the players.
Through most of the season, it seemed it would be more of that same ol' Roy in the same ol' system, despite the obvious struggles of his team.
The Tar Heels lacked dominant scorers at the start of the games. Fans were seeing P.J. Hairston come off the bench that appeared to fit the bill, but Roy was refusing to insert him into the starting lineup for Dexter Strickland.
He eventually found another way.
Roy eventually threw the double post out the window and decided to put his five best players on the floor. That meant moving McAdoo to the 5 and inserting Hairston at the 4. Since the move, North Carolina is 6-2, with both losses coming to Duke.
The changes didn't stop there, either.
Roy has used the hedge-and-recover scheme on defense for his entire coaching career. The young Tar Heels struggled so much with the mental side of the scheme, he decided to test out the zone in practice.
He never made the full switch, but he has occasionally shifted the defense to a 2-3 zone when the defense is failing to make stops. And you can't blame him for not going all-in with the 2-3, as perimeter defense has been one of Carolina's greatest weaknesses this season.
And that is the greatest weakness of the 2-3 zone; it's better for defending the inside than the outside.
Sure, we can question the time it took for him to adapt his schemes or insert Hairston into the starting lineup. We can even hold a grudge against him for acting like we didn't know "what the dickens" we were talking about when we cried, "Free P.J.!"
But Coach Williams managed to do things very few people thought were possible.
Even Tar Heel fans were saying this would be an NIT season once again. And the poor start to the season only amplified those thoughts.
His team ended up the No. 3 seed in the ACC tournament and will be participating in the NCAA tourney.
Fans also never thought they would see the day where the great Roy Williams would adapt to the players he has on the roster. But he did that on both sides of the floor. It may have taken a while, but he did it.
The best coaches remain in development, and Roy has proven he still falls under that category.
Now if he could just start using those timeouts...
Must Improve: Willingness to call a timeout when the team is struggling.