Relatively speaking, North Carolina basketball has been on a bit of a downswing since its last title in 2009. There was the NIT of 2010, the transfers, the injuries of 2012 and last season was a recovery period after UNC lost four premier starters to the NBA.
Tar Heel fans can finally breathe a sigh of relief, though.
With the return of James Michael McAdoo and P.J. Hairston, along with a solid recruiting class in 2013, Roy Williams finally has depth on his roster. Combine that with a stellar 2014 class, and it appears the Hall of Fame coach has solidified the program's future as a contender.
In the following slides, I break down the Tar Heels' future at every position, ranked in order of strength.
Shooting guard may be the only position of concern at Carolina. It's been quite the headache over the past couple seasons.
Two years ago, Leslie McDonald was supposed to step into a bigger role as the Tar Heels' off-guard. Then he tore his ACL at the N.C. Pro-Am. Dexter Strickland suffered the same fate halfway through the 2011-12 season.
Fortunately, Reggie Bullock was able to step in and pick up the pieces.
Williams was finally fully stocked again last season, but the headaches didn't go away. Strickland struggled with his jumper and shot selection. McDonald was on fire, then nose-dived following a suspension and injury.
Bullock and Hairston were excellent, but they were forced into the frontcourt due to struggles in the post.
Then Coach Williams lost Strickland to eligibility, lost Bullock to the draft and had to suspend Hairston indefinitely for his "summer of fun."
To make matters worse, Williams hasn't received a commitment from a shooting guard since 2011.
Unless he can snag two shooting guards, though, Coach Williams may still be losing some sleep over the position in 2014-15.
McDonald will be gone, and Hairston will more than likely enter the NBA draft.
That means, without a new commit, there would be no shooting guards on the roster. Picking up just one commit still makes depth an issue.
Of course, if he snags two shooters, both Hairston and McAdoo would have to enter the draft to open up scholarships for both recruits.
Oh, the joys of recruiting in this era.
Maybe Marcus Paige, Nate Britt, J.P. Tokoto, Justin Jackson or Theo Pinson can shift to help fill the gap. There will be enough depth at their positions to play musical chairs.
"Maybe" doesn't exactly offer a sense of security, though.
Williams needs to find himself some "daggum" shooters.
Moving to the center position, things are starting to look up for the Tar Heels.
Desmond Hubert received some valuable playing time last season as a sophomore. He proved to be an excellent defender and could become the best shot-blocking center Williams has had at Chapel Hill.
Hubert averaged 0.8 blocks per game over just 9.4 minutes. He did fall short on the offensive end, averaging just 1.1 points per contest.
That's where rising sophomore Joel James comes in. Not only is he blessed with a massive 6'10", 280-pound frame, he can also shoot the rock, too.
He didn't get much opportunity in his limited minutes, but he buried 30 of his 58 attempts. Only a handful of those were dunks; the rest were hooks, jumpers and lay-ins.
James is pretty raw, having only played organized basketball for four years now. But he certainly found the right system to grow in.
Williams knows posts.
Coach Williams also picked up Kennedy Meeks to extend his bench in 2013-14 and to solidify the future of the position in Chapel Hill.
Meeks is not raw talent. He is a highly skilled center with the basketball IQ of a point guard.
He can pass like one, too.
The only issues with Meeks are purely physical. He is a little thick in the waist for Williams's up-and-down game, and he lacks explosiveness on the block because of it.
Not to worry, though. Strength and conditioning coach Jonas Sahratian makes his living transforming the bodies of these young athletes.
And he's pretty darn good at his job.
By the time Coach Williams really needs the services of Meeks, he'll be well-prepared to shine. A lot of people compare this kid to Sean May.
I think he can be even better.
It was a bit of a tossup between small forward and power forward in the rankings. In the end, lack of collegiate experience forced the small forward position to No. 3 on my list.
Though P.J. Hairston will likely start at the 3, when he is allowed to hit the floor again, J.P. Tokoto is the only true small forward on the current roster.
Tokoto showed spurts of potential with his superior athleticism, great vision, high activity and shockingly sound defense for a freshman. His only serous downfalls were his handles and range—both of which will be worked on during this offseason.
He has an excellent base to work with, and he should develop into truly special player. But we'll have to wait to see him in action again before we can gauge his true potential.
With Hairston out for a number of games this season, Tokoto will get plenty of opportunities to show his progress.
Roy Williams won't be short on small forwards for long, though, and the competition will be tight with the recruitment of Justin Jackson and Theo Pinson.
They are, respectively, the No. 1 and No. 3 small forwards on the 2014 ESPN 100.
Jackson is a very smart player who doesn't just try to take over a game, despite his scoring ability. Because he takes what is given to him instead of forcing the issue, he is very efficient.
When he is scoring, he has solid range and probably the deadliest floater in his class—and that may be an understatement. He may give ol' Ed Cota a run for his money in that department.
Pinson seems to be molded out of the same clay as Jackson, as far as his efficiency is concerned. He, too, has star talent, but his ego doesn't get in the way of production.
If he sees an opening, he'll drop a dime without hesitation.
All three of these guys will have to add some strength and become more efficient on the perimeter. What I like about these guys, though, is that all of them take pride in their defense and do whatever it takes to get a "W."
Those are some rare qualities in this offensive-minded, ego-driven era of basketball.
The Tar Heels have some seriously talent players on the 2013-14 roster at power forward. James Michael McAdoo may be making his final statement to NBA scouts and executives, Brice Johnson is coming off a superb freshman campaign and Isaiah Hicks finished out his prep career with a 30-30 performance in the state championship.
The only problem here will be finding enough minutes for all of these guys. They're all too gifted to waste away on the bench.
McAdoo's sophomore season was a bit of a disappointment. His averages of 14.4 points, 7.3 rebounds and 1.5 steals per game were great for a sophomore and first-time starter, but it didn't match the preseason hype.
Those impressive averages came from pure talent, rather than skill. He relied on beating players with his quickness off the bounce and a semi-reliable turnaround jumper.
In a summer interview with Go Heels TV, as reported by Adam Lucas, McAdoo acknowledged his shortcomings.
Last year, I accepted those expectations but I didn't really do anything with them. I didn't work as hard as I should have in the offseason. I just felt like the success at the end of the year would carry over. Now I realize what needs to be done and what I need to improve on, regardless of the expectations.
Basically, he didn't have to prove anything last season. Mainstream media crowned him before he could even feel out the throne.
Now, he knows he has to prove he is worthy of all the hype. If he does, you can bet he's heading to the NBA, which will just leave Johnson and Hicks at the 4.
But they're enough to keep the future bright in Chapel Hill.
Johnson is an extremely gifted scorer and appears to be expanding his game in the offseason. With the overabundance of posts and lack of wings, he's been working in space at the 3 to develop his ball skills and shooting range.
He has also packed on 13 pounds, and is hoping to reach 210 pounds before the season starts. Considering what he accomplished at 187 pounds, I'd say he's well on his way to stardom.
As a freshman, Johnson averaged 5.4 points, 3.2 rebounds, 0.5 steals and 0.5 blocks over just 10.6 minutes per game. He also shot 51.1 percent from the floor.
Hicks is one of those high-IQ, high-activity players who will eat up all the leftovers on the court. He's also one of the most impressive dribblers and passers Coach Williams has recruited at the post.
If he can develop a post game and extend his range, Hicks is going to be a lethal weapon Williams will have trouble holstering for too long.
The power forward position is strong in the present, and it looks like the Tar Heels won't miss a beat whenever McAdoo decides to leave.
I was drooling a little bit before I reached the point guards. Now the saliva is cascading from my mouth like Niagara Falls.
Sorry for the image. I'm just obsessed with the position, and Coach Williams has put together possibly the greatest group of floor generals in the history of North Carolina.
No, really. I'm dead serious. Stop throwing stuff at me.
Marcus Paige caught a lot of flack for his freshman performance. For the first half of the season, it may have been warranted.
Coach Williams wasn't giving Paige complete control of the reins until conference play started to roll around. Strickland handled the ball every bit as much as Paige, which kept the freshman's assists averages down.
And we all know how much people lean on stats alone.
As he got more comfortable with the system, Coach Williams gradually started extending the leash on Paige until he was the primary point guard. Once that happened, everything started to fall into place.
Paige's assists went up, his turnovers went down and he began draining treys like he did during his prep days at Linn-Mar. Oh, and he became the Tar Heels' Defensive Player of the Year to boot.
Over the final 13 games of the season, Paige buried 20 of 46 threes while averaging 9.9 points, 4.8 assists, 2.5 turnovers and 2.1 steals per game.
With a full calendar year of seasoning, you can bet he'll improve on those numbers as a sophomore.
On his heels will be freshman Nate Britt, who is also an excellent prospect at the position. With a rash of injuries over the last couple seasons, Britt's ranking has dropped right off the 2013 ESPN 100.
As a sophomore, he was one of the highest-rated point guards in his class.
Britt has elite, Ty Lawson-type speed that will take the Tar Heels' transition game to the next level when he is in. He'll also burn opponents off the dribble in the half court and sink a floater with either hand.
Having a point guard ahead of him on the depth chart gives him an advantage Paige didn't have the luxury of experiencing. Britt gets to learn the system before the anvil is dropped on his shoulders.
In other words, he has plenty of time to get back to being the Nate Britt of old.
In 2014, the chosen one will arrive and catapult this group of point guards to the top. Joel Berry may be the third-ranked point guard in his class (ESPN 100), but I'd take this kid over Tyus Jones and Emmanuel Mudiay any day of the week.
That's not to say those two point guards aren't worthy of their rankings; Berry is just my ideal version of a floor general.
For Berry, it isn't about the points or assists he puts on the board. It's simply his seemingly effortless play in every facet of the game and his impressive attention to detail.
If there is a turnover, he's the first guy down the floor, taking a charge or poking the ball loose. And if he was the cause of the turnover, he doesn't even blink.
It's on to the next play.
Berry has always had excellent vision and passing skills, and, now, he is becoming an efficient shooter from the perimeter. He shot close to 40 percent from downtown for Each 1 Teach 1 this summer.
I could go on for a while about this kid—and we'll go more in depth on Wednesday. He just does everything it takes to win, and Each 1 Teach 1 snagging five out of six championships this summer is a testament to that.
For all the flack Roy Williams has received over the last few years, it certainly looks like he is building a contender. And dare I say a possible dynasty?
Stay tuned. Coach Williams isn't done yet.
I guarantee there will be at least one more national title banner in the rafters before he retires.