The North Carolina Tar Heels have been waiting a long time to put last season's struggles and the offseason debacles in the past. So have the fans.
There is no better time than now, as we approach the season opener against Oakland this Friday.
I'm focusing purely on UNC basketball in this comprehensive season preview of the 2013-14 Tar Heels. In the following slides, I will break down the key newcomers and returners, X-factors, projected rotations, best- and worst-case scenarios for the season and a final prediction.
I'm loading you up with info today, so strap on those reading glasses and enjoy.
Roy Williams just keeps getting it done on the recruiting trail. This season, the Hall of Famer will usher in three extremely talented freshmen, and each one is sure to impact the team from the jump.
Power forward Isaiah Hicks and center Kennedy Meeks were both selected to the McDonald's All-American team. Meeks also played in the Jordan Brand Classic. Point guard Nate Britt was left out of that mix, but that doesn't mean his talent wasn't worthy of that recognition.
When Britt committed to the Tar Heels in 2011, the 5'11" speedster from the nation's capital ranked No. 15 overall and No. 2 at the point in the 2013 ESPN 100. A pure point guard in its truest form, Britt facilitated his team's offense with sweet dimes, floaters with both hands and by burning everyone down the court in transition.
Then injuries sidelined the phenom in both his junior and senior seasons, slowing down his on-court performance and ultimately dropping him from the rankings.
But, as we have seen through the Blue-White scrimmage and one exhibition, Britt is every bit the point guard Coach Williams recruited in 2011. In 25 minutes against UNC-Pembroke, the freshman tallied six points, two rebounds, one block, five steals and, most importantly, six assists to just two turnovers.
Yes, it was against inferior competition, but consider the fact that the team had 17 assists and 23 turnovers. The kid is good.
It's going to be exciting to watch Nate Britt and Marcus Paige share the backcourt in 2013-14.
Kennedy Meeks also proved his worth in that game, despite a slow start. In just 13 minutes, the hoss from Charlotte, N.C., scored 11 points and hauled in six boards for the Tar Heels. He was also 3-of-3 from the free-throw line, which is a big relief considering the team's struggles last season—particularly from the post players.
What once appeared to be Joel James' job to lose, the center position has been dubbed a "50-50" battle between the two. He wouldn't be there if it wasn't for his dedication to Jonas Sahratian's strength and conditioning program.
When Meeks arrived on campus, he was a robust 317 pounds, and few pundits gave him a shot at earning major minutes in Roy Williams' high-octane system. In just a few months, he's managed to trim that frame to a shocking 281 and become more explosive as a result.
Whether he starts or not, Meeks will probably hit the floor for at least 10 minutes a game.
Finally, there is Isaiah Hicks, who probably has the highest ceiling and the most NBA potential of the three. Hicks is a springy, active post with well-above average handles for a freshman at his position.
He'll struggle a times with his slender frame (6'8", 220 pounds), but his athleticism and ball-handling will allow him to crash the boards and take it to the hole. We've gotten a taste of that through the preliminary games, even though his numbers weren't as impressive as the other two.
In 14 minutes against UNC-Pembroke, Hicks produced six points, six boards and one block. He was also 4-of-4 from the stripe, supporting the hope that UNC has better days ahead at the charity stripe.
Hicks will have a hard time getting off the bench with junior star James Michael McAdoo and up-and-coming sophomore Brice Johnson ahead of him. But don't be surprised if Isaiah Hicks earns the respect of Coach Williams while Leslie McDonald and P.J. Hairston are out.
This kid is going to find a way on the court. That's what 30-30 guys do.
This 2013 class may not be ballyhooed like the one coming in 2014, but there is nothing better than a good surprise. And Britt, Hicks and Meeks may have quite a few in store for us.
Though every returning Tar Heel will contribute significantly, nobody will have a bigger impact on this squad than juniors P.J. Hairston and James Michael McAdoo. We can talk about every facet of the game until we are Carolina blue in the face, but, with Williams-led teams, it comes down to scoring.
And scoring is what this duo does best.
Together, McAdoo and Hairston averaged 29 points per game—37.6 percent of Carolina's offense last season. And that was with just 23.6 minutes per game from Hairston, who finished as the team's leading scorer at 14.6 per.
They get it done in other areas, too. McAdoo led the team in rebounds (7.3) and steals (1.5) as a sophomore. Together, they produced 11.6 rebounds and 2.8 steals to go with their 29 points.
The scary part is what they overcame to achieve those numbers.
McAdoo didn't have a strong center to take the heat off of him, forcing the sophomore into double- and triple-teams. When Hairston got the starting nod, McAdoo was moved to center and Hairston—who was recruited as a shooting guard—had to work the 4-spot.
Then, for about the last month of the season, McAdoo played through the pain of an inflamed disk in his back. And for the final four games, Hairston's left hand was wrapped because of a cut between his fingers that required eight stitches.
Did I mention they played with a freshman point guard that struggled through a good portion of the season?
That now-sophomore goes by the name of Marcus Paige, and he has landed on the watch list for the Cousy Award. This may not be his year for that, but he is on his way to following in the footsteps of Kendall Marshall, Ty Lawson and Raymond Felton.
There is no doubt his comfort level within the Carolina offense has grown over the past year. That is going to impact Hairston and McAdoo in a big way.
His game may not be just about getting his favorite weapons going, though. Paige can score, too.
UNC's floor general played a significant role in the final stretch of the season with his improved decision-making and three-point shooting—not to mention a few clutch shots with the clock winding down.
He will also be asked to become a scorer when he shifts to shooting guard to squeeze Nate Britt in the game. Williams has been looking forward to deploying dual point guards since he took Kansas to the Final Four with that scheme in 2002.
Paige should have a lot of open looks on the perimeter with Britt's quick penetration and pass-first mentality.
There's a new Triangle Trio in town, folks. McAdoo, Hairston and Paige are not to be taken lightly.
Marcus Paige, Nate Britt, Luke Davis
P.J. Hairston, Leslie McDonald
James Michael McAdoo, Brice Johnson, Isaiah Hicks, Jackson Simmons
Joel James, Kennedy Meeks, Desmond Hubert
Click here for the complete 2013-14 UNC roster, courtesy of GoHeels.com.
For a period of time, the Tar Heels will be without leading scorer P.J. Hairston and possibly without fifth-year senior Leslie McDonald, due to eligibility issues. And if you paid attention to the roster, you'll know that they are the only true shooting guards available.
This is where things get a little messy.
If there is a string of games in which both Hairston and McDonald are unavailable, my best guess at a lineup would be Paige, Tokoto, McAdoo, Johnson and James. Another possibility would be Britt, Paige, McAdoo, Johnson and James.
Or maybe Joel James doesn't land the starting job and Kennedy Meeks or Desmond Hubert takes his place. James hasn't looked much better thus far in year two, and he has been outperformed by his counterparts.
Honestly, I probably have a better chance at hitting the lottery than projecting this rotation.
When the eligibility issues are finally cleared up, the rotation will become much more obvious. More than likely, the starters will be Paige, McDonald, Hairston, McAdoo and James. Next off the bench would be Johnson, Tokoto or Britt with Meeks or Hubert.
The issue with North Carolina's rotation is that so much will be based on the development of these players. Paige, Hairston and McAdoo are the only players guaranteed a starting job. The rest is up in the air.
Strategies aside, this how I see the rotation from one to 13:
James Michael McAdoo
Could one of these guys be an X-factor?
Back in September, I named Joel James as the Tar Heels' biggest X-factor. The reasoning is simple: Roy Williams needs a center to step up in order to run his signature double-post.
Poor McAdoo could use some help in the paint, too.
Joel James would be the best option. He has 55 pounds on Hubert and is much more effective in the post. He should also have a better grip on the system than Meeks, though that hasn't been evident as of yet.
Considering all the summer chatter from the UNC camp in favor of James' improvements, perhaps what we have seen thus far is a case of the jitters. At this time, I'm sticking with James as an X-factor.
Two other clear-cut X-factors for the team would be J.P. Tokoto and Brice Johnson. Johnson showed he had a knack for putting up points, earning the moniker "Easy B" from his teammates. Only Hairston (0.62) offered up more points per minute than Johnson (0.51).
Easy B has also gained an extra 20 pounds over the summer, which means he should be more capable on both ends of the floor. His defense was a bit sporadic last season, so the sophomore has made it a point of focus over the summer.
From day one, defense was never an issue with J.P. Tokoto. He may be the most talented defender on the squad. However, his offense was lacking pop last season.
Tokoto was just 1-of-11 from deep, and he struggled at times with his mid-range jumper. The activity points were there on putbacks and fast breaks, but he had a hard time creating offense for himself.
Over the summer, he has been working with assistant coach Hubert Davis to straighten his mechanical kinks and become a better shooter off the catch and off the bounce. Since he was held out of the exhibition, we haven't been able to see how much Tokoto has improved, if at all.
One thing is for sure: James, Johnson and Tokoto must improve from their freshman seasons. They will be the difference between a repeat of last season and conference title contention.
The center position is still a mess, as James, Hubert and Meeks are largely ineffective on the block. Desperate for someone to step forward, Coach Williams fires up the center merry-go-round from last season. This only compounds the problem, as none of the three centers are on the court long enough to find a groove.
To make matters worse, Hairston is out longer than expected, and the lack of continuity with positions and rotations kills the team's chemistry. We can tell they're on the verge of breaking through, but losses to Louisville, Michigan State and Kentucky hurt their confidence and RPI rankings.
Once Hairston comes back, the scoring is there, but the team still has to get used to playing with him again.
When they finally mesh, the Tar Heels have to run through the ACC gauntlet. That's when we begin to realize this team isn't much better than it was last year. The Tar Heels finish fourth in the ACC, lose their first game in the ACC tournament and just barely sneak into the tourney.
The selection committee decides to toy with UNC again by putting it in the bracket with Kansas. They'll be drooling over the chance to watch Roy Williams take on his former team and the recruit he missed in Andrew Wiggins.
I don't think I have to tell you how that story ends.
Everyone comes back new and improved—including Joel James and Desmond Hubert. The offense doesn't miss a beat with James, Hubert or Meeks, so Williams is able to rotate the big boys in to keep them fresh.
After a full investigation from the NCAA, we learn that everything beyond Hairston's speeding tickets was a crock—you know, when speculation is printed as "fact." The NCAA gives both Hairston and McDonald a half-game suspension a la Johnny Manziel, citing they "should have known better" as the reason behind the wrist slap.
Leslie McDonald gets the starting nod and becomes the Reggie Bullock of yesteryear, providing consistent three-point shooting, rebounding, passing and solid defense. All it took was an opportunity for L-Mac.
The Triangle Trio of Marcus Paige, James Michael McAdoo and P.J. Hairston is impossible to contain. There are just too many weapons on the floor for defenses to handle. And just when the opposing team thinks they have it figured out, Williams is able to insert Britt, Tokoto and Hubert to turn up the pace.
The Tar Heels edge Louisville and Michigan State in tight battles and show John Calipari and the Kentucky Wildcats that chemistry and experience matter with a dominant win in the Dean Dome. They carry that momentum through the ACC season, finishing 16-2 and hanging another regular-season banner.
With a top seed locked up, Williams decides to take his foot off the gas for the ACC tourney and save it for the Big Dance. That was a winning strategy in 2005 and 2009, and it works again in 2013.
Roy Williams eclipses Dean Smith's championship mark with three titles to his name, and we are all dancing in the streets—Gangnam Style.
Oh. You want reality?
Actually, that "best-case scenario" is well within the realm of possibilities, no matter what you may think. Most players make big leaps in their second and third seasons, and Paige, McAdoo and Hairston were first-time starters last year.
But I have a hunch it won't work out quite as smoothly as we would hope. The Tar Heels will probably split the major nonconference games against Louisville (if they meet in the Hall of Fame Tip-Off championship), Michigan State, Kentucky and Texas.
And with the expanded—and much tougher—ACC, they will lose at least four conference games. Fortunately, that is still good enough for third place.
Finishing the season with a win over Duke at Cameron Indoor, the Tar Heels steamroll through the ACC tournament and cut down the nets for the first time since 2008.
They aren't quite as successful in the Big Dance, as they are unable to make it out of the Elite Eight.
Hairston and McAdoo consider staying for a title but decide they can't pass up the NBA while their stocks are this high, opening spots for the next two Carolina stars to emerge.
2013-14 may not be a title season, but everyone will be excited about the program's remaining future under the guidance of Coach Roy Williams. This legend isn't done until he trades his whistle in for golf clubs.