The North Carolina Tar Heels started their season about as well as anyone could have hoped—at least for the first 20 minutes. UNC led Oakland 58-21 on 74.2 percent shooting during the first half of its opener.
Unfortunately, the season has gone downhill since, and the Tar Heels took their first loss against Belmont on Sunday night. Some teams need to hit rock bottom before they can rise back to the top.
Perhaps Sunday was just that for the Tar Heels.
It will be a while before we find that out, but there have been six early lessons learned from the start of the Tar Heels' 2013-14 season that should be noted. Lucky for you, that's just what we did.
As a generally positive person, I'm pretty good at sugarcoating things. But, quite frankly, there is no sugar on this planet that could make 48-of-86 from the free-throw line taste sweet.
In fact, those 26 free throws missed against Belmont were about as pleasing as sucking on a multivitamin.
J.P. Tokoto was the worst offender, as he went just 4-of-16 from the line. Then there was James Michael McAdoo, who was just 11-of-19.
That hurts on any night. But in a three-point loss, that sting lingers a little longer.
Last season, the Tar Heels shot an abysmal 67.1 percent from the charity stripe. If Sunday was any indication, it looks like they are headed for another disappointing showing at the free-throw line.
There is silver lining, though. North Carolina struggled mightily to even get to the line last season. This year, guys—especially Tokoto and McAdoo—are attacking the basket and putting teams in foul trouble.
Now, they just need to make their free throws.
It's not that they don't practice, as Roy Williams told reporters, courtesy of Inside Carolina:
Three times during practice so far we’ve asked everybody to shoot 200 free throws and everybody on our team shot over 80 percent the last time we did that. James Michael (McAdoo) was 81 percent. J.P. (Tokoto) was 84 percent, but it didn’t go in for us today. It was a big part of the game.
To me, that makes it a mental thing. Perhaps they should hire Speedo Guy for practices.
Saying the Tar Heels will be better at center this season probably doesn't provoke much optimism, and rightfully so. They were absolutely atrocious at the 5 in 2012-13—to the point power forward James Michael McAdoo had to play the low post.
And this is a guy that is kind of stuck between the 3 and 4 spots in terms of skill.
But this season, things are starting to look up.
Sophomore Joel James has been getting the starting nod, and has produced fairly well during his time on the floor. Over 13 minutes per contest, he is averaging four points and 4.3 rebounds. Though he still looks lost at times, he is making fewer mistakes and has shown mental toughness in shaking off the ones he does make—something that plagued the big man as a freshman.
It seems he is finally finding a comfort zone in his fifth season playing organized basketball. There is no doubt James is a work in progress, but at least we are seeing some development in the big man.
James does need to get better at positioning himself, though. He has struggled to box out and front his defender in the post, which is a little disconcerting considering his 280-pound frame and the level of competition he has faced this season.
Then there is freshman Kennedy Meeks, who has been the most impressive by far.
Instincts. Hands. Shooting touch. This kid has everything you could want out of a center except explosiveness. But he also adds passing abilities rarely seen from a 5.
Meeks is averaging 6.7 points, 5.7 boards and 0.7 assists over just 12.7 minutes per game. That's a pretty impressive stat line for a freshman.
The baby-faced big from Charlotte, N.C., just has a nose for the game that cannot be explained in words. When other guys are in the game, the paint looks jammed up. When Meeks is in, somehow he constantly ends up open down low.
And if he's not getting a bucket off a feed, he's effortlessly tapping in a missed shot. He's just... there. Always.
Desmond Hubert has looked pretty impressive in his short stints, too. He's stronger and much more aggressive on the offensive end. And there is no better center on this team in the transition game.
Unfortunately, the junior continues to fall short on the glass.
Hubert has hauled in only three rebounds in 13 minutes played this season. That's right on pace with his career average of one rebound every 4.47 minutes.
He needs to get better on the glass if he plans to pick up some serious minutes in 2013-14.
Center Production Over Last Two Seasons
Heading into this season, it was clear that Marcus Paige would have to step up his perimeter game. With Leslie McDonald and P.J. Hairston out, the Tar Heels would be short-handed on the wing and missing two of their best three-point shooters.
So far, Paige has been holding up his end—plus some.
The sophomore point—er, shooting—guard has buried eight of his 18 three-point attempts. The rest of the team has made two.
But Paige isn't just getting it done behind the arc. He's slashing, sinking floaters and dropping dimes at will. He's currently the team's second-leading scorer scorer behind McAdoo, averaging 18 per.
While McAdoo is a talented scorer, as evidenced by his 19.7 points per game, nobody is better at creating his own shots than Paige. On top of that, he is the team's best passer and three-point shooter at this juncture, making him the Tar Heels' best offensive weapon.
The only problem is that he doesn't try to take over enough. When the team is failing to score, Paige needs to instantly become assertive on the offensive end.
Belmont had a 41-34 lead at the half, and Paige was basically MIA with just four points. He scored 13 points in the second half as he led the Carolina comeback.
Slowly, Paige is beginning to turn back into the aggressive scorer he was in his prep days at Linn-Mar. He scored 28 points per game as a senior, due to a lack of complementary scorers. He had to be the guy back then.
Without Hairston and McDonald, the scenario is no different in Chapel Hill. Time to bring back that scorer mentality, Marcus.
When Hairston stepped on the floor last season, whether he was starting or coming off the bench, he provided points and an instant emotional spark. He played with a passion and intensity that spread like a wildfire through the team.
Roy Williams has a history of recruiting mild-mannered talents, and those guys need someone to light a fire under them to turn up the intensity. Before P.J. Hairston, there was John Henson.
Now, that guy appears to be Brice Johnson.
We saw it a little during Johnson's freshman season. He would get pumped up from a big dunk or a few consecutive scores. He lacked that spark on the defensive end, though.
Not this season.
I have never seen Johnson as fired up as he has been through the first three games of his sophomore campaign. He is absolutely attacking the ball on defense, and it looks like he's enjoying doing it with all that screaming. If he gets any more minutes, he's going to sound like Tom Thibodeau postgame.
Johnson is leading the team in blocks (three) and is tied with Paige for the second-most steals (four). That's the defender a guy with his talent should be.
Even more impressive are the rest of his numbers, though. Easy B is killing the stat lines, averaging 12 points, 6.3 boards and 2.3 assists over just 19 minutes per game. He's also shooting 66.7 percent from the floor.
Just like last season when Hairston was coming off the bench, it won't be long before fans start begging Coach Williams to start Johnson. And, once again, I'll be happy to lead that charge.
Brice Johnson needs more minutes.
Check that. The Tar Heels need more minutes from Johnson.
Enough toying around, Roy.
The rotational merry-go-round killed continuity and chemistry last season. It's time to settle on a starting lineup and have them take the majority of the minutes. They need to stay on the court for no less than 10 minutes at a time, with the exception of James and Meeks, whose minimum should be five due to a lack of endurance.
Luke Davis is a tough player who everyone respects. But does he really need 20 minutes per game?
That doesn't make much sense.
The focus needs to be on scoring and defense, which is why the starting lineup and rotations need to change. If the Holy Cross game wasn't a wake-up call, the loss to Belmont should have been.
The best lineup Coach Williams can put on the floor right now would be Marcus Paige, J.P. Tokoto, James Michael McAdoo, Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks.
Starting center Joel James simply isn't there quite yet, and Nate Britt doesn't provide enough offensive pop to start at the point.
The Britt situation kind of reminds me of last season, when Dexter Strickland was starting and Hairston was riding the pine. It was good for the transition game and ball rotation, but there just weren't enough scorers in the half court.
Tokoto basically serves as an additional point anyway with his vision and passing ability. He is tied at the top with Paige in assists (13) and has one fewer turnover. Point being, Paige will get the shots he needs whether he is running point or playing the 2.
Right now, he needs to be the floor general.
The grouping of Paige, Tokoto, McAdoo, Johnson and Meeks has clearly been the most effective lineup thus far. There is no reason for that group not to be on the floor from the jump.
The North Carolina Tar Heels have some of the greatest fans in the world. But if there is anything I have learned since 2012-13, it's that it is never too early for doomsday theories.
Last season, the faithful fans had to fight off the Negative Nancies who just knew the Tar Heels were headed for the NIT. "It's 2010 all over again!"
The early loss to Butler sparked the flames that didn't go out until the Tar Heels landed on the NCAA bracket.
Soon after this season's squeaker against Holy Cross, you could feel the heat turn up a notch. The loss to Belmont is bringing those doomsdayers back to the forefront.
All I can say to those folks is "simmer down."
It may not be a championship team without Hairston and McDonald, but it is better than its last two showings.
It's a long season, Tar Heel Nation. Give these guys some time to gel. If it doesn't come together by the start of ACC play, then we can all go nuts.
Until then, these young guys could use a little support.