UNC Basketball: Tar Heels' 2012 Class Is Turning the Corner in 2013-14

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UNC Basketball: Tar Heels' 2012 Class Is Turning the Corner in 2013-14
Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

The North Carolina Tar Heels are powering through their nonconference schedule, picking up victories over the top three teams in the 2014 preseason rankings. No other team is even close to matching that resumé.

A big chunk of the credit for those signature wins goes to UNC's 2012 recruiting class—a class many implied was an indicator of Roy Williams' decline as a recruiter. With an average ranking of 46.5 in the ESPN 100, Marcus Paige, Brice Johnson, Joel James and J.P. Tokoto simply weren't going to cut it in Chapel Hill.

This class stayed on the hot seat through most of 2012-13 with jittery individual performances.

Liz Condo-USA TODAY Sports

Paige was finding his way as a freshman starter at the Tar Heels' most crucial position. He struggled with his shooting, and the high-octane Heels weren't being run with the precision fans were accustomed to under his predecessor, Kendall Marshall.

James was prone to mind-boggling mental mistakes and slippery hands that made folks wonder if he could ever get it together. The lack of a solid starting center only magnified every error he made on the floor.

Tokoto showed promise with his athleticism and defensive prowess, but that was easily forgotten as he bricked jumper after jumper. He was just 1-of-11 from downtown as a freshman.

Johnson was dominant on offense from the beginning, receiving the least negative attention of the quartet. However, his defense left much to be desired, and his 187-pound frame was cause for concern at the power forward position.

Fast forward to 2013-14.

Liz Condo-USA TODAY Sports

P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald were both sidelined by NCAA investigations, leaving Tokoto as the lone scholarship wing on the roster. That also forced Paige to shift to shooting guard, as he was the only shooter Williams could truly trust.

The fans and media weren't there yet, though. They needed proof he could light up the arc. And the thought of having to rely on Tokoto and James produced another round of Doomsday theories for the program and its Hall of Fame coach.

It didn't take long for Paige to silence the critics. The sophomore guard drilled 17 of his first 32 treys and put up a 32-spot in Carolina's 93-84 upset win over the Louisville Cardinals. He quickly went from being labeled a recruiting whiff by Coach Williams to the star of the show in Chapel Hill.

Even through his shooting slump over the last four games, Paige remains a fan favorite. His 21-point performance in the second half against Kentucky only solidified his status among the Carolina faithful.

It's tough to hate on 19.2 points, 3.1 rebounds, 4.2 assists and 1.7 steals from a sophomore point guard playing the 2 for the first time.

Johnson was smoldering once again straight out of the gate, hauling in rebounds, blocking shots and scoring at will. Against Richmond, he racked up 12 boards, one assist, two blocks and a career-high 24 points in just 22 minutes of action.

Liz Condo-USA TODAY Sports

Johnson ranks fifth on the squad in minutes (20.6), but he is third in scoring (13.0), first in rebounds (6.9) and first in blocks (1.4). He has also become the Tar Heels' greatest threat in the post with his new 210-pound frame, dropping lighting-quick hooks and smooth turnaround jumpers with the efficiency one should expect from a guy nicknamed Easy B.

He also leads the team with a shooting percentage of 59.5.

For Tokoto and James, though, the start of their sophomore campaigns has still been riddled with controversy among fans.

In a highly publicized battle of the bigs, James managed to edge freshman Kennedy Meeks for the starting center spot. It wasn't long before folks were calling for a demotion.

James wasn't making the mistakes he used to as a freshman, but he was still failing to fill the stat columns with his inability to box out and front his defender in the post. Meanwhile, Meeks was breaking out with a 13-point, 12-rebound, seven-assist performance against Louisville.

Williams remained loyal to James despite the public outcry, and his steadfast approach appears to be paying off. Though he still isn't producing the numbers we'd like to see on the offensive end, James is becoming impossible to deal with in the defensive paint.

The stats don't show how many times an opponent has had to pass out of a post-up opportunity because he didn't give up ground. They don't show how many shots he has altered just by standing tall with his hands in the air.

Grant Halverson/Getty Images

James had just five rebounds and one steal against Michigan State, but he still earned defensive player of the game for those very reasons. The 280-pound big man is coming along, and if he can ever find a mean streak, he could be equally formidable on the offensive end.

His potential becomes more evident with each passing game.

Tokoto started the season hot, scoring 13 points on 5-of-6 shooting from the floor and 1-of-1 from three in the first half of the season opener against Oakland. From there, the small forward went ice cold, hitting rock bottom in the loss to Belmont with a 4-of-16 performance from the free-throw line.

In a three-point loss, Tokoto was just too easy a target for the blame. Especially since few were ever sold on his potential. It was an "I told you so" moment for the naysayers.

Being the respectable, hard-working young man that he is, Tokoto was practicing his free throws just hours after the game. When a player has the dedication, drive and the elite athleticism of Air Pierre, great things can happen.

And we are seeing the fruit of his labor now.

Tokoto was on fire against Kentucky, dropping just about every shot the Wildcats gave him. Runners, mid-range jumpers...even a three-pointer. Every time UK seemed to be pulling it together for a run in the first half, he was there to deflate its balloon.

Paige, of course, took over that role in the second half.

Over the last four games, Tokoto is quietly shooting 60.5 percent from the floor, is 2-of-2 from downtown and is averaging 12.3 points, five rebounds, two assists, 0.8 steals and 0.8 blocks per game. Yes, he is still struggling from the free-throw line, and he needs to bring his turnovers down, but nobody can deny his progression.

We are living in an age of instant gratification. Answers are available to us immediately with a quick Google search we can do from anywhere with our smart phones. We used to be happy to wait a minute or two for a photo to load on the Internet with the turtle-paced 56k modems of old.

Now we freak out if a video doesn't start playing within five seconds on our 4G phones.

Those expectations have worked their way into the realm of college basketball. Gone are the days of developing players over three or four years. Fans want instant gratification. If the players aren't stars when they first step on the floor, they never will be.

That simply isn't true. North Carolina's recruiting class of 2012 is living proof. And, quite frankly, it's been a joy watching these kids develop.

You can have your one-and-dones. I'll take Marcus Paige, J.P. Tokoto, Brice Johnson and Joel James any day of the week.

 

Rollin Yeatts is the lead columnist for North Carolina Tar Heels basketball on Bleacher Report. He also hosts a weekly all-sports video podcast at TSB Sports. Visit his B/R profile for more.

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