Who thought Roy Williams would be celebrating a Hall of Fame Tip-Off title?
As the plot thickened this summer, fans and media came to the realization that the North Carolina Tar Heels would be without P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald for at least a handful of games. Both parties dissected the thinning roster and found, in their eyes, mediocre talent that would surely be pummeled by the likes of Louisville, Michigan State and the ultra-hyped Kentucky squad.
Players who have been key components to UNC's 8-3 record, which includes victories over all three aforementioned programs, were regularly picked on for their deficiencies in the offseason. This led to some serious misconceptions that will be squashed today.
The following is a breakdown of the five most common preseason misconceptions about the 2013-14 Tar Heels.
No Reggie Bullock. No Leslie McDonald. No P.J. Hairston.
You can't blame anyone for thinking they'd travel a rocky road with only one true wing on the roster, but it didn't take long for the Tar Heels to prove that was one of many common misconceptions. Yes, they hit a patch of loose gravel against Belmont, UAB and Texas, but they ran over Louisville, Michigan State and Kentucky in the process.
As tough as this team is to peg, you don't pick up three wins against top-tier opponents through mediocrity. Consistency is a much greater issue for UNC than talent.
Carolina played poorly through long stretches in its three losses of the season. Energy, poor rebounding efforts and cold shooting hands had a lot to do with the outcomes of those games. That's no excuse; it just means talent isn't the problem.
Despite the poor play, the Tar Heels only lost those games by an average of 3.3 points.
Plenty of quality teams—with complete rosters—have seen early season struggles this year. Few have had the grueling nonconference schedule North Carolina was tasked with. And no matter how tough they can be to watch at their worst, the Tar Heels were much better than anyone could have anticipated with their most experienced wings in their Sunday best.
There are many labels you can place on this team. "Mediocre" is not one of them.
Remember last season when Marcus Paige was getting railed by Tar Heel fans? He didn't step on the floor and dominate as a starting freshman point guard the way many had hoped. What those folks failed to recognize was how difficult it is to make the transition from high school to college.
Guys are taller, faster, stronger and much more talented. On top of that, he had to learn a whole new, much more complicated system.
As the season progressed, Paige slowly silenced doubters with his improved shooting and distribution. But the naysayers across the nation still loomed in the offseason, waiting for the now-sophomore to stink it up.
Paige didn't offer up much of an "I told you so" moment for those folks. Instead, he set the nets on fire, going 17-of-32 from downtown in his first five games. He finally went cold from deep after a 32-point effort against Louisville to seal the Hall of Fame Tip-Off title for Carolina.
He has struggled at range since, with the exception of a 5-of-9 performance behind the arc in the loss to Texas. His potential game-tying shot rimmed out at the buzzer.
Paige has still found a way to score, though—even after becoming the opposing defenses' focal point and falling into a shooting slump. He attacks the basket regularly, taking it to the rim or dropping a floater over the bigs in the paint.
That has resulted in frequent trips to the charity stripe, where he has cashed in all season long. He leads the team with 60 made free throws, despite James Michael McAdoo attempting 39 more. He's dropped 26 freebies in a row and ranks eighth in the nation with a shooting percentage of 92.3 from the line.
That's helped him reach the 20-point mark five times in the first 11 games.
He currently leads the team with 19.4 points per game. If he keeps up this pace, he'll have the highest scoring average of any Tar Heel since Tyler Hansbrough averaged 20.7 in 2008-09.
So much for Paige not being a scorer.
Not only were folks concerned about the fact that North Carolina would be starting the season with only one true wing, but that player being J.P. Tokoto made it even worse. What they saw was a guy who shot 1-of-11 from downtown and struggled with jump shots in general as a freshman, meanwhile forgetting everything else he did.
Statistics don't necessarily reveal potential. That's what our eyes are for.
Tokoto showed promise with his vision, rebounding, on-ball defense and overall activity. We never saw him give up on a play as a freshman, gutting out every minute he was on the floor. As far as the shooting was concerned, I noted many times in previous articles dating back to last season that mechanics seemed to be his greatest flaw.
His release was usually a little late, and he was rarely balanced. He had a tendency to lean and spread his legs while shooting. Even after his extra workouts this summer and guidance from assistant coach Hubert Davis, he kept falling back into the same bad habits this season.
That put the young small forward right back on the hot seat. Tokoto was just 1-of-7 from downtown in his first five games, and he received the bulk of the blame for the Tar Heels' three-point loss to Belmont after going just 4-of-16 from the free-throw line.
It seemed most everyone was getting fed up with the sophomore.
Suddenly, as if he flipped a switch, Tokoto found his stroke and started letting the game come to him instead of forcing the issue. He has averaged 12.8 points per game on 56.9 percent shooting since putting up a four-spot against Louisville.
He's also 3-of-5 from downtown during that span. By no means is he setting the world on fire with threes, but you'll notice his body is now balanced and in perfect alignment. That has resulted in his improved efficiency.
Against Davidson, Tokoto showed off his multifaceted game with 22 points, 11 boards, two assists, four blocks and five steals. He was also 5-of-6 from the stripe and 1-of-2 behind the arc.
I'm sure there are some folks who will still want to focus on his three turnovers or the fact the Tar Heels were playing Davidson, but let's be real. The kid has game. He just needs some time to polish it.
Freshman center Kennedy Meeks was highly touted coming out of high school. Scouts and coaches regularly praised the big man out of Charlotte, N.C., for his incredibly sticky hands and an outlet pass good enough for comparisons to Kevin Love. He was also known for having a great nose for rebounds and excellent feet for a guy his size.
The issue was his size, though.
At 6'9", he doesn't tower over other collegiate centers, and he arrived on campus weighing a fleshy 317 pounds. That combination had many folks concerned about the impact he could make as a freshman.
In this case, I was actually a member of the party. I didn't see him being explosive enough after just a summer of training to haul in boards and score the way he has thus far. I also didn't think he could drop over 20 pounds in a few months, which played the biggest role in my assessment.
Either way, the baby-faced brute proved all of us wrong.
Meeks is averaging 8.3 points, 6.1 rebounds, 1.2 assists and 0.7 blocks per game in just 15.1 minutes of action. He makes up for his athletic limitations with sneaky positioning and a great feel for where the rebound is headed. He's also very talented when it comes to tipping the ball back in when in range.
When he gets fed in the post, he makes up for his lack of explosion and height with quick feet and pump fakes to shed defenders. And though his opportunities have been limited since, he absolutely buried Louisville with five or six of those deep outlet passes everyone raved about.
Meeks has helped turn the tide on a position that was in despair last season. Once again, the Tar Heels are formidable down low, and he is a major reason why they were able to keep their heads above water without the usual array of sharpshooters.
When Nate Britt committed to North Carolina as a junior in 2011, he was ranked No. 15 overall and the No. 2 point guard in the 2013 ESPN 100. Soon after, Britt was plagued with a string of injuries during his final two seasons of prep ball.
He never got back to being the dominant point he was as a freshman and sophomore at Gonzaga. In turn, he dropped completely out of the ESPN 100 as a senior at Oak Hill Academy. Many believed he had reached his peak and would never be the player they originally thought he could be.
Britt is slowly silencing the doubters with his early play.
By no means has he been the dynamic player that would warrant his highest ranking, but Paige wasn't that guy at this point last season either. Both were forced into starting roles as freshmen due to depth issues, and Britt has been much more effective in his first 11 games than Paige was.
A lot of that has to do with Paige's offseason tutelage—something he wasn't given as a freshman after Kendall Marshall's early departure. But Britt wouldn't play as well as he has without the tools necessary to do so.
He has excellent vision, he doesn't get too risky with his passing, and he is faster than most everyone on the floor. He seemed a little timid in his first few games, but he has really come on strong, attacking the basket and dropping floaters with both hands.
He came out of his shell against Michigan State, helping hold Keith Appling to 13 points while scoring 13 of his own. That included a few clutch free throws down the stretch to seal the win for the Tar Heels.
Over 25.2 minutes, the freshman is averaging 6.5 points, 2.8 assists, 1.9 rebounds and 1.5 steals per game.
Britt still has a long way to go in becoming a dominant point guard. He needs to get stronger, improve his shooting range and become a more aggressive passer. But it is clear that he didn't peak as a sophomore in high school.
Like the other three guys, and the team as a whole, Britt is much better than most anticipated in the preseason.