It seems to be an odd time to critique the North Carolina Tar Heels (15-7, 5-4 ACC). After all, they have won four straight and five out of their last six games. That's quite a turnaround for a UNC team that started the ACC slate 1-4—especially when you consider the fact they won those five games by an average margin of 13.8 points.
But much of that is due to a boost in the Tar Heels' intensity level—not to mention the level of competition. In order to come out victorious against Pitt and in both games against Duke, the stars of this team will have to fill the holes in their games.
I've provided one critique for each of Carolina's top six players that will keep the Tar Heels in the win column for weeks to come.
Of all the Tar Heels' stars, Marcus Paige is the toughest to critique. He's an extremely intelligent point guard who seems to do just about everything right the majority of the time he is on the floor.
However, there is one glaring hole in his game he could improve: getting into the paint.
Until he reaches desperation mode, at which time he is willing to do just about anything to put points on the board for his team, he seems perfectly content setting up camp on the perimeter. There is no doubt the Tar Heels need some help with threes, as they are extremely limited in weaponry from that range. Paige has accounted for 57.6 percent of the team's made trifectas.
In fact, almost half of the sophomore's attempts have come from that range.
Perhaps some of that is carryover from his time at 2-guard. But now that a majority of his minutes are coming at the point, he needs to start honing in on the paint, where he can drop one of the prettiest floaters we've seen in Chapel Hill since the days of Ed Cota.
Better yet, he can get the other guys some easy looks by distributing the rock when he draws the defense.
The Tar Heels need as much help as they can get in the half court, and much of the weight should land on the shoulders of their floor general. Paige needs to step up his game and become a bigger factor in the paint. He certainly has the handles, the floater and the passing ability to make defenses pay.
It took Leslie McDonald a while to get back in the flow after sitting on the bench for the first nine games of the season, but it seems he is finally coming around. He's finishing at the rim now and has been a great addition to the Tar Heels' transition game.
He's even knocking down his open threes again. The problem is his shot selection.
When McDonald is set, he's about as good as anyone on the floor at sinking the trey. However, many of his three-point attempts have come off the bounce or after receiving the pass in motion. When that happens, he has a tendency to shoot before he squares up.
He has also been blocked on multiple occasions, thinking he can get off the shot before the defender recovers. There was one shot against Maryland that was just awful. Had he pump faked to draw contact, he'd be taking three shots from the free-throw line instead of having the ball swatted back into his grill.
It's probably a case of him desperately wanting to make a difference for a team that is fighting to get back into the ACC race. It's hard to knock him for trying.
What would help the team the most, though, is McDonald becoming more selective with his shots to avoid empty possessions. He's a much better three-point shooter than his current stats would indicate (31.6 percent). As he becomes more selective, we'll see that number climb.
J.P. Tokoto catches a lot of flak on a weekly basis for his errant passes. When a player isn't a particularly great scorer, mistakes are often magnified.
Believe it or not, he is a darn good passer with outstanding vision for a small forward. He averages 2.7 assists per game and dropped six dimes on the Maryland Terrapins this past Tuesday. He also had three turnovers in that game, which has been a problem throughout the season.
Tokoto averages 2.1 turnovers per contest on the season for a 1.3-1 assist-to-turnover ratio.
There are two major reasons for this: telegraphing his passes and trying to thread the needle.
When a big man fronts his defender, there is a limited amount of time before the door closes on feeding the post. Tokoto tends to eye his teammate for a good second or two before delivering the bounce pass. That gives the defender time to recover and poke the ball loose before the intended recipient can secure the rock.
Tokoto also has a bit of a gunslinger mentality. He feels he can fit the ball through a cracked window. He'll try to stick it between two or three defenders in transition or drives, and often the pass is long enough for the defenses to once again recover and pick it off.
In these cases, his intentions are good. There is absolutely nothing selfish about Tokoto's play. If he can cut back on these miscues, though, his turnovers will go down and he'll make the most out of his natural abilities.
James Michael McAdoo has really improved his game this season—especially over the last few games. Unfortunately, one of the biggest gripes about his game will still pop up just when everything seems to be going right for the junior power forward.
Sometimes McAdoo gets stuck in warp speed and can't seem to turn it off. As soon as he gets the ball in his hands, he'll try to take it to the bucket no matter who is in front of him or how well the defense is positioned.
It's a shame, too, because when he is calculated, he's been one of the most efficient scorers this season. But when that throttle kicks in, he gets out of control and either loses the ball or has it swatted at the rim. He has been bailed out by fouls on occasion, but he can't count on any sort of consistency from these referees.
Unless the clock is winding down, there is no harm in pulling out or taking the time to at least assess the situation. He's quicker than most of the defenders he'll face, so he can still take them on the bounce if the opportunity arises.
This was a huge problem for him last season, but to his credit, he has been able to keep his fingers off the thruster for the most part this year. That's why his field-goal percentage has gone up and his turnovers have been reduced in 2013-14.
Kennedy Meeks has had a heck of a freshman campaign for a guy many thought would be riding the bench for the majority of 2013-14 due to his weight and conditioning. He's averaging 7.6 points and 6.2 rebounds over 16.4 minutes per game.
He's an excellent passer, has great hands and has plenty of weight to throw around at 290 pounds. The problem is that he doesn't use his mass to his advantage often enough.
At 6'9" with very little lift, Meeks doesn't have much of a vertical advantage—if any—over opposing centers. He has been forced to utilize the head fake to draw contact and keep defenders from swatting his shot.
That was effective for a while, until it became obvious he was going to fake before shooting every time he is under the basket. This is why you'll see Meeks do two or three pump fakes at a time in an attempt to draw contact.
What he needs to do is use his strong, wide body to shield the ball when he puts it up. If the defender is to his right, he needs to go up with his left hand. Most of these athletic bigs will have enough lift to go over the top without fouling when he is close to the rim. But if he spaces himself well enough and points his off-shoulder at the defender, it will be nearly impossible for anyone to swat the ball without getting a piece of Meeks first.
This isn't to say he should quit utilizing the head fake. That will become a very important part of his repertoire over the years. But doing it every time just makes it too easy on the defense.
There is no doubt Brice Johnson is one of Carolina's best offensive weapons this season. He's right up there with Paige and McAdoo, averaging roughly one point every two minutes of action. He went 8-of-8 from the floor against Maryland for 19 points—over just 22 minutes.
And if he played defense as well as he did against the Terps in every game, he'd probably see a lot more playing time. He was extremely active and had very few mental lapses.
Unfortunately, prior to that game, his defense left much to be desired. Johnson has a tendency to become complacent on the defensive end, missing rotations and finding himself in no man's land. That's resulted in wide-open jumpers and easy drives to the basket by the opposing teams. He has managed to make up for some of that with his athleticism and blocking ability when he recovers.
Despite playing just 19.7 minutes per game, he leads the team with an average of 1.2 blocks.
If he was able to keep his head on straight each and every game, we just might see the emergence of the next John Henson. Hopefully, we'll see more of what he did against Maryland in the future.