It has been an up-and-down season for the North Carolina Tar Heels. The nonconference schedule brought with it wins over the top three teams in the preseason polls. However, UNC also lost nonconference games to three unranked squads: Belmont, UAB and Texas (at the time the Longhorns were not Top 25 material).
Once ACC play got underway, things were equally as rocky. The Heels began their conference slate with three straight losses. Since then, they've gone 6-1 and moved up to fifth in the conference standings.
With the change in recent success, there have also been changes in Roy Williams' starting lineups. Nate Britt hasn't started a game since the loss at Syracuse back on January 11. The move to Leslie McDonald as the starting guard opposite Marcus Paige coincides perfectly with the team's recent string of six wins in its past seven contests.
Freshman Kennedy Meeks is also a newly instated starter for the Heels. The last game someone other than Meeks started at center was January 20, a loss at Virginia. In fact, since Meeks became the team's starting center, UNC hasn't lost, going 5-0.
It seems that Williams has certainly found the starting lineup he is most comfortable with going forward. Although, not all of the starters are playing as well as the team's recent record would indicate.
Season Stats: 17.0 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 4.6 apg, 42.7 FG%
Last Five Games: 18.0 ppg, 6.0 apg
At the beginning of the season, Marcus Paige seemed like a Player of the Year candidate, at least within the conference. Since his hot November, his shooting touch has dropped off a bit from three-point range as well as overall.
However, in recent games, his scoring has picked back up after a January lull. More importantly, Paige is limiting his threes and getting to the line a tad more. As the best free-throw shooter in the conference, Paige needs to be taking more free throws than his season average of 4.6 per game. In his last three games, Paige has gotten to the line 20 total times.
Overall, Paige has been the steadiest player on the team and the team's MVP from Day 1.
Season Stats: 10.9 ppg, 2.1 rpg, 37.6 FG%, 30.9 3PT%
Last Five Games: 13.0 ppg, 2.4 rpg, 31.0 3PT%
Although his counting stats are up slightly these past few games, Leslie McDonald has been a rather atrocious shooting guard. After returning from a nine-game suspension, McDonald was given a long leash to get himself back into playing shape and shooting shape.
It hasn't happened.
Even though Williams put him into the starting lineup and the team has taken off, McDonald's personal contributions have been very limited.
His shot selection is very poor, as he often launches ill-advised threes. Although he is a bigger frame and more imposing defender than Nate Britt, McDonald offers little else to the team besides his outside shooting. And his deep shot has stagnated at its already poor mark.
While it is normal for a coach to stick with a hot hand, the situation with McDonald is an odd one. He is anything but hot, yet the team is playing much better with him in the starting lineup.
Season Stats: 9.0 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 2.7 apg, 1.7 spg
Last Five Games: 6.6 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 2.6 spg
In the case of J.P. Tokoto, the numbers do not tell the whole story. He has comfortably been Carolina's third-best player for a while now, even without scoring much.
He is far and away the team's best defender, a trend that has been steadily going up in recent weeks. His 91.0 defensive rating is remarkable. It is more than seven points better than any other Tar Heel backcourt player. It is also good for fifth in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
His steal percentage of 4.0 puts him third overall in the ACC, trailing only the two Syracuse guards.
And on the offensive end, although Tokoto still struggles with his shot, his is becoming a more useful player. His last game was a revelation. He attempted 13 shots, and although two of them were missed threes, it seemed as though the other 11 were all within 10 feet of the hoop.
Tokoto's strength is his athleticism and taking the ball to the bucket. His poor free-throw shooting had been limiting his aggressiveness, but driving to the basket and getting fouled is still a good play, even if he will rarely make both free throws.
Season Stats: 15.0 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 1.5 spg, 1.0 bpg, 47.6 FG%
Last Five Games: 17.0 ppg, 8.2 rpg
James Michael McAdoo may finally be realizing his basketball destiny. He is not a go-to scorer or a ball-dominating big man. Instead, he's an incredibly effective second scorer who can beat most other power forwards with his quickness and athleticism.
McAdoo has scored in double figures in 16 consecutive games. He is a good rebounder, solid defender and is superb at getting to the foul line. While teammate Marcus Paige leads the conference in free-throw percentage, McAdoo actually leads in attempts.
This has been somewhat problematic as McAdoo has been the poster boy for UNC's poor free-throw shooting. A couple of its early season losses came strictly because of failures from the line. However, last game saw McAdoo go 6-of-6 from the charity stripe. If it was any indication of something he may have changed in his preparation or execution, opponents should be terrified.
But even without elite free-throw shooting, the rest of McAdoo's game is coming along nicely, and he is developing into the epitome of a second banana.
Season Stats: 7.4 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 53.7 FG%, 16.2 mpg
Last Five Games: 7.6 ppg, 7.4 rpg
For most of the season, it was impossible to look at Kennedy Meeks' numbers without projecting them out to assume for more minutes played. He topped the 20-minute mark in just one game from November through the middle of January.
Once Williams placed him in the starting lineup, though, Meeks' rebounding numbers have soared, and his scoring has remained steady. However, the minutes have begun to creep back down again.
After three consecutive 20-plus minute games, Meeks has only seen 43 combined minutes of action in his last three games. Conditioning is still an issue for him even while foul trouble is not.
North Carolina is a better team with Kennedy Meeks on the floor. Hopefully by March the young man will be able to supply Williams with more than 20 minutes every single night, and we can stop projecting his numbers out and actually just look at what he is producing.