With its combination of a top-five recruiting class and a wealth of returning talent, UNC basketball stands to be among the deepest teams in the nation in 2014-15. Roy Williams has shown that he’ll find playing time for lots of guys when he has the personnel, inviting the question of just how many Tar Heels will be playing regularly next fall.
Of the seven players who earned double-digit minutes on last year’s roster, five are back for another go-round in Chapel Hill. Kennedy Meeks and Marcus Paige are sure to retain their starting jobs, and J.P. Tokoto will likely do the same, especially as far as the season opener is concerned. Brice Johnson, meanwhile, is set to replace James Michael McAdoo in the starting five. Nate Britt, however, will be staying on the bench as the backup to Wooden Award hopeful Paige.
That leaves one starting spot open for Williams’ explosive freshman class, up for grabs between small forwards Justin Jackson and Theo Pinson. The runner-up in that competition will immediately become a top reserve, with either player equipped to earn extra minutes behind shooting guard Tokoto, while Pinson (pictured) might factor into the power forward mix as well.
The Jackson-Pinson combo brings the Tar Heels’ core back to seven men, but it’s unlikely that Williams will keep his rotation that tight again next season. Partly, that’s a matter of necessity—Meeks’ suspect endurance will require added contributions from the bench up front—but mostly it’s a function of the number of promising players clamoring for opportunities.
On the front line, three veterans who played sporadically in 2013-14 will be battling for a bigger share of next year’s pie. Jackson Simmons (heading into his senior year), Joel James (junior) and Isaiah Hicks (sophomore) might reprise last season’s second-unit-by-committee approach, but the odds are that one of them will manage to play his way into a leading bench role this time around.
Hicks, hoping to make the huge leap in performance that often follows a player’s freshman season, stands the best chance of setting himself apart. The most celebrated recruit in last year’s class, he has great athleticism (at 6’8”, 220 pounds) and solid defensive instincts. If his offensive game doesn’t measure up, though, the hulking James could use his 280 pounds to do a fine imitation of the 290-pound Meeks.
Who will have the best year as a bench player for UNC?
There’s less of a logjam in the backcourt, but the top contender for playing time is a significant one: Joel Berry, the third member of the incoming freshman class. The 6’0” point guard is renowned for his leadership ability at a young age, but he’s not much better as a scorer than rising sophomore Britt, with whom he'll have to compete for playing time.
Britt, having already proven himself in Williams’ offense, will gobble up the few minutes that Paige doesn’t play at the point, leaving only token shooting guard opportunities for the freshman. While Hicks has a great chance to expand the UNC rotation to eight players, Berry won’t be able to bring the total to nine.