UNC Basketball: 5 Burning Questions for Remainder of Tar Heels' Season
North Carolina is starting to hit its stride with nine wins in a row, but there are still plenty of question marks as this team tries to contend for a national title.
The Tar Heels have faced some tough challenges in ACC play, although that hasn't stopped them from getting out to a 5-0 start in conference. With quality wins over Maryland, UCLA and others, North Carolina is clearly one of the best teams in the country and one of the favorites to win it all in April.
However, no one in college basketball is perfect, and a lot of uncertainty still awaits in the months ahead. We don't yet know if UNC has what it takes to keep winning or whether other teams will provide a bigger challenge.
Here is a look at the most pressing questions surrounding the program at about the halfway mark of the season.
Can Defense Play at a Championship Level?
This has been a question all year long for North Carolina, and it hasn't yet been answered.
There is little doubt the Tar Heels have one of the top offenses in the country, with six players currently averaging double-digit points, but it won't matter if they can't defend at a high level. Getting stops will be the key against elite teams, and North Carolina hasn't proved this ability with consistency.
According to KenPom.com, the team currently ranks just 65th in the country in adjusted defense. Opponents are shooting 38.2 percent from three-point range and opposing guards have seemingly had little problem driving into the lane and producing from there.
North Carolina has played much better defensively in the past two games against Syracuse and North Carolina State, although Trevor Cooney still had 27 points for the Orange.
If the effort and intensity don't improve overall, this team will have a disappointing end to the year.
Can Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks Coexist?
Brice Johnson turned into a legitimate superstar when Kennedy Meeks went down with a knee injury. In seven games with Meeks out of the lineup, Johnson averaged an incredible 21 points and 12.4 rebounds per game with four double-doubles.
Meeks returned on a limited basis against Syracuse but was at full strength against North Carolina State with 23 points on 10-of-16 shooting.
The problem is Johnson had to take a backseat with just six points and two rebounds.
These are clearly two elite players, and along with Isaiah Hicks, they make up arguably the top frontcourt in the entire country. North Carolina is clearly better when both players are healthy and able to dominate offensively, defensively and on the glass. The question is whether they can succeed together.
This is a tougher challenge with both players at their best working in the paint, but Johnson and Meeks will have to find a way to coexist in order to get the most out of this lineup.
Is Outside Shooting a Problem?
Marcus Paige is the team's best three-point shooter, but even he has struggled lately. A 5-of-9 showing from three-point range against Florida State was huge, but take that away and he has made just 4-of-24 (16.7 percent) from deep in his last six games.
As a team, North Carolina has made just 32.7 percent of its three-point shots, including just 26.9 percent in conference games. This isn't going to get it done.
Although most players on the team are at their best when attacking the basket, the one-dimensional offense is easier for opponents to defend. Without the team even being a threat from beyond the arc, defenses will start stacking the paint and forcing the Tar Heels to shoot over them.
Paige, Joel Berry, Nate Britt and Theo Pinson are all capable of performing better from deep. They just need to prove it in the upcoming games.
Will Defensive Rebounding Improve?
North Carolina clearly has a lot of talent in the low post, and one of the team's biggest strengths is the ability to crash the boards and get extra opportunities on the offensive end.
The problem has been playing at the same level on the defensive end.
North Carolina State was able to stay competitive against the Tar Heels thanks to 16 offensive rebounds, equal to half of the total opportunities, per Sports-Reference.com. Syracuse also finished with 13 offensive boards while getting plenty of second-chance points in a close loss.
This is simply embarrassing for a team of this ability.
UNC surprisingly did well in this area against an elite offensive rebounding team in Georgia Tech, but the squad has seemingly gotten lazy at boxing out in recent weeks. Against opponents like Duke or Louisville, this will be an even bigger issue.
The Tar Heels have their problems defensively, and these are only exacerbated when they don't come up with a rebound. This has to end if they want to keep winning.
Who Is the Biggest Threat in the ACC?
This isn't necessarily a question about the Tar Heels but really whether anyone will be able to beat them.
North Carolina is the only undefeated team remaining in the ACC with a 5-0 record, while a few of those with one loss are a bit of a surprise, like Clemson, Pittsburgh and Virginia Tech. The top contenders coming into the year like Virginia, Duke, Notre Dame and Miami all have at least two losses in conference already.
While there is clearly a long way to go in the year, UNC has a big early advantage over the rest of the challengers.
At this point, Louisville might be the toughest competition thanks to an elite defense and a strong frontcourt that can match up with the Tar Heels. Still, it remains to be seen which of the squads can emerge as a real threat.
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