CHAPEL HILL — North Carolina coach Roy Williams is ready to go big again.
The Tar Heels used a four-guard lineup over the final 13 games last year to spark a run that carried them back to the NCAA tournament. But the Hall of Fame coach is hoping another year of experience for the big men who struggled last year and the addition of two McDonald’s All-Americans up front means the Tar Heels will have better production inside this season.
“We do need the big guys to score inside,” Williams said. “… I really think our best teams have always been when we’ve had good balance that we can score inside and score from the 3-point line, score on the break and score in set offense. Sot that’s our challenge to be able to do all that.”
The Tar Heels (25-11) won nine of 13 to close the year after moving P.J. Hairston into the four-guard lineup, reaching the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament final before falling in the NCAA third round against Kansas. That lineup change followed months of inconsistent play by freshmen Brice Johnson and Joel James, and sophomore Desmond Hubert up front.
With the additions of Isaiah Hicks and Kennedy Meeks inside, the Tar Heels have more options to play alongside junior forward James Michael McAdoo.
Hairston was the team’s leading scorer at nearly 15 points per game, though he’s facing a suspension after a trouble-filled offseason that included being twice cited by authorities while driving a rental car linked to a felon. Once he’s back, the Tar Heels — picked to finish third in the ACC behind Duke and Syracuse — are hoping it won’t take long to find a reliable inside presence to balance their perimeter scoring punch.
“Some of our guys are still young, so it’s going to take some games to really gauge how far we can go,” sophomore point guard Marcus Paige said. “But I think we have the talent and the versatility in our lineup to be a top-five team that can make a run at the Final Four.”
Here are five things to watch during North Carolina’s basketball season:
NCAA CONCERNS: Hairston’s status isn’t the only unresolved question hanging over the Tar Heels. Williams said last week that the school has conferred with the NCAA about concerns over senior guard Leslie McDonald, raising the question of whether the outside shooter could be sidelined for some period along with Hairston. McDonald has averaged about six points over his career and is in line for a larger role with Reggie Bullock’s departure for the NBA.
REBOUNDING: Last year, as a result of the four-guard lineup, the Tar Heels failed to finish either first or second in ACC rebounding margin since Williams returned to his alma mater before the 2003-04 season. The 6-foot-9, 274-pound Meeks could offer the most immediate help with grabbing rebounds that spark UNC’s transition attack. He had 16 points and 12 rebounds according to unofficial stats during the team’s public scrimmage Friday night.
PAIGE AT THE POINT: Paige’s improved play through the season’s final month was a big reason why the smaller lineup worked so well. Paige averaged about 10 points and shot 44 percent from 3-point range over the final dozen games, including a strong performance against Miami in the ACC tournament final. Paige has added some muscle to better handle physical play this season and needs to pick up where he left off in March.
MCADOO’S NEXT MOVE: The 6-9 McAdoo has flirted with entering the NBA draft after each of the past two seasons, but he’s back with another chance to bolster his pro prospects. Williams has talked about playing McAdoo at both forward positions, though he lacks a true back-to-the-basket game and some polish on the perimeter. If McAdoo can make a leap forward in either area, it would make the Tar Heels even tougher.
EARLY RETURNS: The Tar Heels could have their confidence tested in a demanding start to the schedule. By mid-December, UNC will have faced NCAA tournament participants Belmont and Davidson, made a trip to Michigan State and had a visit from Kentucky. There’s also the chance of a matchup with reigning national champion Louisville in the Hall of Fame Tip-off Tournament in November.
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