Even with a healthy marcus paige, north carolina is far from a clear-cut no.1 team – the washington post

Marcus Paige will miss the start of the season with a broken hand. (Harry How/Getty Images)

For the majority of the summer, North Carolina was regarded as the team to beat in 2015-16. This feeling was confirmed earlier this week when the AP awarded the Tar Heels the top spot in its preseason top 25 poll.

We are entering a college basketball season where there are loads of really good teams, but not many (if any) truly

dominant ones. While UNC isn’t a juggernaut, the squad — which returns 89 percent of its scoring from last season — checks off enough boxes to be acknowledged by most as the closest to a consensus No. 1.

But then came news that Marcus Paige, the Tar Heels’ offensively electric, do-it-all guard broke a bone in his right (non-shooting) hand that’ll require him to sit until at least early December, and there was cause for concern on Tobacco Road.

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Without Paige’s ability to not only create for himself within the tightest of confines and convert from well-beyond the arc but to also find open teammates, UNC becomes a bit pedestrian. But even with him in the lineup, North Carolina may struggle more than you’d expect for a squad regarded as the nation’s best entering the season.

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Let’s start with the basics. The 2013-14 and ’14-’15 UNC squads were, statistically, essentially the same. The teams followed a tried-and-true Roy Williams’ blueprint for success: score at the rim, and in transition. The team isn’t transcendent defensively — UNC did just enough to get by in both campaigns, allowing slightly more than one point per possession.

So why is this season’s squad, which returns every Tar Heel but J. P. Tokoto and Desmond Hubert, suddenly the best team in the land?

Certainly one could make an argument the squad is more mature and has developed over the offseason. Justin Jackson is primed for a breakthrough season — the sophomore worked out with John Lucas in Houston this past summer, and the hope is he’ll expand his game from one largely dependent on others creating for him to a skillset where he uses his soft touch and uber athleticism to attack the basket in various ways. Nate Britt and Joel Berry return, and both show promise to either lead the UNC attack (which will make Paige’s duties much more streamlined) while also providing a relief valve for the team’s bigs. And Theo Pinson should build off the promise he displayed during the first half of 2015 before a foot injury sidelined him.

Kennedy Meeks and Brice Johnson (and Isaiah Hicks, in a reserve role) form a potent interior scoring combination. Both are efficient on the block, and the two roam the interior corralling missed shots and converting attempts with little more than a dribble and drop step. Throw in a decent recruiting class — Kenny Williams is the lone newcomer of note who will likely see major minutes — and the team is laden with upperclassmen.

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But, in reality, there is little to distinguish this team from the Tar Heels of the past two seasons. Britt and Berry haven’t shown they are capable of running point guard consistently. Per Hoop-Math. com, the two ranked fourth and eighth, respectively, in terms of assist distribution. Britt, a junior, still struggles with his own offense, which in turn impacts his ability to find fellow Heels for open looks. Berry appears to have pivoted midway through his freshman season, notching 27 assists over the last fourteen games, but it is still largely unknown whether he’ll parlay those improvements into his sophomore season.

There is also the issue of perimeter shooting, an area where Paige stands alone. Williams knows that is not his team’s strong suit — UNC’s three-point field goal attempts percentage has ranked among the lowest in the nation the past two years — but that lack of long-range touch allows teams to pack the interior and hamstring North Carolina’s explosiveness. Paige is the only Tar Heel to attempt more than 100 threes, and even Jackson and Britt, who attempted the second and third-most on the team, languish. Shooting was clearly a focal point of offseason work, but it is not clear if that translates to official play.

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The inability of the backcourt to improve in quantum, rather than incremental, leaps continues to affect the team, regardless of Paige’s health. If Britt and Berry don’t make the expected progression, Williams has to turn to Paige to shoulder both guard responsibilities — which he can do, and at a very high and efficient level — but then UNC isn’t much different from past years. They are just a bit older, a bit more experienced, but still dependent on Paige to carry an offensive burden. A quick side-note: for a team with this much potential, it’s puzzling how little North Carolina gets to the free throw stripe. No Tar Heel drew more than five fouls per 40 minutes a year ago, and even bigs like Meeks and Johnson are free throw wallflowers.

The biggest issue detracting from UNC’s preseason hype though is their defense. The team is far removed from the seasons when North Carolina held both non-conference and ACC foes under one point per possession, and what is troubling about this group is their lack of consistent stinginess has begun to affect what is UNC’s most effective trait — its efficiency in the open court.

At the moment, UNC’s defensive profile is heavy on patrolling the glass, not applying that much perimeter pressure, and holding opponents to low-30-percent shooting from beyond the arc. But that three-point shooting is a statistical canard; Ken Pomeroy and others have demonstrated that three-point defense is less indicative of a team’s actual defense and more a reflection of an opponent failing to make shots. Translation: those same shots that missed in as season ago could go in this season.

And while UNC is so skilled grabbing offensive boards, they are less skilled on the other side of the ball. Meeks and Johnson are essentially the team’s only two defensive rebounders, and North Carolina still allowed opposing squads to grab nearly a third of their misses. When Meeks and Johnson aren’t on the court — both still have a penchant for drawing (needless) fouls — the team struggles to limit those second chance opportunities, which affects their transition game.

According to Hoop-Math. com, the team’s effective field goal percentage in transition was 57 percent in 2015, and only a quarter of its attempts were on the fast break (which is the lowest rate in the four seasons Hoop-Math has been collecting data).

With or without Paige, North Carolina will still be a strong team, a contender in a tight race for the ACC title, and a team that can go far in March. But anyone buying wholesale into the hype that a Paige-led Tar Heel squad is the clear-cut favorite for the national championship is likely to be disappointed.

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