North Carolina fell on the wrong end of a great shot to close last season. It was the final stop in a terrific career for both Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson. Paige was the team’s leader, a fierce competitor who wanted the ball late in games. Johnson was an efficient scorer and elite rebounder. Without them this season, it was reasonable to assume the Tar Heels might take a slight step back.After seven games in 2016-17, it appears they might have improved, instead. The Tar Heels stormed through the field in the Maui Jim Maui Invitational this week, rolling to a 71-56 win over Wisconsin in the championship game. UNC is unbeaten and has vaulted to No. 2 in the KenPom Ratings, turning games against Indiana (Wednesday) and Kentucky (Dec. 17) into appointment television.
Here’s what we’ve learned about the Tar Heels:
The Tar Heels are hungry
UNC returned six of the nine players who felt the sharp sting of defeat when Villanova’s Kris Jenkins swished the game-winning 3-pointer in Houston last April. Isaiah Hicks was the defender closest to Jenkins when he received a pass from Ryan Arcidiacono on the right wing. Hicks hasn’t forgotten the feeling and wants to give coach Roy Williams a shot at a third national championship since 2005.
At times last season, Williams questioned his team’s effort and toughness. Those issues have faded.
“I would say the way last year ended, for us, we look at that as our motivation to get back,” Hicks told the Raleigh News & Observer in Maui. “We know it’s not going to be easy. Every game is not going to be easy — of course there’s going to be some games we’ve got to grind it out. But that’s the big thing. … We’ve just got to make sure [Williams] doesn’t have to coach [effort] — get him to coaching basketball.”
Joel Berry II is a strong candidate for the Naismith Trophy
The junior guard is shooting with ridiculous accuracy, hitting 68 percent of 2-pointers, 48 percent of 3-pointers and 93 percent of free throws. He also assists on one-fourth of the Heels’ field goals and draws 5.5 fouls per 40 minutes. Excelling in every aspect produces a 146.2 offensive rating, which leads the ACC players (minimum 20 percent usage).
He’s also the Tar Heels’ lockdown defender on the perimeter. Berry has been in involved in 81 possessions as the primary defender, per Synergy Sports Technology. Opposing players have scored 42 points on those possessions, shooting 28.8 percent from the field while committing a turnover 24.7 percent of the time.
The transition offense isn’t cooking — yet
Throughout his career at Kansas and Carolina, the Hall of Fame coach Roy Williams has preferred a lightning fast pace, running the "secondary break" offense invented by his mentor Dean Smith.
From 2004 through 2015, UNC finished top 25 in the nation in adjusted tempo. Last season marked a departure, as the Tar Heels finished 94th, making it easily the "slowest" team in Williams’ 28 full seasons as a coach.
UNC is 48th in adjusted tempo this season. Is Williams slowing (the pace) with age? Or does he feel a slightly more controlled attack best suits this current group of personnel? Those are interesting questions to follow this season.
Regardless, the fastbreak remains the focal point. Synergy categorizes each possession — pick and roll, spot-up, isolation, etc. — and 17 percent of UNC’s possessions this season have come in transition. Yet, the Tar Heels have produced only 103 points on those 110 trips (0.94 ppp), which places them in the bottom fourth of Division I. For comparison, last season the Tar Heels were 17th in the nation in transition (1.15) ppp.
It’s fair to assume UNC will iron out the wrinkles in its transition game and start scoring more efficiently. That must be frightening news for upcoming opponents, considering the Tar Heels are already third in the nation in adjusted offensive efficiency, per KenPom.
Justin Jackson continues to improveA complementary piece his first two seasons, small forward Justin Jackson has taken on a slightly larger role in the North Carolina offense (he’s taking 25.3 percent of the shots compared to 22.9 percent last season). He erupted for 27 points in the season opener against Tulane and has scored in double figures in every game since.
But a Big 12 coach said last spring that Jackson was “wired as a natural scorer.” Adding strength in the offseason has helped Jackson diversify his game.
“We’ve talked about being more aggressive with his play,” Williams said last week. “He does have his own personality that’s not going to change a lot. ... He’s who he is personality-wise, but he is being more vocal, more aggressive on the court — looking to score, taking the ball to the basket, getting to the backboard.”
Tony Bradley’s immediate impact helps offset the loss of Brice Johnson
The freshman center Tony Bradley is the perfect fit in the frontcourt. He’s leading the nation in offensive rebounding percentage — snagging 24.4 percent of the misses when he’s in the game. And, he’s a terrific finisher, knocking down 66 percent. Bradley plays roughly half the game for UNC and combines with Kennedy Meeks and Hicks (who is 2nd in the nation in offensive rebounding percentage) to form a three-man rotation capable of matching any frontcourt it faces.
It’s late November, but UNC looks sharp and confident. The Tar Heels have sufficient size, scoring and experience. Theo Pinson, the team’s sixth man last season and best passer, could return from a foot injury during conference action. He’ll make a deep team deeper. UNC fits the statistical profile of a national championship contender — it is top 10 in adjusted offensive efficiency and adjusted defensive efficiency, per KenPom. This batch of Tar Heels won championships in the ACC regular season, ACC tournament and NCAA East Regional last season. They have the firepower to add the missing trophy next April.