Even amidst an academic scandal, the expectations are high for the 2014-15 North Carolina Tar Heels.
2013-14 Result: North Carolina finished 24-10 with a heartbreaking loss to Iowa State in the Round of 32 due in large part to a collective defensive brain fart as time expired. That brain fart was not a one-time occurrence, as the 2013-14 team proved to be quite gassy. While North Carolina had the best resume of wins in the entire country, which included victories over Kentucky, Louisville, Michigan State and Duke, the Tar Heels inexplicably lost to UAB, Belmont, Wake Forest and Miami. Somebody give North Carolina antacids.
Key Returners: Marcus Paige, Kennedy Meeks, Brice Johnson, J.P. Tokoto, Isaiah Hicks, Jackson Simmons
Key Departures: James Michael McAdoo, Leslie McDonald
Key Additions: Justin Jackson, Joel Berry, Theo Pinson
Team MVP: Paige. Paige will parlay his All-ACC accolades as a sophomore into a Cousy Award as a junior. In the second half of basketball games in ACC play, Paige averaged nearly 11 PPG. His 31-point second half barrage to beat NC State on the road was legendary. Paige boasted averages of 17.5 PPG and 4.2 APG while connecting on 86 three-pointers. If Roy Williams’ coaching prowess is as good as advertised, he will remind Paige early and often that there is a first half in college basketball games.
Defensive MVP: Tokoto. The 6-foot-6 shooting guard/small forward is a human highlight reel as he attacks the basket and an ESPN “Not Top 10” candidate every time he steps to the free throw line. That said, there is not another perimeter defender on the Tar Heels who can harass a ball-handler like Tokoto. His ball-pressure should make post-entry passes more difficult, thereby saving Johnson and Meeks from foul trouble. Tokoto averaged 1.6 steals per game last season and proved to be a formidable rebounder for his size, averaging nearly six rebounds per game.
X-Factor: Simmons. The popular choice is Hicks, who is poised for a breakout season because of a move back to his natural PF position, but Simmons is the glue. Simmons blocks out aggressively and is the only guy willing to dive for loose balls. With Johnson’s foul issues, Simmons will be called on during crucial times, even if it is only for a minute or two. He makes few mistakes and can keep the ship afloat, which will buy the Tar Heels an opportunity to rest Johnson and Meeks.
Why North Carolina Will Win the National Title: This Tar Heel team is deep. Coach Williams will play 10 or 11 guys per game. This Tar Heel team is athletic. Paige, Tokoto, Johnson, Berry, Britt, Pinson and Jackson (who won the Tar Heels’ preseason mile run with a five-minute mile) can fast-break for days. Meeks no longer looks like Fat Albert, and even though he is still not fleet-footed, he is the best outlet passer in the country. North Carolina also has big-game experience. This team has plenty of returners and knows what it takes to compete against elite competition.
Why North Carolina Will Not Win the National Title: Johnson. It is unfair to place the blame for a team’s failure on one person in particular. Johnson will likely average a double-double this year, but he is incredibly foul prone. Johnson hacks so much he could have been Christian Bale’s understudy in “American Psycho.” Last season, Johnson averaged three fouls per game in just 19 minutes per game. At that pace, he will be fouling out with 10 minutes remaining on the clock. Johnson needs to stay out of foul trouble because (with the exception of Meeks) he is the only player who can score in the post. Yes, the Tar Heels have plenty of big men, including Hicks, Simmons, Joel James and Desmond Hubert. However, none of those guys are proven scorers.
Prediction: North Carolina will win the ACC regular season crown, lose in the ACC Tournament Semifinals and lose in the Final Four. North Carolina has the elite-level point guard necessary to get to the Final Four but lacks the free-throw shooting to claim the National Title.
Zachary Fowler, Esquire is an ACC Basketball Blogger for RantSports.com