North Carolina has spent the past two seasons trying to overcome personnel losses that forced coach Roy Williams to keep reshaping the way his team played.
The Tar Heels shouldn't have that problem this year, not with replenished perimeter depth that has them equipped for a run at the Atlantic Coast Conference title.
For junior Marcus Paige, that means a run at the Final Four, too.
"This team is capable," Paige said. "We have the players, we have the chemistry, we just need to apply what the coaches are teaching us."
The Tar Heels (24-10, 13-5 ACC) have plenty to build on, returning an all-ACC performer in Paige, improved juniors Brice Johnson and J.P. Tokoto, slimmed-down big man Kennedy Meeks and adding three McDonald's All-American freshmen. That should give the Tar Heels plenty of bodies to play the fast tempo Williams wants and maybe even extend their defense while also finding consistent inside production to go with it.
"We can be a lot more aggressive this year, guarding the ball, going for steals, whatever it is," Tokoto said.
This year's roster is at least more settled than what UNC has faced in the previous two years. For the 2012-13 season, the Tar Heels were regrouping after losing four NBA first-round draft picks and eventually had to go to a four-guard lineup late that year.
Last year, the Tar Heels never had top player P.J. Hairston and played the first nine games without senior guard Leslie McDonald due to NCAA eligibility concerns, leaving UNC thin on the wing all year.
They'll have more options this time around. Williams could play three point guards together in Paige, sophomore Nate Britt and freshman Joel Berry II. He could play two wings in Tokoto and freshman Theo Pinson for more perimeter defense.
Meanwhile, 6-foot-8 rookie Justin Jackson has the skill to play on the perimeter and the length to help inside.
"I think there is more balance," Williams said. "Now we've got to play like it."
Here are things to watch with the Tar Heels for the 2014-15 season:
WHOLE-GAME PAIGE? Marcus Paige made a habit out of starting slow but coming up big in the second half last year, so much so that his mother referred to him as "The One-Half Paige Wonder." It would certainly help if Paige could get rolling earlier this year, a riddle that neither he nor his Hall of Fame coach managed to solve last year.
JACKSON'S GAME: Freshman Justin Jackson has been impressive in his two public performances this month, scoring 17 points with the winning late basket in the team's intrasquad scrimmage then scoring a team-high 18 points in Friday's exhibition win against Fayetteville State. "He doesn't take bad shots, doesn't force anything and he can knock down open shots," Paige said.
MEEKS INSIDE: Coach Roy Williams loves sophomore Kennedy Meeks' potential to control the boards and his passing ability to jumpstart the break. That could improve with Meeks down about 45 pounds to 270 from when he arrived at UNC. Last year he had trouble finishing inside against long-armed defenders, but Williams is hoping Meeks' improved conditioning will allow him to play longer stretches and make him more explosive around the rim and on the glass.
PAINT PLAY: The team will need reliable inside play. Sophomore Kennedy Meeks or junior Brice Johnson are best positioned to replace some of the scoring lost when James Michael McAdoo headed to the NBA. Joel James and Desmond Hubert provide defense and rebounding. And Williams is looking for sophomore Isaiah Hicks to become more aggressive. "I don't care if it's Brice or Isaiah or who it is," Williams said, "but somebody's got to step forward."
A LONGER MARCH: The Tar Heels have fallen on the opening weekend of the NCAA tournament for two straight years. UNC hasn't been to the Final Four since winning the title in 2009, with the 2011 and 2012 teams falling in regional finals. The pieces are there for a deeper run this season if the Tar Heels avoid injuries and develop as Williams expects.
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