The Long Road Ahead

North Carolina v Duke
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UNC  13:2…………17:2 (when posted)

It’s been a long road for the Tarheels since the heartbreak of their near-championship run last April.  There aren’t many things that are harder in the sports universe than coming so close to the title only for it to be ripped away at the last possible instant.  Not since Lloyd Christmas has a man so violently ripped the heart out of someone’s chest the way Kris Jenkins did it to UNC a year ago.

The only thing tougher than losing a title is coming back just as strong if not stronger the following year.  This experienced bunch from Chapel Hill is doing their damnest to do just that, and currently standing as the 3rd ranked favorite to cut down the nets in March I’d say I like their chances.

Juniors Justin Jackson (6’8) and Joel Berry (6’0) lead the 5th ranked offense (via Kenpom) as a scintillating duo.  Jackson is money from 3, upping his usage and percentage from last year big time (3 attempts per game to 6.7, 29% from 3 to 39%).  At his considerable height and length, his long range success has expanded the rest of his game and allowed him to flourish as defenders need to be extremely wary of him on the perimeter.  The junior has now accelerated his offensive efficiency from 146th a year ago to 68th in the nation this year (scoring 18.6 ppg).

Scoring point guard Joel Berry can really do it all and has an unbelievable ability to finish at the rim for his size.  He’s averaging 14.9 pts, 4 assists, 3.2 reb and 1.5 steals and has put together as complete a resume as anyone.  When people talk about the “eye test” compared to stats on a piece of paper, they’re talking about Joel Berry.  Not only can he ball, he can lead.  In crunch time there’s nobody I’d rather have handle the rock (save maybe Frank Mason) because of his dual ability to both score and penetrate and dish to the scoring machine Jackson.

The big boy seniors Isaiah Hicks (6’9, 242) and Kennedy Meeks (6’10, 260) not only look like bruising offensive lineman in the trenches, they play like it.  With the way they control the glass (1st in offensive rebounding %) they look like a couple of Monstars playing against kindergartners out there.

space jam

Meeks in particular is a force to be reckoned with as he’s 10th in the nation in offensive reb % (via  Kenpom), while Hicks has upped his scoring and efficiency (12.5 ppg on 61.6 fg%).  Blue chip freshman Tony Bradley provides front court depth off the bench but he’s RAW as FUCK.  At 6’10 he’s got great athleticism but the kid is throwing up hook shot bricks out there that bring me back to the days of wild Rick Ankiel on the mound.  If he hones his skills in the offseason he may actually become something but he’s got a ways to go.  Swingman junior Theo Pinson has been the glue that pieces this puzzle together since his return from injury.  He does a little bit of everything with his stats telling the story at 4.7 reb and 3 assists per game.

UNC is really good, there’s no doubt about it.  They’re a team that largely depends on matchups as they can out-muscle and overpower teams with their size and rebounding prowess.  They’re also led by upperclassman with every starter being a junior or senior; the leadership and pieces are absolutely there to make a title run.  Yet somehow I remain skeptical of their chances to go all the way and exact their revenge of a season ago.  Berry and Jackson are excellent, but they’re the only good shooters on the team (both at around 40% 3p%).  That’s an issue, Jackson and especially Berry like to drive and dish to the open man which can result in an open 3.  When those 3’s start clanking a recipe for disaster is inevitable.

This team fell short a year ago with all-everything seniors Brice Johnson and Marcus Paige.  While the rest of the roster has unquestionably risen to the occasion and improved, I don’t see how they could’ve improved as a team with such key losses and no key additions as freshman.  The hushed secret around Chapel Hill is that Roy Williams has lost his recruiting touch, probably in part to the recent scandals around Rashad McCants and the cheating allegations in the classroom.  I’m not one to judge on moral character or scholastic behavior, but point being the majority of the McDonald’s all-american Big Macs are being delivered across the street in Durham while UNC receives a one patty burger with no pickles and ketchup, just the bun.

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Put super-frosh Josh Jackson on this team for instance and the whole complexity changes.  But there is no 5 star knocking on their front door.  Instead, the Heels will have another fabulous season and great March run but will once again fall short of their illustrious goal.


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