Tar Heels Crush Crusaders 112-34 In Final Tune-Up

With a balanced offensive approach and a staunch defensive effort, the UNC men’s basketball team blasted Belmont Abbey 112-34 in a Friday night exhibition game at the Dean E. Smith Center.

It was all Tar Heels from the outset, as Justin Jackson and Kennedy Meeks netted 10 points each in the opening half and 13 different players got in the scoreboard in all. Jackson finished with 16 points, while Meeks and Isaiah Hicks each scored 14.

UNC head coach Roy Williams likes his team’s chances heading into the regular season.

“We have a chance to be much better this year than we were last year. With J.P. and Justin at 2,3, they’re 6’7, 6’8, with their length and athleticism they have, and Marcus (Paige) is as good of a defender as I’ve ever had as a point guard, so that’s pretty strong on the perimeter. And you get the big guys in there, then you have a chance,” Coach Williams says.

Belmont Abbey hit just five field goals in the opening half, including a pair of three-pointers. The Crusaders were 5 of 26 from the field and hit just one of two free throws. The visitors had serious trouble getting anything going, committing 17 turnovers eclipsing even their rebound total (14) for the opening 20 minutes.

Tar Heel bench celebrates (Todd Melet)

Tar Heel bench celebrates (Todd Melet)

A Marcus Paige trey gave UNC a 7-0 lead just two minutes in, while a Hicks dunk made it 30-6 at the 9:10 mark. Hicks added another emphatic dunk with just four seconds left in the opening half to make it 57-13 heading into intermission.

The Tar Heels continued their crisp play after the break, scoring the first eight points to extend their lead to 65-13. About the only question in the second half would be when the Tar Heels would reach the century mark.

A Nate Britt free throw with 4:42 remaining made the answer an affirmative one. Theo Pinson then put on a mini-show with a dunk, followed by a steal and a successful jumper as the Tar Heels pushed their lead to 104-29.

J.P. Tokoto added 11 points and six rebounds and Nate Britt chipped in with 10 points and four assists for the Tar Heels.

Drexler Clark was the lone Crusaders player to reach double-figures in scoring, netting 14 points.

UNC opens its non-conference slate when it welcomes NC Central to the Smith Center next Friday (11/14). It marks the first of six straight home games until the Tar Heels travel to Kentucky to play the Wildcats on Dec. 13.


Jackson, Tar Heels Get Final Smith Center Tune-Up

The No. 6 North Carolina men’s basketball team will conduct its final preseason tune-up Friday night at 7:30 pm in the Smith Center when the Tar Heels welcome Belmont Abbey Crusaders to Chapel Hill for an exhibition contest.

In their first exhibition, the Tar Heels easily glided by Fayetteville State 111-58.

Highly-touted freshman Justin Jackson led the scoring charge with 18 points, including a 3-4 mark from the three-point line.

Belmont Abbey recorded an 11-16 record a year ago and finished seventh in Conference Carolinas.

Following Friday’s exhibition, the Tar Heels will set their sights on their regular season opener next Friday against N.C. Central, a surprising NCAA Tournament team from last season.

Click here for the full 2014-2015 men’s basketball schedule.


Tokoto Targeting Top For ‘No-Fear Tar Heels’

UNC junior forward J.P. Tokoto may be one of the most explosive athletes in ACC basketball. With a new season nearly here, Tokoto says he’s been improving his jump shot in the hopes of providing a scoring lift for the Tar Heels.

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Nobody questions Tokoto’s big play ability. He runs the floor like a cheetah, glides to the rim like an eagle and is capable of slamming the ball home with seismic authority.

But this season, the man from Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin, is aiming to add another skill set to his arsenal – sharp-shooting.

“I feel great. I feel like I can knock anything down that’s in my range. I feel like I’ve extended it out to the three-point line. I feel a lot more comfortable working with Coach Davis [Hubert Davis]. Wait till the games roll around to see how I can implement it in the game,” Tokoto says.

Tokoto goes up to the rim (Todd Melet)

Tokoto goes up to the rim (Todd Melet)

With that said, UNC head coach Roy Williams has been quick to point out Tokoto’s bread and butter. Tokoto understands. He says he’s not losing sight of what makes him such a special talent on the basketball floor.

“One thing I’ve focused on is not forgetting other things I can do and do well. Like Coach would say, the first thing that comes to mind when you say J.P. Tokoto is not shooter, it’s dunker, rebounder and defender. While I was working on shooting, I was still doing those things and adding shooting as another weapon in the repertoire. I’m working on all aspects of my game,” Tokoto says.

Tokoto’s tenacious defense earned him a spot on the ACC All-Defensive Team in his sophomore season. His 55 steals led UNC’s roster.

This season, Tokoto says the sixth-ranked Tar Heels will need to provide more scoring help for preseason ACC Player of the Year Marcus Paige. With that kind of title, it’s easy to see why.

Opponents will do everything in their power to shut down UNC’s leading scorer. Who else will step up?

“We got lucky last year with teams not really expecting Marcus [Paige] to be that much of a scorer early on. Like any other team, they’re going to have scouting reports and film. They’re going to know who Marcus is. The more scoring help we can give from the wings and the big spot, the better we’ll be off,” Tokoto says.

Last year, Tokoto says outside of Paige, his teammates played passive on the offensive end. In order to accomplish their big dreams come tournament time, Tokoto knows the Tar Heels can’t be afraid of taking the shots.

The Carolina bench celebrates (Todd Melet)

The Carolina bench celebrates (Todd Melet)

“A lot of guys last year were more conscious of the shots they wanted to take. Marcus [Paige] had to pick up the slack. Guys were kind of afraid to take the shots. This year, if there’s more opportunities to score because of Marcus’ opportunities are being taken away by other teams, if we can capitalize, it will open Marcus’ scoring back up and make us that much better,” Tokoto says.

Tokoto finished last season in a flurry, scoring in double figures in seven of the last 10 games. He’s hoping to build on that momentum when the Tar Heels tip off their season Nov. 14 in the Smith Center against N.C. Central.

Last week, at ACC Media Day, the media picked the Tar Heels to finish second in the conference behind only Duke. Tokoto also likes UNC’s chances.

“We said last year we had the tools to be a great team. We had our great wins and our very bad losses. Last year, we still had the tools and it’s even better this year. It all comes down to how we implement it in the game, how hard we’re going to play and how mentally strong we’re going to be. Only time will tell,” Tokoto says.


Transformed Meeks Poised For Breakout Season

Low-post returning starter Kennedy Meeks could be an X-factor for the No. 6 North Carolina men’s basketball team this season. After losing nearly 50 pounds, Meeks is hoping his body transformation translates into more dominant play.

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UNC head coach Roy Williams has been challenging his players throughout the offseason. Who is going to rise up and stand alongside Marcus Paige as an elite performer?

“I’ve said this so many times I’m already sick of hearing it myself, but one or two of those guys needs to step and say, ‘I’m going to be a big-time player.’ I don’t think anybody questions that last year; Marcus stepped up and said, ‘I’m going to be a big-time player.’ Now, one of the post players has to step up, say that and not just be willing to run up and down the court and wait on Marcus to do something,” Coach Williams says.

Meeks (Todd Melet)

Meeks (Todd Melet)

Meeks believes the Tar Heels relied too heavily on Paige’s play a year ago. The sophomore from Charlotte says other teammates are ready to lift the heavy scoring burden off Paige’s shoulders this season.

“I don’t think we need to carry as much weight on Marcus as we did last year. I think we looked to him in situations more than we should have, but he always came through for us in every situation that we asked him to. He’s always going to be the No. 1 scorer, but I think me and Brice [Johnson] could be the ones that step up,” Meeks says.

Meeks should be much better equipped to run the floor at the frenetic pace Coach Williams likes to employ. Meeks says he’s proud of his weight loss, but sometimes, he has to do a double-take when he looks at himself in the mirror.

“I try not to be conceited about it, but it’s hard not to when you really know you’ve put the work in. I try not to be too conceited about it, but I’m very proud of myself,” Meeks says.

In his freshman campaign, Meeks earned ACC-All Freshman team honors from both the media and head coaches. But he was clearly gassed in numerous games, forcing him to take a seat on the bench.

Coach Williams says Meeks’ weight loss efforts are far tougher than what he’s asking him to do on the court. With that said, though, he says he wants the sophomore to be more aggressively-minded going forward.

“He’s running better and is more explosive. I want him to be more aggressive thinking. That doesn’t mean foul people. Get the ball and go stronger to the basket. You’re not carrying 285-295, explode up there and get it closer to the rim when you do it. I think he’s got to realize he’s worked his tail off to do something. He came in at 319. He’s in the 270-275 range now. That’s a lot more difficult than what I’m asking to do as a basketball player,” Coach Williams says.

UNC’s preseason practices have been tough. Meeks says he never forgets his mouth guard and calls the training “vicious”.

But so far, Meeks is happy with what he’s seeing from the Tar Heels.

Meeks addresses media members (The Daily Tar Heel)

Meeks addresses media members (The Daily Tar Heel)

“In practice, we’re hitting a lot more three-point shots. Also, we’re getting the ball in the post and being aggressive. I think that’s what is going to help our team this year – both on the perimeter and inside. I think it’s a great experience for us. I think we should continue to work on it,” Meeks says.

It remains to be seen whether Meeks will truly become the dominant inside threat that his teammates and many observers project he’ll be this season, but one thing’s for certain, his body won’t be the thing holding him back.


UNC Routs Fayetteville State In Exo

Freshman Justin Jackson led five double-figure scorers as North Carolina cruised past Fayetteville State, 111-58, in an exhibition contest at the Smith Center on Friday night.  The Tar Heels jumped out to a 22-5 lead in the first 8:34 of the game, then shot 61.5 percent from the floor after halftime to lead by as many as 53 and put the game away.

Jackson started the game and finished with 18 points on 6 of 9 shooting from the floor, including 3 of 4 three-pointers.  He also had five rebounds, two assists and two steals while displaying poise throughout the game.

“[Justin] has an ability to score the ball and make some really good passes, particularly tonight in the first half, head coach Roy Williams said afterward.  “He had two assists, but he had them back to back in the first half, and he made some good passes for us as well.”

All-America point guard Marcus Paige agreed, saying of Jackson: “He is big for a guard, he rebounds well and obviously he is really efficient. He doesn’t take bad shots and he doesn’t force anything. And he can knock down open shots. And he plays hard on the defense. You know especially for a freshman, that’s a big thing. He gives his best effort on the defensive end; he is going to be a big player for us.”

Jackson’s rookie classmates also played well, as fellow freshmen Theo Pinson (15 points, eight rebounds, 6 of 9 shooting and two three-pointers) and Joel Berry II (12 points, four assists and four steals despite 3 of 10 shooting) also had solid exhibition debuts.

Brice Johnson shot 2 for 6 but was stout in the post and had 13 rebounds, including nine on the offensive end.  J.P. Tokoto had six points, seven rebounds and eight assists with just one turnover in 21 minutes, earning praise in Williams’ postgame press conference.

Sophomore Isaiah Hicks looked comfortable coming off the bench and playing in the post after a freshman season on the wing, providing energy as well as his 13 points (on 6 of 6 shooting) with five rebounds and three steals in 14 minutes.

“That is something that Coach [Williams] always talked to me about, just getting out there and being more aggressive,” Hicks said afterward in the Tar Heel players’ lounge. “Last year, it was like a deer in headlights, didn’t know what to do, just too nervous or something. This year, I just slowed down. Coach says when you’ve got a foot in the post, score. That’s what you want a big man to do. Take that and something you look at all of us to do, be aggressive and attack the rim. ”

Fayetteville State got 17 points from Juwan Addison and 10 from Marquette Hill.

Senior point guard Luke Davis was not in uniform for the game and will miss two to three months with a stress fracture in his right foot.

Both teams looked sloppy at times, as the Broncos committed 22 turnovers to Carolina’s 20.  But the Tar Heels corrected things with their second-half shooting and held FSU to 31.4 percent shooting from the floor overall.

Good ball movement by the Tar Heels led to 25 assists on 39 made baskets.

“For us, it was good to get out and concentrate on basketball for a while and get some things done, and we were happy to do that,” said Williams.  “I think it was good for us.  I think we don’t play again until the next exhibition game on Nov. 7, and we’ll have some practices until then.”

Carolina’s second and final exhibition game of the 2014-15 preseason will come in two weeks, on Friday Nov. 7 against Belmont-Abbey in the Smith Center.  The Tar Heels host North Carolina Central in the regular season opener on Nov. 14.


UNC Hosts Fayetteville State in Exhibition

North Carolina basketball is back in season as the Tar Heels take on Fayetteville State at home Friday night in an exhibition match.

The Tar Heels are currently No. 6 in the 2014-15 preseason coaches’ poll, marking the 40th preseason top-10 ranking by the coaches.

That high ranking comes with the return of an impressive roster, led by junior Marcus Paige, who was named top point guard in the nation for the 2013-14 season by ESPN.com among a host of other honors. Paige will be joined at the point guard position by sophomore returner Nate Britt and freshman Joel Berry.

UNC’s front court is looking stronger this season, and much slimmer. Sophomore Kennedy Meeks made national attention this offseason by losing almost 50 pounds since stepping on campus in 2013, and fans are looking forward to see just how much the change will impact his game.

Carolina can expect improvement in another sophomore big-man, Isaiah Hicks, who was the star of a weekend exhibition trip to the Bahamas in mid-August. Hicks tallied a combined 32 points shooting 14-23 in two games. In 2013-2014, Hicks averaged just 1.2 points and 1 rebound per contest.

Fayetteville State finished with a 19-10 record in last year’s campaign and is predicted to finish third in the CIAA Southern Division this season. Senior forward Torian Showers averaged 9.1 points for the Broncos, scoring at 44.5% from the field alongside sophomore guard Josh Dawson, who averaged 9.4 points and 5.1 assists per game. Dawson is also the nephew of former Tar Heel player Jerry Stackhouse.

Carolina will host another exhibition game against Belmont Abbey on Friday, November 7 at 7:30 p.m.


Less is More? Paige’s Scoring Burden Lifted

Preseason All-America pick Marcus Paige carried the offensive load for the UNC basketball team last season. But this year, Paige is hoping improved balance will ease his scoring burden.

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The Tar Heels appear to have a stacked lineup of scoring options that includes transformed returning players in Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks and uber-talented freshmen like Joel Berry and Justin Jackson.

And although UNC’s best player remains Paige, ironically, the Tar Heels may end up a better team come March if Paige’s scoring average takes a drop from last season – that would mean other big-time offensive threats have emerged.

A decline in his stat numbers isn’t an issue for the humble Paige. He says he would enjoy not feeling like he has to force the issue with the ball in his hands.

“I feel less pressure. I still think I need to be aggressive and try to create because it helps our team and offense. Coach has been telling me that’s what I should do. I’m going to listen to him. But I feel less pressure to force the issue as much. There will be times that I have to call my own number. But with Brice being a year older and hopefully, getting ready to make a jump in production and Kennedy looking a lot better, we shouldn’t have to have me forcing a lot of the situations,” Paige says.

Photo courtesy of Chapelboro's Todd Melet

Photo courtesy of Chapelboro’s Todd Melet

Head coach Roy Williams has hinted at the possibility of playing multiple point guards at once this season. He’s done it before. His 2002 Kansas team featured a trio of point guards in the lineup and that year, the Jayhawks reached the Final Four.

Paige has heard about that Kansas team on more than a few occasions from Coach Williams. He says he wouldn’t be surprised to see a few “little guys” running around the Smith Center soon.

“I’ve heard that story like a million times. It’s definitely a possibility this year. We’re going to have to find minutes for Joel and Nate. They’re too good to keep off the floor. Obviously, I want to be on the floor too. There’s going to be times we’ll have multiple little guys out there, but I think we can make it work,” Paige says.

Despite Coach Williams’ adamant reminders to his players that Paige is the premier player on the Tar Heel roster; he says Paige has handled it well.

“I know I’ve repeated this at least three times, ‘that is our best player, and don’t everybody forget that.’ And if that’s the case, we should give him more opportunities to do some things. He handles that really well. There’s not a conceited bone or selfish bone in the boy’s body,” Coach Williams says.

But Paige is looking for the supporting cast to move into starring roles this year. Since he’s stepped foot in Chapel Hill, Paige says he’s never been a part of a more balanced team.

Coach Williams addresses Paige (Todd Melet)

Coach Williams addresses Paige (Todd Melet)

“My freshman year we shot a lot of threes with Reggie [Bullock] and P.J. [Hairston]. Last year, we either threw the ball inside or I was creating from the outside. There wasn’t a whole lot of flow and balance in that regard. This year, we have a little bit of everything. I think we’re going to run more, which should help that balance. Guys get running and it opens up the perimeter. I would say this is definitely the most balanced offensive team,” Paige says.

Despite all his accolades and accomplishments, Paige has a glaring hole in his collegiate resume – a Final Four appearance.

“Personally, I have set the goal of at least making it to the Final Four. That’s something I’ve wanted to do since I’ve got here. This team is capable. We have the players and chemistry. We just need to apply what Coach has been teaching us and enforcing in practice,” Paige says.

The ultimate team player, Paige would no doubt gladly accept a drop in his gaudy statistics if it meant the Tar Heels were still dancing in Indianapolis come April.


UNC Is No. 6 In Preseason Coaches’ Poll

The preseason college basketball rankings are out, and UNC is in the top 10.

The Tar Heels are No. 6 in the USA Today coaches’ poll, released on Thursday. That’s the 40th time UNC has been ranked in the preseason top 10 – and if you’re wondering, the Tar Heels finished the season in the top 10 in 31 of those previous 39 years.

View the complete poll here.

The USA Today coaches’ poll began 1950; this is the 65th year of the poll. Of those 65 years, Carolina has been ranked somewhere in the top twenty-five 61 times and somewhere in the top ten 52 times.

The ACC is well-represented as a whole, with four teams in this year’s preseason top 10: Duke is No. 3, Carolina is No. 6, Virginia is No. 8, and Louisville is No. 9.

As per usual, this year’s preseason No. 1 is Kentucky. UNC will face the Wildcats on Saturday, December 13.


Roy Williams Relishing ‘Molding’ Season, UNC’s Potential

October is Roy Williams’ favorite time of the year. In preseason practice, the UNC basketball head coach says he can spend time truly teaching his players and sculpt a team identity for the season ahead.

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In 2012, Coach Williams says his Tar Heels were a broken Kendall Marshall wrist away from a sixth NCAA Tournament championship.

Since then, UNC has been mired in off-the-court issues, most prominently featuring P.J. Hairston. Coach Williams says the last couple years have been tough, but it has reaffirmed his love for the game.

“In 2012, we were a broken wrist away from what I thought was the best team in the country. The last two years, there has been more junk than I would like to deal with. It’s made the job not as much fun. But one thing that it’s done is to confirm what I truly love is being on the court with the kids. The last two years, that’s been my salvation,” Coach Williams says.

The last two seasons, UNC has struggled to put both inside and outside scoring together. But Coach Williams says this year’s bunch of Tar Heels has the potential to be much more balanced.

“I think there’s more balance. We have to play like it. I want the perimeter guys to play really well, and then you have a really good team. We do have some people in there. Now they have to step up and do it,” Coach Williams says.

Paige eyeing the floor (UNC Athletics)

Paige eyeing the floor (UNC Athletics)

Despite the enormous potential and numerous media outlets placing the Tar Heels inside the top 5 of their preseason rankings, Coach Williams stops short of calling this year’s lineup “ideal”. He has another All-Star squad in mind.

“It’s not ideal. If it was ideal, I would have Marcus, Marvin, Tyler, Tyler and John. That would be ideal because we could do everything. This team hasn’t shown yet on the court against other teams that they can do everything. We still don’t have anybody that’s proven they can be an inside scorer,” Coach Williams says.

It remains to be seen who may emerge as that dominant force under the basket. A beefed-up Brice Johnson and a fitter Kennedy Meeks serve as a couple of the prime candidates.

But it has been made clear by Coach Williams, as if it needed to be crystallized any further, that Marcus Paige is the best player on the floor.

Paige, a preseason All-America pick, will be hoping to have more offensive support in his junior campaign. Coach Williams says he wishes he had a full roster of Marcus Paiges to play.

“He’s a complete basketball player. He’s our best shooter, probably the best driver and best defender. If I had five of them at the same size, we would be really good,” Coach Williams says.

Brice Johnson fights through double team (Todd Melet)

Brice Johnson fights through a double team (Todd Melet)

For now, Coach Williams is embracing the preseason – an opportunity to develop and mold his Tar Heels into the Final Four team they all say they want to be.

“I love this time period – the teaching, trying to mold the guys. Trying to mold a team is trying to get everybody aimed at one objective and make sacrifices for the common goal. That’s a big challenge. Getting everybody to make sacrifices towards a common goal is one of my thrills,” Coach Williams says.

UNC opens Smith Center action Oct. 24 with a 7:30 p.m. exhibition game against Fayetteville State.


Primed Paige Maturing as UNC Leader, Accompanied By ‘Gym Rats’

UNC junior Marcus Paige has been busy picking up some tips from past Carolina legends over the summer and is expecting a Final Four-caliber team to hit the hardwood in the Smith Center come November. In a recent interview with GoHeels.com’s Adam Lucas, Paige discussed his preparations.

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“We have lofty goals, and there’s no reason we shouldn’t. We have a lot of the same guys coming back and incorporated three guys that I think will help us out a lot. We need wings and guys that can score, and I think those guys can do that. I think we have the pieces. We just need to put them together,” Paige says.

With Paige’s return, the Tar Heels welcome back one of the nation’s premier point guards to Chapel Hill.

A season ago, Paige was named a second-team All-American and voted the ACC’s most improved player thanks to his team-leading 17.5 points per game and a conference-leading .877 free throw percentage. He was also the first Tar Heel point guard to earn first-team All-ACC honors since Phil Ford in 1976.

Paige says he’s learned invaluable lessons from former Carolina stars Raymond Felton and Kendall Marshall. It just so happens, that duo happens to play the same position.

“I pick up little things like how they’ll tell the big guy to adjust the ball screen, how they read the top foot of the defender, and which way they want to attack. You can pick up a lot, especially from them, because they’re both so crafty. They use their skill set more than their athleticism, which is similar to what I do,” Paige says.

Paige eyeing the floor (UNC Athletics)

Paige eyeing the floor (UNC Athletics)

But there’s another more recent Tar Heel who Paige credits with preparing him to be more of a vocal presence in the huddle this season.

“Seeing James Michael [McAdoo] do that a lot during our winning streak last year – he became more vocal and you could tell he really matured and got comfortable being that leader. Seeing him do that has helped me adjust my leadership form more of a ‘lead by example’ to being able to get on guys. I think the fact that my teammates respect me enough to listen to what I’m saying definitely helps that,” Paige says.

Marcus Paige (Copyright 2014 Todd Melet)

Marcus Paige (Copyright 2014 Todd Melet)

As far as head coach Roy Williams’ expectations, Paige says Coach wants him to continue to hit the gym hard and become stronger at driving the ball to the basket.

“He wants me to do a lot of the same things that I worked hard on last summer, in terms of making strides in the weight room, getting stronger and getting ready to handle thirty-plus minutes a game again. Also, he wants me to work on my skill set as far as finishing around the basket and becoming even more of a consistent jump shooter,” Paige says.

Paige isn’t kidding about improving his accuracy. He’s aiming to shoot at least 50 percent from the floor in the upcoming season.

There’s also been a notable change in offseason motivation for the team as a whole. Paige says his workouts haven’t been as lonely lately. He’s noticed an abundance of “gym rats” this year.

“Every time I try to get in the gym, somebody else is in there, whereas a lot of times in the past, I’ve found myself in there by myself or maybe one other person. Now, we’re working out together. This team has more gym rats on it than we’ve had in the past,” Paige says.

A combination of fresh, eager talent and a healthy belief in the championship mettle of the squad have seemingly led to a more focused summer for Paige and the rest of the Tar Heels as they prepare for promising season ahead.