This article originally appeared in the the Nov. 9, 2015, issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here. (Editor’s note: This article was published before Marcus Paige’s hand injury.)
Point guard Marcus Paige led the Tar Heels in points (14.1 per game), assists (4.5) and steals (1.7) last year, despite suffering from a foot injury that severely limited his practice time from late December on. “My whole right foot was pretty much jacked up,” he says.
Surgery last April removed the bone spurs that were complicating his plantar fasciitis, and now the 6'2" Paige can jump into the season with both feet—a major reason why North Carolina is SI’s choice to win the 2016 NCAA championship. With nine of the top 10 players back from last year’s Sweet 16 team, including dependable pass-first sophomore point guard Joel Berry and sixth man junior guard Nate Britt, the Tar Heels have a rare blend of talent, experience and depth in today’s one-and-done world. Paige will still run the point in late-game situations, but he’ll spend more time off the ball, making the most of his marksmanship. (He is eight three-pointers shy of Shammond Williams’s school record.) With 6'10" senior Brice Johnson and 6'10" junior Kennedy Meeks spearheading the nation’s best frontcourt, the Tar Heels should dominate the boards, which will spark Roy Williams’s high-octane secondary break.
For the first time in years North Carolina begins the season with more answers than questions.
Brice Johnson, 6'9" senior forward
If Johnson can become a consistent post scorer and stay on the court (13 fouls in three NCAA tournament games last year), he would keep defenses from cheating on the Tar Heels’ perimeter scoring.
“I think it’s great to be ranked number one. If I were a player, that would make me work even harder. With all these guys coming back, our depth is really good, although I hope we don’t have to use it. We don’t have a bunch of lottery picks, but we don’t have any knuckleheads. Marcus didn’t want to make excuses last year, but he was really hurting. I’m curious to see how Nate continues to play after switching from shooting left-handed to right-handed. That’s the only time in 43 years I’ve had a player do that. Last year, I thought Justin Jackson was going to make a ton of shots, but he didn’t do that until down the stretch. I’d like to play even faster this year if we can. Kennedy went from 319 as a freshman and he’s touched 258 this fall. He has to take that lesser weight and become more explosive in game action.” — Roy Williams
Projected depth chart
Projected conference race
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