November 13, 2014

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) - Roy Williams has a lot more flexibility heading into the season opener for No. 6 North Carolina.

The coach has a preseason All-American in guard Marcus Paige to headline a deep set of versatile perimeter players. He also has size inside.

And that will give the Tar Heels the ability to tweak their lineup to match up with opponents from possession to possession, starting with Friday's opener against North Carolina Central.

''We'll experiment quite a bit, but at the same time we're going to try to win games, too,'' Williams said Wednesday.

''It's important to realize that we've had two exhibition games where we were far more gifted than the teams we were playing, so I tried to experiment a lot during those times. I don't see us experimenting nearly as much Friday and Sunday (against Robert Morris).''

How Williams juggles his on-court lineups could play a big role in how far these Tar Heels push into March, from whether he puts three players with point guard experience on the court together for stretches to using a select lineup for full-court pressure defense.

This team is easily deeper than either of UNC's past two teams with the return of Paige, J.P. Tokoto and Nate Britt to the backcourt along with the addition of McDonald's All-Americans Justin Jackson, Theo Pinson and Joel Berry II.

Williams started Paige, Tokoto and Jackson alongside Kennedy Meeks and Brice Johnson on the interior for each of the two exhibition games. He said Wednesday he's planning to stick with that lineup for this weekend's regular-season games and said it's generally easy to play a nine-man rotation without worrying about getting everyone enough minutes.

Jackson, a 6-foot-8 swingman, has made that decision easy. He averaged 17 points on 74 percent shooting in 21 minutes per game during those two exhibitions. He has the potential to provide a consistent inside-out scorer for a team that needed reliable options behind Paige last season.

''He has tremendous savvy, and I think that's part of it,'' Williams said of Jackson. ''I think he understands how the game is supposed to be played, how he sees it evolving and I think he sees the big picture. That's something he's continually worked on.

''He has that knack. I don't know that I've ever been able to coach that knack, I've just had some guys that it happens to.''

Regardless of which five are on the court, the Tar Heels (24-10) are in much better shape than they've been in recent years. They lost four NBA first-round draft picks after the 2012 season, then spent the first part of last season unsure of who would be able to play in the backcourt while two key players faced NCAA eligibility questions.

''We kind of know where we're at and what we have,'' Tokoto said. ''It's going to be a lot less stressful than it was last year.''

The Tar Heels could feel some stress Friday against a North Carolina Central team that made last season's NCAA tournament and has been picked to repeat as the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference champion.

The Eagles (28-6) upset one ACC foe last season, winning at North Carolina State, and tied the school record for victories. Additionally, they were competitive in two matchups with ranked teams, falling 77-66 to Wichita State on Dec. 22 and trailing Iowa State by as few as seven points in the second half of a 93-75 loss in the NCAAs.

Top scorer Jeremy Ingram is gone, but Jordan Parks is back after finishing second with 10.1 points per game while averaging just 19.0 minutes off the bench, and is a preseason all-MEAC first-team pick.

LeVelle Moton's debut as Eagles coach was an 89-42 loss to the Tar Heels on Nov. 11, 2009, in the programs' only meeting. The rematch is part of a tough non-conference slate that includes matchups with NCAA tournament teams Creighton, Cincinnati and Memphis.

"We will not shy away from top competition," Moton told the school's official website. "We take every challenge head on and with the amount of newcomers we have to mix in, this schedule will truly reveal what type of team we have."

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