Tar Heels hope experience, depth equal Final Four run
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) North Carolina suddenly has a throwback look.
There are talented upperclassmen and all-Atlantic Coast Conference performers back along with youngsters blended in to give the Tar Heels plenty of depth and versatility. It's a mix befitting a time when veterans stuck around college basketball and before NBA one-and-done players were common - and the Tar Heels believe it has them positioned for a run at the national championship.
''Going into the season, it's hard not to think of anything but a trip to Houston (for the Final Four) being a success for us, and anything less just not meeting what we think we're capable of,'' senior point guard Marcus Paige said. ''So I'll just leave it at that.''
The Tar Heels (26-12) return four starters and nine of the top 10 scorers from a team that took eventual finalist Wisconsin to the final minutes of an NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 loss. Paige and fellow all-ACC senior Brice Johnson are back, along with slimmed-down junior forward Kennedy Meeks and sophomore wing Justin Jackson to give the team four returning double-figure scorers.
The Tar Heels - tied with Kentucky for No. 1 in the USA Today preseason coaches poll - have depth with the return of junior Isaiah Hicks and senior Joel James inside, while sophomores Joel Berry II and Theo Pinson join junior Nate Britt along the perimeter. They've also added guard Kenny Williams III, expected to boost UNC's 3-point shooting, and forward Luke Maye as freshmen.
Hall of Fame coach Roy Williams led the Tar Heels to the 2005 and 2009 national championships, and is hoping to do it again in April.
''In '05, I thought we were, if not the best, one of the two best teams in the country,'' he said. ''In '09, I thought we were the best. I think this year we're one of the best. If we play the best down the stretch, then we could be the best. . But we've got to be able to do it out on the court now.''
Here are other things to know about the Tar Heels this season:
CLOSING TIME: The Tar Heels must finish better. The Wisconsin loss marked the fifth time it lost after leading by at least seven in the second half, including twice against eventual national champion Duke as well as in the ACC Tournament championship game against Notre Dame.
PAIGE'S HEALTH: Paige was a preseason Associated Press all-American and ACC player of the year choice last year, but struggled with a chronic foot injury much of the season. He said he felt pain-free late in the year, which coincided with UNC's best stretch, and has recovered from offseason ankle surgery.
MEEKS UP FRONT: Meeks arrived on campus around 315 pounds but the 6-foot-10 forward, who averaged 11.4 points and 7.3 rebounds last year, is down to around 260. ''I felt myself jumping a lot easier,'' Meeks said. ''I feel myself running a lot better. I don't get tired as quickly as I used to.''
JACKSON'S RISE: Jackson started slow but scored in double figures in 11 of the last 12 games and shot 45 percent from behind the 3-point arc in that stretch. Will he pick up where he left off?
LAST CHANCE? The NCAA has charged the school with violations tied to its long-running academic fraud scandal featuring courses with significant athlete enrollments. Williams' program isn't specifically cited for a violation in the broad-based charges, but the case will likely linger into the spring and it's unclear whether the program or school will face penalties. The uncertainty has also hindered UNC in recruiting, so this could be its best title shot for the immediate future.
Follow Aaron Beard on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/aaronbeardap and the AP's college basketball site at http://collegebasketball.ap.org .