North Carolina-Temple Preview
(AP) - Everything was set up perfectly for No. 1 North Carolina to start with a flurry - until senior Marcus Paige suffered a freak injury when his right hand got tangled in a teammate's jersey during practice.
Now the Tar Heels are juggling their backcourt rotation entering Friday's opener against Temple, aiming to make up for the multi-week loss of the Atlantic Coast Conference preseason co-player of the year.
''It's kind of an adjustment for us,'' senior forward Brice Johnson said Wednesday. ''But we're starting to work through it and get better with it. Coach is playing with the lineups a little bit, trying to figure out which guys work together better.''
The school said last week that Paige had broken a bone in his non-shooting hand and would miss three to four weeks. His absence will be a rarity for the Tar Heels considering he had missed one game in his career and averaged more than 34 minutes over the past two seasons as both floor leader and big-shot maker.
Paige isn't wearing a cast, though his hand is bandaged with a splint. He is also coming off a season when he played through nagging foot problems most of the year.
''I think that's given me the idea that I don't want to deal with that this year,'' Paige said. ''Hopefully I won't have to when I come back. I should be good to go. They're hopeful that the timeline they've talked about is for me to be 100 percent.''
The Tar Heels at least have some depth to deal with Paige's injury, though it was hard to take a lot away from UNC's exhibition win against Guilford because sophomore wing Justin Jackson was out due to illness.
The Tar Heels started junior Nate Britt and sophomore Joel Berry II in the backcourt, while Theo Pinson started as small forward and freshman Kenny Williams III was mixed into the rotation. Coach Roy Williams said he hasn't settled on a starting lineup to play the Owls in the Veterans Classic in Annapolis, Maryland.
''I have confidence in the role they played last year, and now we're going to ask them to play a different role,'' Williams said. ''And we haven't seen that yet.''
With nine of its top 10 scorers back, including Paige (14.1) and fellow all-ACC pick Johnson (12.9), UNC enters at No. 1 for a record ninth time in AP preseason poll history, breaking a tie with UCLA.
''I do feel like we're going to be a good basketball team,'' Williams said. ''I'm excited for our kids, because this is one of the best groups that I've ever worked with."
North Carolina went 26-12 last season, played for the ACC Tournament title and took eventual NCAA finalist Wisconsin to the final minutes in last year's Sweet 16 loss. That team had trouble closing out games, losing five - including to Wisconsin and twice to Duke - after leading by at least seven points in the second half.
If they correct those struggles, the Tar Heels could make good on their preseason promise.
''Our goal is Final Four and national championship,'' Jackson said. ''And anything less than that will be a disappointment for us, because we know we have a lot of pieces and we have the right pieces to be able to make a long run.''
The Tar Heels also enter this season under the shadow of an ongoing NCAA investigation into the school's long-running academic fraud scandal focused on courses with significant athlete enrollments. Neither Williams nor his program are specifically cited for a violation among five NCAA charges, and it's unclear whether the program or school will face penalties in a case likely to linger into the spring.
Temple (26-11) is picked to finish sixth in the American Athletic Conference for the second straight year but exceeded expectations last season and just missed out on an NCAA Tournament bid.
Reigning AAC coach of the year Fran Dunphy begins his 10th season with the Owls with a huge challenge on his hands.
"These guys are really good. Of course Marcus Paige has a broken bone in his hand, but they won't skip too much of a beat," Dunphy said. "... Everybody else is pretty much returning for them. Tremendous challenge, but I think that's what you want. I think that's what the kids want. I think that's what we advertise when we recruit. We're playing the best."
However, Temple has won its last seven season openers and is returning a pair of senior starters in Quenton DeCosey and Jaylen Bond. DeCosey averaged 12.3 points last season and is 13 shy of 1,000 for his career. Bond is the team captain after leading the AAC with 7.9 rebounds per game.
These schools haven't met since the 1991 Elite Eight, won 75-72 by North Carolina. The all-time series is tied at three.