Grant Halverson/Getty

To return to the national championship, the Tar Heels will need considerably better outside shooting, beginning with Justin Jackson and Joel Berry.

By Brian Hamilton
November 02, 2016

This article originally appeared in the Nov. 7, 2016, issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here. Find the rest of our college basketball preview package here.

It seems unfathomable that junior Justin Jackson has hit just 29.7% of his threes. At a Tar Heels practice in late October, he didn’t appear to have any quirks in his mechanics. His release is effortless, and he fluidly transitions from the dribble into his shot at all spots. “He’s been here two years,” coach Roy Williams says, “and every time he shoots the ball I think it’s going in.”

The 2015–16 Tar Heels ranked 268th nationally in three-point shooting (32.7%) and still won the ACC regular-season and tournament titles, then reached the NCAA final before losing to Villanova. No one in Chapel Hill thinks that formula will work again. “For us to make a run, we have to hit outside shots,” Jackson says, so the search is on for deadeye marksmen. Junior point guard Joel Berry II is one candidate. He connected on a respectable 38.2% of his threes last year and, after one February practice, he hoisted 251 before missing two in a row.

But if Jackson, who averaged 12.2 points as a sophomore, can improve his long-range efficiency, he will instantly become North Carolina’s most complete scoring threat. He made 300 to 400 shots daily during the summer, taking care to repeat his motion and to put more arc on his attempts. He also ate six meals a day and says he went from 193 pounds at the NBA draft combine in May to 210 by the first practice in October. The added heft should help Jackson withstand contact, get to the foul line more often and discourage defenders from crowding him at the three-point stripe. “A lot of it is confidence,” Jackson says. “It’s just stepping into it and shooting it.”

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X-factor: Senior forward Isaiah Hicks

Isaiah Hicks averaged 19.8 points and 10.2 rebounds per 40 minutes last season, but he also committed 121 fouls in the 723 minutes he played—or 6.7 per 40. If he can stay on the court he’ll be a double double machine.

Coach’s Take: Roy Williams

“Joel and Justin particularly, Kennedy [Meeks] at certain stages, Isaiah at certain stages, have proven they can be big-time players in big-time games. But can they make that next step to be able to do it when that’s who [opponents] are trying to stop? The experience we have will be really beneficial on the defensive end of the court, just really understanding what we want to do. We’ll miss [Brice Johnson’s] shot-blocking ability. But the other guys will be able to step up and do what he was able to do in the post defensively. My biggest message after the [national championship] game and through the course of the off-season was to use that as fuel, to motivate them to work harder. That’s where I think it’s the biggest factor.”

Projected Top Seven Scorers

Name Class Pos. PPG RPG APG ORtg Volume Mins
Justin Jackson Jr SF 13.9 4.7 2.9 125.1 22% 74%
Joel Berry Jr PG 13.5 3.2 3.9 123.1 20% 78%
Kennedy Meeks Sr PF/C 11.8 8.0 1.4 116.7 23% 62%
Isaiah Hicks Sr PF 11.7 5.8 0.9 120.7 22% 59%
Tony Bradley Fr C 7.6 5.3 0.7 118.4 16% 55%
Nate Britt Sr PG 7.2 1.8 2.2 111.1 20% 48%
Theo Pinson Jr SF 6.1 4.2 3.2 114.5 18% 55%

Projected Conference Standings

Conference Rank Team Proj. Conf. Record ’15-16 Conf. Record
1 Duke 15–3 11–7
2 North Carolina 13–5 14–4
3 Virginia 13–5 13–5
4 Louisville 11–7 12–6
5 Syracuse 11–7 9–9
6 NC State 10–8 5–13
7 Miami 9–9 13–5
8 Clemson 9–9 10–8
9 Virginia Tech 9–9 10–8
10 Notre Dame 9–9 11–7
11 Florida State 8–10 8–10
12 Pittsburgh 8–10 9–9
13 Wake Forest 6–12 2–16
14 Georgia Tech 2–16 8–10
15 Boston College 2–16 0–18

More scouting reports: 1. Duke | 2. Kansas | 3. Kentucky | 4. Oregon | 5. Villanova | 7. Virginia | 8. Wisconsin | 9. Gonzaga | 10. Arizona | 11. Purdue | 12. Xavier | 13. Louisville | 14. Syracuse | 15. Indiana | 16. UCLA | 17. California | 18. NC State | 19. West Virginia | 20. UConn