In the weeks and months leading up to the start of practices in October, we’ll take a look at some of the biggest teams, players and stories for the 2014-15 NCAA college basketball season. Each team has one burning question we’ll take a look at.
The Blue Bloods of college basketball are known as the most powerful and consistently talented programs in the country. With Duke, Kansas, North Carolina, Kentucky, UCLA and Indiana all marked as the highest level of college hoops in its history, these schools have combined for 32 national championships.In the past it was UCLA and Indiana that were the headliners, the most powerful of the powerful. More recently, it has been Duke, Kansas, Kentucky and UNC that have been the dominant ones. UCLA’s last title came in 1995, Indiana in 1987, Kansas in 2008, UNC in 2009, Duke in 2010 and Kentucky in 2012.
Among these schools, Blue Bloods have won four of the last seven national championships with Connecticut (2011 and 2014) and Louisville (2013) separating the dominance. History shows that since 2007, for every year a Blue Blood doesn’t win a national title, they win one the next season, maybe even the season after that. Since Connecticut walked away victorious against Kentucky in the 2014 title game, a Blue Blood is due for a title in 2015.
Early predictions will have Duke and Kentucky being the favorites to win it all, each possessing a number of great freshmen to help lead the way. The Wildcats have had luck with freshmen being the centerpieces towards a title, but the Blue Devils haven’t quite figured it out yet.
However, there’s one team among that Blue Bloods that has an advantage over the others. That team is the North Carolina Tar Heels. That advantage is experience and a leader who’s been there more than three months.
UNC’s last national title came in 2009, ending Tyler Hansbrough‘s illustrious career as a Tar Heel. The following season, with a fresh group and a rebuild underway, the Tar Heels failed to reach the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2003.
Hope seemed lost as North Carolina was no longer a powerhouse like they were accustomed to being. They had won two titles in five years under Roy Williams, so the expectations were extremely high. Missing the tournament all together was not acceptable.
Since that missed tournament in 2010, it’s been a mixed bag for the Tar Heels. After that disappointing season, UNC made it to two consecutive Elite Eights in 2011 and 2012, dropping contests to fellow Blue Bloods Kentucky and Kansas, respectively. Since then, though, it’s been another rebuild after losing all five starters from those teams. Carolina has failed to reach the second weekend of the NCAAs in each of the past two years.
Things are looking to go different for the Tar Heels this year, though. Despite the losses of Leslie McDonald and James Michael McAdoo, Williams returns the bulk of his squad that had some great successes in 2013-14, but struggled with consistency.
Their up-and-down winning ways from last season are well documented. Losing at home to Belmont, beating Louisville, losing at UAB, dominating Michigan State on the road and many more surprising results.
Some of this inconsistency stems from the unknown that was P.J. Hairston‘s eligibility last year. His situation wasn’t resolved until about half way through the season, which left the Tar Heels in unknown territory.
They didn’t know if or when Hairston would join them and seemed to be buying time until a decision was made. Hairston was officially let go by UNC on Dec. 20 of last year. The Tar Heels went 16-7 the rest of the way, including a 12-game winning streak from the end of January to the beginning of March.
Williams’ group seemed to figure something out and were one of the most dangerous teams in the country.
Entering the 2014-15 season, North Carolina looks to figure it out from day one. There won’t be any uncertainty surrounding player eligibility and they’ll be able to go into the season with a full head of steam and their freshmen have already started to impress the veterans.
Leading the way for the Tar Heels will be Marcus Paige, who took over the spotlight in the absence of Hairston and really inconsistent play of McAdoo last year. Paige led the team last year in scoring, assists, 3-point shooting and free throw shooting.
Really, he was their only shooter on the floor most of the season.
Paige will be joined by Nate Britt in the backcourt. Britt will be expected to step his game up from last season, as he only averaged five points per game and struggled with confidence in his shot, especially early in the season last year, Britt looked overwhelmed by the college spotlight.
Now that he’s had a year under his belt, he should be more comfortable.
Although, if Britt doesn’t step up, there’s a freshman in Joel Berry who will be ready to take over. A 6’0″ scorer, Berry is the third-rated point guard in the 2014 recruiting class, according to ESPN Recruiting. He’s confident and athletic, and that confidence is something that could put him in the starting lineup instead of Britt.
The rest of North Carolina’s team is going to be big and athletic. Down low will be a trimmed down, outlet passing center in Kennedy Meeks, who showed took some great strides throughout last year.
His weight was an issue, but he has cut down on that and should be able to see the floor longer each game. Along side Meeks will be a combination of J.P. Tokoto and Brice Johnson, two very long, athletic bigs who like to block shots, disrupt opposing offenses and create steal opportunities.
They’re pretty interchangeable as they bring the same intangibles to the table and their numbers from last season are virtually identical.
The final spot in the starting five will likely go to in-coming freshman Justin Jackson, a five-star small forward out of Texas. Jackson put on a show at the McDonald’s All-American game this past spring and is the early candidate to steal some spotlight away from Paige.
The combination of Jackson and Paige should excite Tar Heels fans as they should play off of each other very well. Jackson can be the second shooter on the floor to ease the pressure off of Paige, and Berry could do the same.
A few names to watch for off the bench will be Joel James, Isaiah Hicks and in-coming freshman Theo Pinson. James and Hicks should split the backup center responsibilities while Pinson plays behind Jackson, though he could challenge for the starting spot as well.
There’s a lot of rotation options for coach Williams as he has 10 guys to who can play and contribute. Paige comes in as the star and should continue to improve his game, but there’s depth here, something they didn’t have last year.
Carolina is going to get its team ready with a very challenging non-conference schedule. Though their entire schedule has yet to be released, what has been announced is very tough.
The Battle 4 Atlantis alone could see UNC taking on two highly-ranked teams early in the season. They’ll start off against Butler then, with a win, would advance to play the winner of UCLA/Oklahoma.
A win in that game would put them in the championship contest, where Wisconsin or Florida — both coming off of Final Four appearances in 2014 — would be waiting for them.
It doesn’t get much easier after that. A home contest against Iowa, a grueling road test at Kentucky and a neutral site game against Ohio State round out the very solid and potentially dangerous schedule outside of the conference.
Inside the conference, UNC will have its usually meetings with Duke, Virginia and Syracuse, as well as the new team to the ACC, Louisville. There’s no room to breath with this schedule.
It will be difficult to come out of this alive, but the talent is there to take down some good teams this season.
One of the Blue Bloods is due for a national championship in 2015. While Duke and Kentucky will be the favorites to pull it off, don’t count out the Tar Heels.
A high preseason ranking will accompany North Carolina this year, but that’s because the expectations are so high.
Somebody has to win the title this year and UNC wants to make sure they snap their title drought this year. They’ll rely on a combination of experience, youth and depth to get them there.