#4 North Carolina by Russell Steinberg

Photo: Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

Put all the other stuff aside for a second. Forget the investigations, the possible penalties and the endless vitriol likely to be spewed from opposing fans all year.

On the court, the North Carolina Tar Heels should be as good as any other team in the country. Maybe better.

Last year’s Tar Heels won 26 games, earned a No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament and reached the ACC Tournament title game. This year, they return every contributor from that team with the exception of J.P. Tokoto and have added a pair of four-star freshmen.

The strength of this North Carolina team lies in its experience. The Tar Heels will likely start two seniors and two juniors to go along with sophomore Justin Jackson, who could be the best player on the team after Marcus Paige.

Paige, Jackson and Brice Johnson all have All-American potential, while Kennedy Meeks is coming off a season in which he recorded nine double-doubles. Nate Britt is projected to be the lone newcomer to the starting lineup, but played 15 minutes per game last year, averaging 5.5 points and 1.5 assists per game.

Isaiah Hicks figures to be the first one off the bench. From his freshman to sophomore year, Hicks saw his minutes per game double en route to being named the team’s most improved player. And although he started just three games all year, Hicks appeared in six of the team’s 10 most frequently used lineups down the stretch, according to KenPom.

Joel Berry II gets the role of backup point guard if he isn't starting next to Paige. Though undersized, he’s strong and quick, and seemed to hit his stride at the right time last year. Theo Pinson will join him and give the team some versatility on the wing. The highly touted recruit last year had a quiet freshman season, but should see more time backing up Paige and Jackson.

North Carolina was a young but incredibly balanced team last year, ranking second in the nation in both rebounds and assist per game. It also had a top-10 offensive efficiency, according to KenPom, and the 34th-best effective field goal percentage defense.

Another year of experience should help even more, and the Tar Heels will need it too, because like in 2014-15, this year’s group will play a daunting schedule. The ACC figures again to be the toughest conference in the country, with three of the top six teams in the AP Poll coming from the league and eight teams either in the Top 25 or receiving votes.

Out of conference, it won’t be any easier for North Carolina. A home game against No. 3 Maryland highlights the slate, but the Tar Heels also visit Texas and Northern Iowa, and face UCLA on a neutral court. Other games to watch include matchups with Temple, Northwestern and Davidson.

For now, it appears North Carolina has the makings of a Final Four team. We’ll find out if that’s true early on.

How the Tar Heels can succeed: The starters continue to complement each other

North Carolina has an all-conference candidate at nearly every spot in its lineup. Paige is coming off arthroscopic knee surgery, but all indications are that he’s back to 100 percent. The senior can play on or off the ball, knocking down 40 percent of his three-point attempts and dishing out around five assists per game.

Paige will have the luxury of taking on a scorers’ role this season with Britt likely to run the point. This will be an increased role for Britt, but he has played important minutes through his first two years in Chapel Hill and has earned the trust of coach Roy Williams. If he falters, Berry will be the first one up to replace him.

It will be interesting to see how Pinson and freshman Kenny Williams fit into the picture. Pinson missed significant time last year with a foot injury, but came to North Carolina as a McDonald’s All-American. After offseason surgery, he is supposedly back to full strength and will see time off the bench at the 2 and 3. Williams is known as a deadly shooter with range and an extensive offensive skillset.

And that’s not even mentioning the frontcourt. Johnson, entering his senior season, has the potential to be one of the best bigs in the ACC. He and Meeks down low provide an imposing and athletic interior presence on both ends. Meeks appears to be in the best shape of his career, and though he’s not as tall as other centers, him and Johnson should be plenty imposing defensively.

At their best, the Tar Heels will have no shortage of ways to attack the basket and no shortage of second-chance opportunities with those two inside. Get everybody going at the same time, and opposing coaches will be left with few options.

How Tar Heels can go home early: A lack of shooting aside from Marcus Paige

Let’s be honest: barring injury, there is not much that can keep North Carolina from having a strong season. With so many different weapons, the Tar Heels won’t struggle much if someone has an off game. But the best way to slow them down might be to figure out how to neutralize Paige, the team's only plus outside shooter. Regardless of which guard position he is playing, he will touch the ball nearly every time down the court.

If North Carolina needs a quick spurt of offense, Paige will shoot the three. If the Tar Heels have an advantage inside, he will distribute. If Britt or Berry are struggling, Paige can run the point. Paige is an excellent defender, making him that much more important. As a junior, he was named team defensive player of the year, and has led by example on that end for three years.

He’s also the emotional leader of the team. With such an experienced group, that may not mean much, but we will see what happens the first time he is truly tested.

Of course, taking Paige out of the game is a lot easier said than done. The ACC’s best hope might be that Paige is not as healthy as he says, but there’s no indication that that’s the case. In other words, stopping Paige might be the best way to beat Carolina, but good luck figuring out how to do it.

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