College Basketball

UNC’s junior class seeks improved consistency

UNC's Marcus Paige (5) steals the ball from UAB's Robert Brown (4) during their game on Saturday, December 27, 2014 at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill, N.C.
UNC's Marcus Paige (5) steals the ball from UAB's Robert Brown (4) during their game on Saturday, December 27, 2014 at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill, N.C. rwillett@newsobserver.com

They arrived at North Carolina together, and together have endured a basketball season unlike the one they expected months ago. One has recently seen his starting role vanish, though perhaps only temporarily. One continues to fight inconsistency. One has been slowed by several nagging injuries.

This isn’t how UNC’s junior class envisioned its third season on campus. J.P. Tokoto, the 6-foot-6 wing forward, was supposed to take another step after a promising sophomore season. Brice Johnson, the 6-9 forward, had hoped to become the reliable post presence UNC lacked in recent seasons.

And Marcus Paige, the versatile point guard? He entered the season the ACC Preseason Player of the Year, and a preseason All-American. Months later, he continues to play through the pain of plantar fasciitis, and through shooting woes that have followed him from month to month.

“I mean, it hasn’t been quite what I expected,” Paige said on Tuesday before UNC’s final practice before it plays at Duke on Wednesday night at Cameron Indoor Stadium. “On a personal level, I expected to be playing a little bit better. I didn’t expect to be battling nagging injuries the entire year.

“But those are some things you just can’t really control and you kind of have to roll with.”

The Tar Heels’ junior class hasn’t been disappointing, necessarily. Johnson, Paige and Tokoto have all played a large role in UNC’s success, and they’re the primary reason their team enters Cameron Indoor Stadium on Wednesday ranked among the top 15 teams in the country.

Time is running out, though, for them to meet the expectations they carried into the season. They will make the short trip to Durham on Wednesday searching for more, wanting more, expecting more. And hoping to discover it before it’s too late.

Roy Williams, the UNC coach, said on Tuesday that he doesn’t define specific expectations for his team or for any one player. His philosophy, he said, is to “just work your butt off every day – do the best you can do every day.”

“I think if you set a standard you also set a limitation,” Williams said. “ … Marcus exceeded a lot of people’s expectations (last season). So I didn’t want to have an expectation that would limit him. I said play – play your tail off. And the junior class, they’ve been pretty doggone good.

“But I always want more.”

Juniors to carry UNC

Entering the season, it seemed UNC would be as good as its juniors would allow it to be. And there have been no shortage of bright moments.

Paige, for instance, rediscovered his shooting touch in the Tar Heels’ victory at N.C. State, where he scored a season-high 23 points and made all five of his 3-pointers. Tokoto, at times, has been UNC’s most versatile player – equally adept, in stronger moments, at rebounding and passing and defending.

And Johnson has, in his best games, been the player that Williams hoped he’d be. Yet other times, Johnson has drawn Williams’ ire, and playing with intensity, especially on defense, continues to be a challenge for Johnson.

“I’m not as consistent as I thought it would be,” Johnson said on Tuesday. “I wanted to be a lot more consistent with my play this year. But I still have a couple ups and downs throughout the season.”

That has been, perhaps, the most confounding part of the season for the Tar Heels’ junior class – the inconsistency. Consistency was supposed to be a given for Paige, but even before his foot injuries, which include a sprained ankle, he wasn’t shooting as effectively as he did a season ago.

Johnson has usually produced offensively, but foul trouble sometimes limits him – as it did in a loss at Louisville in which he scored two points before fouling out after 22 minutes. And Tokoto has been so inconsistent, especially lately, that he recently lost his starting position.

He has come off the bench in the Tar Heels’ past two games – a victory at Boston College and a loss at Pittsburgh on Saturday – though his playing time hasn’t decreased overall. Tokoto dismissed a question on Saturday about whether his role his changing.

But, he said, “Obviously I’m not performing up to my ability.”

It might be too much of a stretch to the say the same for the junior class as a whole. Paige, after all, continues to lead the team in scoring and is averaging nearly 14 points per game. Johnson is averaging 12.5 points, and he leads UNC in rebounding.

Even so, the highs for the Tar Heels’ junior class haven’t been quite as high as some might have envisioned, while the lows have been lower. UNC is the opposite of Duke, which is heavily reliant on three freshmen who all start: center Jahlil Okafor, point guard Tyus Jones and small forward Justise Winslow.

In their first year in college, Duke’s freshmen have often managed to do what UNC’s juniors haven’t: produce and play at a consistently high level, game after game. Williams again on Tuesday spoke of urgency, and how “we’ve got to raise our level of intensity and do it much more consistently.”

He will turn to his juniors – to Paige and Johnson, in particular – to lead the transformation.

Carter: 919-829-8944;

Twitter: @_andrewcarter

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