It was an unheralded class by UNC standards, a class that led some fans and so-called experts to question whether or not Coach Williams had lost his recruiting touch. The class featured zero five-star players and only one McDonald’s All-American. Now in their sophomore season, the class that arrived in Chapel Hill with question marks has played a major role in the school’s longest ACC winning streak since going undefeated in 1987, while each player has found an important role they bring to the team. From the all-conference playing-making guard and the team’s go-to closer to the all-around stat stuffer and defensive stopper to the valuable sixth man and emotional spark plug, together the 2012 class have improved tremendously since their freshmen season. These reasons and more are why UNC’s sophomore class are the Tar Heels most improved players this season.
A few weeks ago GoHeels.com, writer Adam Lucas told the story of the first time he saw Marcus Paige the summer before his freshman season, he confused him for a student intern when he saw the point guard walking through the Smith Center in sweats and a backpack. He then stopped by former director of basketball operations Joe Holladay’s office who smiled and told him that Paige would be All-American before he left Carolina. Coach Williams and his staff’s faith and confidence in Paige has paid off this season with the sophomore guard averaging 17.1 points, 4.5 assists, and 1.6 steals while playing a UNC record 35.6 minutes per game. He increased his scoring averaging by 9 points from 8.2 points per game last season. He scored over 20 points ten times this season and over 30 twice, scoring 32 points in his breakout performance against Louisville and 35 against N.C. State including the game-winning layup in a epic scoring duel with T.J. Warren who Paige beat out for ACC Most Improved Player on Monday. The Iowa native has been the Heels best and most important player this season getting it done on both ends of the court and that is why he was named first-team All-ACC yesterday.
Wisconsin native J.P. Tokoto arrived in Chapel Hill as a raw athlete known primarily for his outstanding athleticism and great dunking ability, which led some people to say that he was nothing more than just a dunker. After a freshman season that saw him fall out of the rotation, Tokoto has developed into one of the better all-around players in the league while seeing his playing time jump from 8 minutes per game last season to 28 minutes a game this season. He is one of only three players along with Paige and James Michael McAdoo to start every game this season expect for the traditional Senior Day starting lineup. The sophomore is averaging 9.3 points, 5.8 rebounds, 2.9 assists,1.6 steals and 0.5 blocks per game. No Tar Heel has ever averaged better numbers in all those areas than Tokoto. Not only has he become a all-around stat stuffer but he is doing this while guarding some best players in the ACC on the other side of the floor. From T.J. Warren to Rodney Hood to Joe Harris, Tokoto has guarded them all and has a result he was voted to the All-ACC Defensive team by both media and coaches.
Last season, the Tar Heels had to go with a small lineup because of the lack of the production they were getting from their front court players but last season’s weakness has become a strength this season thanks to players like Brice Johnson. The forward from South Carolina is arguably the Tar Heels best low post scorer which is why he is shooting 55% from the field this season while averaging 10.2 points per game while being on the 2nd on the team with 6.2 rebounds a game. He has also become a player that provides the emotional spark for the team, he is very expressive and has no problem showing his emotions on the floor. His energy and enthusiasm is contagious and always excites the Smith Center crowd and his teammates. He has been the Heels best bench player this season and one of the best sixth man in the country. He finished 3rd in the voting for ACC 6th Man.
The Tar Heels coaching staff has done a great job helping the 2012 class grow from their freshman to sophomore to season and they are still improving. Forward Joel James began the season as a starter but lost his spot to Kennedy Meeks. The big man is still a project but the tools are there and he has shown small glimpses of the potential he has. This class still has two more years in Chapel Hill to leave its mark but they have already proven a lot people wrong who did not expect much from this underrated group of talented sophomores.