UNC Basketball: Juniors failing to show progress for Tar Heels

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Feb 2, 2015; Chapel Hill, NC, USA; North Carolina Tar Heels head coach Roy Williams reacts in the second half. The Cavaliers defeated the Tar Heels 75-64 at Dean E. Smith Center. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Coming into the season, North Carolina returned many of their best players from the 2013-14 campaign. In fact, only two major contributors, James Michael McAdoo and Leslie McDonald, left the team, and a plethora of talented players, including Marcus Paige, J.P. Tokoto and Kennedy Meeks, were returning to Chapel Hill. Each one of those players was expected to take a step up and help the Tar Heels improve upon their record of 24-10 from 2013-14.

25 games into the 2014-15 basketball schedule, fans can get a pretty clear picture of who has improved from last year to this one, and who hasn’t. Isaiah Hicks looked lost as a freshman but has made a huge improvement as a sophomore. He is averaging 6.9 points per game, up from 1.2 points last season, and is seeing a lot more of the floor. Kennedy Meeks is another sophomore who has really improved his game. He shed a lot of weight over the summer and is playing good basketball for the Tar Heels. And how about Nate Britt, who has added a jump shot to his game after struggling so much from the field last year.

Many expected the junior class to take a huge step forward, like much the sophomores have. Marcus Paige was expected to build upon his excellent campaign last year to become a contender for the Wooden Award and maybe even put himself in contention for a first round NBA Draft choice. J.P. Tokoto was another guy who had a lot of room to improve after his sophomore season. He has always been an amazing athlete but couldn’t put together a complete game. Joel James and Brice Johnson were two big men who were also bookmarked to both improve. James had all the physical tools in the world but couldn’t seem to make basketball plays that one sees at a collegiate level.

The problem is this season that none of the juniors, save for Brice Johnson, have really improved much. Marcus Paige, J.P. Tokoto and Joel James all haven’t taken that next step, and the Heels haven’t been able to take that next step partly for this reason.

Before I start, let me preface this analysis with two things that could hold back the improvement of each of these players — injuries and outside issues surrounding the program. First, injuries have really hurt the Heels. This especially applies to Marcus Paige. I don’t know the extent of his injury other than that he has struggled with foot and ankle problems. That is a perfectly good reason for a players growth to stagnate.

Also, outside issues or distractions have plagued the team, especially in the past week. It is hard to quantify the effect of the loss of Dean Smith and Stuart Scott in the same season, but it has taken a toll. Keep these two things in mind as we go about dissecting the three player’s performances.

First, let’s take a look at Joel James.

Next: Joel James