Carolina's trip to Virginia on Sunday night (8 p.m. on ESPNU, with the Tar Heel Sports Network on the air at 7 p.m.) marks the first Atlantic Coast Conference competition for a freshman quartet that has played an important role this year. They're about to encounter even more difficult circumstances than they've faced before, as league opponents will scout and re-scout the Tar Heels, forcing the rookies to make adjustments even as they play through some of the toughest opponents of the season.
Early returns, however, suggest the Carolina youngsters are capable of making a few adjustments of their own. Here's a look at the progress of the Tar Heel freshmen.
The South Carolina native was the early surprise of the Carolina freshman class, scoring double figures in two of his first three college games. He was recently cited by stats maven Ken Pomeroy as one of the nation's most productive seventh men, and he continues to score at a high rate--Johnson's eight double-digit scoring performances are tied with notable volume scorer P.J. Hairston for third on the roster--and efficiently (Johnson's 63.2% field goal accuracy mark leads the team).
But as Tar Heel fans have repeatedly observed, Johnson's scoring numbers haven't necessarily translated into minutes. He's started just two games, the fewest of the James/Desmond Hubert/Johnson big man trio. He's played exactly the same number of minutes as James.
Williams has been very clear on what Johnson needs to do to earn more playing time. Just before he reinserted the freshman into the UNLV game with under six minutes remaining, the head coach crouched in front of Johnson, put his hands on the big man's knees, and gave him one very simple, very pointed message.
"He told me to run," Johnson said. "Stop jogging. He said he'd showed me on the tape that there were times I was jogging, and now I needed to run. He's showing me that I can't take off even one play."
Johnson could be especially valuable in Sunday's ACC opener, as he's one of the very few Tar Heels shooting better from the field on the road (he's hitting 66.7% of his shots in Carolina's true road games).
"(Coach Williams) wants us to run the system but also to be who we are. He gives us certain secondary (break) options, and sometimes I tried to focus too much on running those exactly. If I see an opening, the ultimate goal is to score a basket. That gave me confidence to divert from the exact pattern of the play and make a play."
And this is Paige after the UNLV game, explaining how he saw the window that led him to a clutch hoop against the then-No. 20 Rebels with six minutes remaining:
"The way they were playing the pick and roll, the guard would jump the high side and not let you use it," he said. "So I saw the lane and attacked...When the shot clock runs low, you have to make a play. If the ball is in my hands with 10 to 12 seconds left, I'm supposed to be able to create a shot for my teammates or get to the free throw line. The defense didn't help over, so I was able to score the basketball."
When you hear discussion of players beginning to grasp the college game, that kind of ability to recognize and adjust on the fly is what they're talking about.
Paige has quietly played very well lately. He has just two turnovers in his last 59 minutes and is averaging just one turnover every 14.8 minutes since sitting out the UAB game with a shoulder injury. Prior to that game, he was committing a turnover every 8.2 minutes played.
That doesn't mean, though, that he's completely conquered every aspect of being a college point guard. He was called for a foul on a three-point shooter late in the UNLV game, and then let the foul carry over and distract him in the following minutes.
"It messed with my focus in the huddle," Paige said. "I was supposed to run an inbounds play and I forgot part of the inbounds play because I was too worried about the foul. It funked me out a little."
Next up for Paige: he needs to control a game on the road the same way he has lately at home. He has 22 assists and 17 turnovers in six games away from the Smith Center, as compared to 30 assists and 13 turnovers in six home games.
Tokoto has had the most classical freshman Tar Heel experience. There are times it looks like he's about to fall out of the rotation--he played just 15 combined minutes against Florida Atlantic and Long Beach--but also times when he has looked to be an essential cog.
It's been the latter lately, as he's played double-digit minutes in five straight games, and has grabbed at least one offensive rebound in all five of them. For a player who Williams has said "has a chance to be the best offensive rebounder I've coached here," and on a team where rebounding is a need, that's a key contribution.
Notably, he's also earning second-half minutes (five against UNLV), a sure sign that he's gaining some trust. Tokoto is in an interesting spot. He's played the fewest minutes of any freshman, and he plays a position where the Tar Heels have significant depth. But the assets he possesses are different than the other players competing for playing time. If he can continue to contribute in short bursts, he has an opportunity to build a meaningful role.
Here's a tricky one. James's minutes have decreased lately-after averaging 21.8 minutes in Carolina's first four games, he's averaged just seven minutes in the Tar Heels' last four contests. In that stretch, he's 2-for-6 from the field and has almost as many turnovers (6) as rebounds (7).
But no matter how much he goes through the normal freshman struggles, he's still struggling while being 6-foot-10, 260 pounds. It's pretty simple. If he can hold on to the ball, James brings a needed presence to this year's post-thin rotation. But even though his potential is obvious, and you get the feeling we're going to laugh about this difficult stretch in a couple years, this year's Tar Heels can't afford to give very many possessions away.