By Jones Angell
It is a bummer whenever a season comes to an end without a championship.
The 2014 Carolina basketball season was no different. The latest edition of Tar Heel hoops took us all on a fun yet unpredictable journey with a very likable group of players and coaches and it was disheartening when it was over.
In the immediate aftermath of a season-ending loss (in this case a gut-wrenching 75-73 loss to Iowa State in the round of 32 of the NCAA Tournament) it is hard to see much positive. Tar Heel head coach Roy Williams even said he felt as though the post-loss locker room was one of, if not the most emotional post-game scenes he has experienced in his 26 years as a head coach. You are not finding the silver linings or celebrating the successes along the way in that moment.
Losing is no fun, particularly when the team is as tight-knit as this latest Tar Heel group was. However, now that some time has passed, the excitement and anticipation for the 2015 season is already building.
Need a primer on why to be excited?
Here are five reasons to be enthusiastic (if you weren't already) about the 2015 Carolina basketball season:
1. Marcus Paige is back. Paige had a 'Tyler Hansbrough 2006' type of season this year as he grabbed a hold of Tar Heel fans by his consistently spectacular play (including games of 32 points in a win over Louisville and 35 in the memorable victory at NC State), his desire to take and make big shots and his extreme likability off the court. "You can't find a better kid," said Williams of his star guard. "(He's) just an incredible young man. He's a really, really big-time basketball player and he's a heck of a lot better person. He may have one of the biggest hearts of anybody that's played at North Carolina."
Paige averaged a team-high 17.5 points and paced the Tar Heels with 143 assists this season. He will likely be a preseason All-America leading into next season.
2. JP Tokoto and Brice Johnson are poised for big seasons. Tokoto and Johnson both made huge leaps from their freshman seasons to their sophomore years at Carolina and, with a similar growth arc, could become big-time impact players next year. Both are extraordinarily gifted athletes which have refined their games. Tokoto has become a much better shooter and decision maker. Johnson has worked hard to improve the consistency of his effort and his defensive acumen. Both can really improve, and if they do, could be something special.
3. Three elite-level prospects are joining Carolina basketball. Point guard Joel Berry (Williams: "A true quarterback on the floor.") and wing players Justin Jackson ("He's 6'8 with perimeter skills...he has wonderful skills.") and Theo Pinson ("He can do almost everything on the court and do it well.") join Carolina basketball next season and all have impressive credentials. All three are McDonald's All-Americas. All three are consistently ranked among the Top 25 incoming freshmen in the nation. And, importantly to Williams, all three are winners. "The three freshmen coming in are really gifted basketball players," explained Williams. "They know how to win. All three of them won state championships and I love that. I think they'll really help us."
4. Don't forget about Isaiah Hicks. Hicks had a quiet season for the Tar Heels as he adjusted to the college game. The Oxford, North Carolina native averaged just 1.2 points and 1.0 rebound per game, but don't be shocked if he plays a much larger role in the future.
The talent is there for Hicks. For the betterment of the team he played out of position most of the season. Because of Carolina's roster limitations on the wings the freshman played the final 75 percent of the season exclusively at the small forward position which moved him to a more perimeter based game. Hicks has the talent to do that, but seems even more suited to excel at the power forward spot which he will likely move back to next season.
Give him an off-season of college level weight training, the year of experience on the floor and a likely move back to his more natural spot and watch out.
5. Roy Williams is the head coach. Every season this is the case (and he says he wants to coach six to ten more years) Carolina will have a chance to compete at the highest level. Williams has a proven philosophy he believes and trusts in, but is malleable enough to change with his personnel. He recruits well and has shown the ability to develop that talent. He has a tremendous staff around him. Williams is a winner who loves Carolina.
Who's ready for 2015?