To say that Brice Johnson had a good season would be a huge understatement. He was absolutely sensational this year as an integral part of the Tar Heels’ run to the national championship game. Improving his shooting by 7.8% from the previous season, the senior power forward was a stat sheet-stuffer, leading his team in points per game (19.0), FG %: (61.2%), rebounds per game (9.3), and blocks per game (2.7). He was explosive in the paint on both ends of the floor, grabbing 416 boards and posting 23 Double-Doubles in a single season (both new records at UNC). These achievements ultimately secured his unanimous selection to the Associated Press’ 2015-16 All-America team and one of two consensus First Team All-ACC athletes, joined by UVA star Malcom Brogdon. Johnson finished the season with the 3rd highest PER in the country at 33.43, capturing the attention of several NBA teams with his combination of size, strength, and efficiency. The Los Angeles Clippers selected him as the 25th pick in the draft (many people considered this a steal; he has a large potential upside and a high ceiling). The Tar Heels’ may have come up short in their hopes for a sixth national title, but Johnson’s performance through the season will not soon be forgotten.
Marcus Paige did not perform the way he was expected to this season, probably in spite of the fact that he missed the first six games of the season due to a broken bone in his right hand. Paige went into his senior year being named the preseason ACC Player of the Year, so many were bullish on the prospect of him exploding at some point during the season. The expectations for him were a bit too high, as he ended up performing worse this season than his junior year, statistically speaking. The point guard was one of the better defenders in the conference, but his accuracy from the field dropped by 3.8%, accompanied by a sharp decrease in assists and steals. Going into the tournament, he did not appear to be a game-changer by any means, but that’s where the critics were silenced.
Paige would have been given a much lower grade had he not been so instrumental to UNC’s postseason run. He was an absolute sniper in the tournament, especially beyond the arc. When the Tar Heels cruised past FGCU and Providence to meet the #5 seed Indiana Hoosiers the Sweet Sixteen, Paige hit the ground sprinting. He went 4-4 from behind the arc in the first 5 minutes of the game, finishing the game with 21 pts and 6 assists in a 101-86 victory. After taking down Notre Dame and Syracuse, Paige had a chance to showcase his talents on college basketball’s biggest stage, giving his team a shot at their sixth national title against the #2 seed Villanova Wildcats. Paige’s shooting was spotty for the first half and most of the second half, but then came crunch time. UNC was down 70-64 with 1:35 left to go, and Villanova lit a fire underneath Paige. Instead of getting burned (for the time being), he got hot. In the next 1:29, Paige scored 5 points, putting the Tar Heels down by 3 at 74-71. Then he hit the shot heard ‘round the world. Well, the first shot heard ‘round the world. His double-clutch circus shot tied the game up with :04 left on the clock. It looked like Paige had saved the Tar Heels’ season for another 5 minutes, but Kris Jenkins had other plans. In a nail-biting battle against Villanova, Marcus Paige’s unlikely bucket was cemented in college basketball folklore as the greatest shot to never be remembered. Paige was drafted by the Brooklyn Nets as the 55th pick and then traded to the Utah Jazz.
Joel Berry II
Coming back from an injury-riddled freshman year, Joel Berry II stepped up and had a great season. The sophomore combo guard led the team in assists per game (5.0) and steals per game (1.2), while also playing the role of a sharpshooting-2. Perhaps his most dynamic performance was in the ACC tournament, where the Tar Heels took down Pittsburgh, Notre Dame, and Virginia. Berry was named tournament MVP after averaging 17 ppg and shooting a whopping 70.8% from the field over three games, while also committing zero turnovers against Notre Dame and Virginia. While Berry may not possess the athletic prowess that Brice Johnson has or the big-time flare that Marcus Paige has, he made up for it with a solid assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.44 and consistency from midrange, beyond the arc, recording an *Effective FG % of 53.1%. Berry was especially reliable when it mattered most for the Tar Heels: their final stand against Villanova. Berry scored 7-12 from the field, shooting 4-4 in 3-pt FGs. Going into his junior season, Joel Berry II has the ability to be one of the ACC’s premier guards and take his team on another strong tournament run.
*Effective FG% takes into account that 3-pt FG are worth more
Justin Jackson didn’t have the breakout year that UNC fans were hoping for him to have. The sophomore point forward increased his points per game from 10.7 to 12.2, but his accuracy decreased by 2.36% from his freshman year. He lacked the size that someone his height at the forward position is usually expected to have, but he made up for it with sound passing skills and a respectable basketball IQ. In the national championship, Jackson made little contribution with 9 points, 4 rebounds and 2 assists. Jackson has the potential to be a solid player, but he has work to do. His decision to forgo the 2016 NBA Draft was certainly a smart move, and his return to UNC will be key for the Tar Heels, considering the caliber of talent leaving the team.
Although Roy Williams was unsuccessful in winning his third national title, he certainly delivered on all the preseason hype that his team was receiving. UNC was the preseason favorite to win the ACC and ranked #2 by ESPN in the way-too-early Top 25. After a close loss to Wisconsin in the 2015 West Regional Semifinals, Williams was focused on taking this young team and turning them into a powerhouse. The only contributor the Tar Heels lost was J.P Tokoto, giving Williams a lot of returning talent to work with. The hall of famer coach emphasized the importance of free throws and lockdown defense to his team, and they followed through with a team FT% of 73.8% and an average scoring margin of 12.8. His thirteenth season as head coach proved to be top-tier, posting a 33-7 record with an ACC regular season and tournament title. With a career record of 365-108 in Chapel Hill, Roy Williams continues to make the case for him being among college basketball’s all-time great coaches.