A lot gone from last year's squad, how in the world do you try and replace all of that?
"You don't replace that because they were talented and experienced ... We have some talent on our club right now - they're going to have to step forward - and the majority of it is not experienced. You don't replace John Henson's ability to block shots - maybe better than anybody that's ever played at Carolina. You don't replace Kendall Marshall, who had 351 assists with a team that shot it poorly. You don't replace Tyler Zeller's leadership, the ACC Player of the Year that you depended on every day in every phase of your program. You don't replace Harrison Barnes, and the ability that he had to score that the other team has to aim their defense at.
"It's college basketball, it's the culture we have now. Reggie and James Michael played significant roles last year as complementary players and now they need to step up when the defense is aimed at them. Dexter and Leslie have to come back from major surgery and be able to pick up where they left off and improve. Then you're talking about P.J. and Desmond have to be players this year and four freshmen have to step up. The non-experience factor is the biggest negative we have. It's a big time challenge for those players to step into bigger roles."
What does James Michael need to do to take that next step to an elite college player?
"He's got to be able to do it when the defense is aimed at him ... Now they know how he is and that's who they are going to be guarding. To me, in football, Gio is carrying the ball, returning punts, receiving the ball and the other team knows that and he's still kicking their rear ends. Making that step is a huge step. James Michael has to be able to do that and Reggie has to be able to do that. We have to collectively be much stronger, particularly at the start. and can't rely on an individual ... This group has to play well on game night. Step out in front of the lights and play well - if not, we'll stink it up."
How far along are Dexter and Leslie in their progress in being ready to play?
"They're ready to play and they'll both play Friday night. Physically they've got to be able to stand a bad landing or pushing off on that leg, and responding defensively. They're doing well in practice physically but they still have to do it in a game. Leslie hasn't played basketball of any consequence in a year and a half so it's a big time change for him."
How are those freshmen coming along?
"It's a fantastic group of kids and I just enjoy the heck out of all of them and they're unique, each and every one of them. Marcus will probably start. James Michael will start, and the other four - Joel, Brice, Desmond, Jackson - one of them will start and we don't know who that is going to be that yet. J.P. the last couple of practices has started to believe when I tell him he can be the best offensive rebounder I've ever seen on the perimeter because he can do that. He has been walking around like a zombie and then all of a sudden J.P. Tokoto showed up at practice yesterday, and got 8 million rebounds and did it again today. He has trouble shooting the ball, but defensively and rebounding he can be a tremendous weapon.
"It sounds like I'm talking about Jackie Manuel and he has those kinds of qualities but is a much better athlete. Joel and Brice are going to be very good players - I hope it's this season and if it's not this season I hope it's during my career. They are going to be very very good players, it's just when."
How are things going with Hubert Davis as a member of your staff?
He's been fantastic. ... Losing Jerod Haase was a tremendous blow. ... Filling his shoes is really, really difficult and I think we found the best person in the world to do that in Hubert Davis. One of the finest youngsters I've ever known in my entire life. I loved him when I saw him in camp as a little kid, loved him when we recruited him. I remember in the in-home (visit), Coach Smith said 'Hubert, I think it might be very difficult for you to play at North Carolina.' And I spoke up very defensively, because I didn't like to do that in front of Coach Smith, and I said 'Coach, I think he'll play more than we think.'
"I trusted Hubert that much. Needless to say, he had a great career here. The best role model, the best person that I could ever think of for the job of taking Jerod Haase's play is Hubert and he's been phenomenal."
How would you describe this team's potential to play defense and rebound at a championship level this year?
"I do think we can be very good defensively. Last year's team wasn't consistent with it and I think this year's team has to be really good defensively, I think they understood that, and they will be. Last year was the best rebounding team in all of college basketball - that's a high challenge for this year's team. We led 336 teams - No. 1 in the country - in rebound margin. We need to be a big time rebounding team and we have some potential, but it's extremely young. We're trying to get them to do regular secondary break. We put that in back July 17th and in the first play of the scrimmage we didn't even do that properly. They're freshmen, there's no telling what the dickens they're going to do."
Do you have to adjust your offensive mindset with this team because of the inexperience at the post and PG spots?
"There's no question our personnel can't do the things we did last year. .... We have more depth at the '2' and '3' on the wing so that's the strength of our team because it's experienced talent. We are doing some things differently, I'm giving them new principles to go by and we're giving guys on the wing a little more freedom. ... If they make shots I'll be giving them more freedom. You do have to change to fit your club, no question."
Would think that's a significant change for you ...
"Oh, it is, I'm not comfortable with it, but I'm more comfortable with Reggie Bullock shooting the ball then one of those freshmen big guys. That's pretty easy to figure out. ... You still believe in sound fundamental basketball, still believe in running the ball, still believe in guarding people, still believe in rebounding -- and then it gets to who you give more freedom to on the offensive end."
On his travels to watch former players last week:
“It was a whirlwind last week for about four days, but it was great. Wednesday was a day off and we flew to Phoenix to see Harrison Barnes play against Kendall [Marshall]. The first game for both of them. Unfortunately, Kendall didn’t play, but we were there and gave them their rings from last season and the whole bit. It was a wonderful experience to be there and Kendall’s mom and dad and sisters were there and his grandmother and his aunt, so it was a neat deal. We got back about 6:30 in the morning on Thursday and practiced and had a great day.
“On Friday, we practiced at 6:30am so I could go back out again because I went to Orlando Friday night to watch Jacque Vaughn, who was my point guard at Kansas for four years and was the Tyler Zeller of that time, he was the Academic All-American of the Year. It was his first game as a head coach in the NBA and they were playing Denver with George Karl as the head coach and Ty Lawson… “
And then came back here late Friday night and then Saturday went to Milwaukee and it was Cleveland with Tyler Zeller playing against the Milwaukee Bucks with John Henson. Also on Milwaukee’s [roster] is Drew Gooden that played for me at Kansas and Joe Wolf, one of the assistant coaches for the Bucks…
“We got back in about 4:00 in the morning on Sunday and had a big-time scrimmage [Sunday] afternoon, so it was a whirlwind four days, but I love those things. I think that I should do those things. I want those kids to know that they’re gone, but they’re still part of the North Carolina basketball family and that will never change.”
How do you think Marcus Paige can do as your starting point guard this year?
“Well, I must think he’s going to do pretty well or I wouldn’t have him in that spot. That’s one way to answer it, but who knows. Kids, as freshmen, sometimes they get shattered early. Quinton Thomas was a wonderful guy for us and ended up his senior year, when Bobby [Frasor] went down and then Ty Lawson went down, he played in big-time games for us and did a great job, but his freshman year, his first game we’re playing at Santa Clara and it just hit him right between the eyes. And it took him a long time to recover.
“You don’t know how freshmen are going to act until they get out there and do it, but Marcus has the ability. He’s similar to Kendall; he’s left-handed. About the same size, Kendall’s a little taller. He’s a little more athletic, a little quicker, a little better shooter, but replacing Kendall Marshall, those are big-time shoes to fill. He’s going to get some time there. Luke Davis is going to get some time there. Luke’s doing some good things for us and we feel good about making sure he gets some time…
“We’re going to have Marcus play the point, we’re going to have Dexter [Strickland] play the point and we’re going to have Luke play the point and hopefully they will all stay healthy and we’ll get good point guard play out of them.”
What kind of game does Luke Davis have and how does he fit into your plans?
“He’s a kid that pushes the ball. He’s coachable. He’s a workout fanatic. He’s a guy that leads our team in some of the drills that we do off the court. If hard work makes you be successful, then he’s got a much greater chance of being successful... This boy works at it as hard as anybody I’ve ever seen.”
Do you have any interest in doing an all-access type show that gives an inside look at your program?
“We agreed to do it last year and something fell through, because we were going to do it in preseason practice because we were picked No. 1 by a lot of people. We’ve done it in the past, but last year was going to be one of these things where they were going to be with us for three or four days or something like that, but as I said, it fell through.”
What do you think the biggest obstacles this year will be for your team?
“Outscoring the other team... Right now, I think defensively we’ll be okay and hopefully get really, really good at it before the end of the season. I’m more concerned about our offense right now and scoring points. We’ve had some great guys around here that have been able to score a lot of points in the past and some of these guys right now have to be able to step up and we have to do it collectively. We’re more worried about the offensive end of the floor than we are the defensive end.”
What can you tell us about how Joel James and Brice Johnson have progressed through the first couple of weeks of practice?
“Well, they’ve really come a long way. Joel’s just a guy that everybody’s going to love. He’s a fun kid; he’s appreciative. He’s extremely polite and he’s good. He’s just only played basketball two-and-a-half years. People think that you wake up and you’re all of a sudden great. Some guys do it instinctively, but most people learn how to play the game over a long period of time… But he’s just a wonderful kid who is going to get better and better.
“Brice Johnson is one of these kids that when we recruited him, we couldn’t get him to talk. ‘Did you have a great game last night?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘Do you think everything went well?’ ‘Yeah.’ … Now we can’t get him to shut up. He’s going to get better and better. He’s just physically not ready to battle with the way the college game is played nowadays, but he’s gifted and he’s got those fast-twitch muscle fibers that everybody likes to have. Both of them are going to be very good players for us.”
Who might be the leader on this team?
“Right now, the two best leaders on the team are the guys that have played the best and done the most last year at the end of the season – James Michael and Reggie.”
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