Late Night With Roy is always an important night for Carolina basketball fans, being their first opportunity to get a look at the upcoming season’s team, see the new players in action, and get to know the team a little outside of their abilities on the court. It was Late Night With Roy that first introduced us to Joel Berry and Theo Pinson’s dance prowess, which has become an integral part of the team culture during their time in Chapel Hill.
But this year’s ceremony carried special importance: Not only was it the night that the 2017 NCAA National Championship banner was rolled down, it came on the day that UNC fans found out that the cloud that had hung over the program for close to a decade had finally lifted. The University’s battle with the NCAA is, for all intents and purposes, over, and there was certainly an extra oomph to the air of celebration permeating the Dean Smith Center on Friday Night.
The night opened with a reminder that UNC is about more than the men’s basketball program, a fact that is often forgotten in the outside world of college sports fandom: The night opened with the women’s volleyball team playing in the Dean Dome against Virginia Tech. UNC won and, in the process, set an NCAA record for highest attendance to a women’s volleyball game. Tar Heels’ passion for all of their athletic programs will never be denied.
Then, the Late Night event started proper, with Kenny “The Jet” Smith hosting the event for the third time. Up first were the women’s basketball team. Fans were introduced to a whopping five freshmen: Jocelyn Jones, Dazia Powell, Leah Church, Jaelynn Murray, and Janelle Bailey. Bailey is a name to watch out for: the 6’4 center could give the Heels the kind of inside presence they sorely lacked last season. She showed flashes of that ability in the White-Blue scrimmage game, showing off a couple of smooth post moves, soft touch around the rim, and, most importantly, the respect of her teammates. Jamie Cherry did not pass into the post very often last year, preferring to break down defenses with perimeter passing and dribble-drives, but she willingly threw it in to Bailey several times, which can only be good for an offense that was somewhat one-dimensional a year ago. Besides Bailey, last year’s MVP Paris Kea looked comfortable handling the ball up and down the court, Taylor Koenen got open outside the arc almost constantly, and the entire team defense was rather suspect against a mostly non-threatening scout team. Defense will tighten up as the team gels after the rash of new additions; coach Sylvia Hatchell had the team switch from man to zone back to man in a very quick span and while there were moments of cohesion that led to great defensive plays, the switches also caused a fair bit of disarray. The team definitely looks more balanced than it did a year ago; when they lived and died by their own three-point shot and had no defensive presence inside the arc. The addition of Bailey and the maturation of sophomore Emily Sullivan may soon make that a distant memory.
After the women, it was the men’s turn. Smith spoke about his own history with the school, having played for Dean Smith, then in the NBA, then making sure he continued to represent North Carolina on national TV as an analyst on TNT. Then, he noted that his son, Kenny “KJ” Smith Jr., is now a Tar Heel, making a good chunk of his audience suddenly feel 20 years older. The Tar Heels were introduced, including eight new faces: the 5-man freshman scholarship class - Jalek Felton, Andrew Platek, Sterling Manley, Brandon Huffman, and Garrison Brooks - the new walk-on players, Smith and Walker Miller (younger brother of former Tar Heel Wes Miller), and graduate transfer Cameron Johnson. The team conducted an entertaining skit where current players tried to recreate some of the most historically enduring shots in Tar Heel history: Michael Jordan’s 1982 championship-winner, Walter Davis capping off the 8-points-in-17-seconds comeback against Duke in 1974, Ty Lawson’s three-point floater to beat Florida State in 2009, and Luke Maye’s buzzer-beater against Kentucky in 2017. Cameron Johnson was the only player to connect on the Jordan shot, Shea Rush and KJ Smith managed to recreate the Davis basket, Brandon Huffman and Jalek Felton hit the Lawson runner (though Felton might have set up for it a little more than he should’ve), and Johnson was the only player who could conjure up the Maye magic, including Maye himself, who was given two tries and couldn’t finish on either. Guess the pressure wasn’t enough for him.
After this, the banner was revealed, and there really aren’t words to describe it, so just have a look:
And finally, the men had their scrimmage. My personal rule about open practices like this is that you can only draw good from them. The stakes are nonexistent, most of the players have not played together, and they only started practicing about a week ago. There’s a lot of time for deficiencies to be ironed out, either by coaching or by just getting into the rhythm of the season. But positives will only continue to shine through, whether it’s in flashes that grow into consistent play or in immediate contribution. That said, there was a fair bit to take away from this game, and of course the most interesting observations are about the new arrivals:
- The triumvirate of Huffman, Manley, and Brooks was heavily featured. Brooks is likely the most ready of the three, showcasing some shooting range, soft touch around the rim, great rebounding instincts, and very good feet on defense. He seems able to switch onto guards and stay in front of them, a valuable skill and not one often seen in freshman big men. He tied for the game lead with 4 rebounds to go with 4 points on 2-2 shooting. Huffman is a presence. At 6’10, 240 pounds, he carries himself very well up and down the court and will dunk whenever he gets the chance. He didn’t have the chance to show more advanced offensive skills, and did not corral a rebound. Manley had a rough day on offense, only making one of his 5 shots, but he moved well, which is encouraging for a man with his injury and growth history. He also had a good defensive game, recording the game’s only block.
- Cameron Johnson does not miss. He ran away with the high score with 13 points in the 20-minute scrimmage, including 2-3 on three-pointers including one in the face of tight defense by Theo Pinson. His free throw stroke also looks impeccable, and he showed some surprisingly strong driving ability to go with his smooth stroke.
- Jalek Felton showed what makes him UNC’s highest-rated freshman. He had two phenomenal drives to his left (he’s a righty), and finished through contact on the second after a nifty move with the ball. He also impressed with a no-look pass along the perimeter that led to easy points for his team.
- The shots didn’t fall for Andrew Platek, but he showed that he can play good fast break basketball, beating the defense down the floor and avoiding getting blocked with extension.
- Theo Pinson was the only Tar Heel other than Johnson to make multiple outside shots, going 2-6. His shooting form does not look noticeably improved from its past incarnations; he still leans backwards and retains his hitch. This is especially evident with his midrange jump shot, where he can rely much less on muscle memory than he can for his three-pointer. That said, if Pinson can hit 33% consistently, this makes him much more of a threat than he has been. He also tied Brooks for the team lead in rebounds.
- Kenny Williams looks to be moving well after his second meniscus surgery in a year, collecting 3 rebounds, bringing the ball up the court, and playing within the offense comfortably. His jump shot did not fall and he ended the game scoreless, but seeing him play at all is encouraging ahead of the season.
- Brandon “DeMar DeRozan” Robinson continues hitting an indordinate percentage of the jump shots he takes inside the arc. He went 3-4 from the field without taking a three-pointer and showed off some impressive ballhandling skills. It wasn’t talked about a lot last year in light of his struggles from beyond the arc, but Robinson was a decent jump shooter inside the arc, hitting right around the team average. If he can get back to the range he displayed in high school, then he could become a lethal offensive weapon quickly. Based on the precedent shown by players like Luke Maye, Kenny Williams, Marcus Paige, P.J. Hairston, and others, he has a solid chance.
You can see scrimmage highlights below, and other videos from the event are at UNCTarHeelsAthletics’ Youtube page, which can be found here.
The UNC women will open their season with exhibition games against Wingate (November 1) and Mount Olive (November 6) before starting the regular season against Hampton on November 10 in Carmichael Arena. The men will play an exhibition against Barton College on October 27th before starting their season against Northern Iowa on November 10 at the Dean Smith Center.