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UNC Basketball 2017-2018 Preview: Juniors

The smallest class on the court will be the key to the season

Butler v North Carolina Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

I’m just going to go ahead and get this out of the way to start. Any time there’s a discussion of Luke Maye, you think about the shot. So, rather than tease it, let’s just go ahead and relive that moment:

Feels so good, doesn’t it?

The junior class is only two players deep this season, and unlike the senior or sophomore classes it isn’t due to the NBA. Thanks to one having a season-ending injury and the other being a primary bench player who didn’t even average a full half of basketball, their impact for both last season and this one is easy to take lightly.

Kenny Williams and Luke Maye are not going to be the first guys you name when you think of this basketball team. For this Carolina team to even have a chance at making another deep NCAA run, however, these two juniors will be the key.

Let’s take a look at them.

#24 Kenny Williams III (6’ 4”, 185)

NCAA Basketball: Notre Dame at North Carolina Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

A remarkable “What if” for last season is “what if Kenny hadn’t suffered a season ending knee injury?” You can’t do any better than a National Title, but you do wonder if one more player who had both shooting acumen and defensive skill would have knocked a couple losses off the record. It might have saved a few heart attacks for Carolina fans as well.

Up to the point of the injury, Williams was having a great season. He started 22 games, averaging 23.7 minutes a game and slipped into the wing spot that opened up when Marcus Paige graduated. He managed a sub-50% field goal percentage, but shot 34% from three, and averaged 3.3 rebounds a game. Williams was all over the court, and earned his time because he was a hawk on defense.

It’s why the news of Williams’ knee injury after the State win in Raleigh was greeted with collective groans. It chopped out a wing defender, and would require Berry to shoulder an even greater load. That the team recovered and managed to march on to the title said a lot about both the coaching and the leadership on the floor, but Kenny was missed (see UVA and ACC Tournament).

Williams is now fully cleared for basketball activities, but will he start? At least so far, it looks like the answer is no. This may not be a bad thing, as the depth on the wing will allow him to work his way back to full playing shape. There will probably be some rust in the early going as he’s only really been playing basketball again since October 7th.

The key for Williams will be how quickly he shakes off the rust and starts to return to form. When he’s on the court with Berry, he will never draw a primary defender, and is also likely to see more options on the secondary break thanks to the youth in the middle. Look for him to take advantage of longer rebounds as well, which will be huge in saving possesions for a team that will likely be shooting from deep a lot more. On defense, he will play a big role with Theo in trying to help deny ball movement, as they don’t have Meeks, Hicks, or Bradley as safety nets anymore.

By the end of the season, if you see Williams returning to his 20 minutes/game stretch, it’s a good sign for this team.

#32 Luke Maye (6’ 8”, 240)

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-South Regional-Kentucky vs North Carolina Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

If Williams’ season was expected, Maye’s most certainly was not. It’s tough to pinpoint the moment when Maye became the guy we loved seeing off the bench, but it may have been the first Kentucky game. Out of nowhere, Maye pumped in all 11 of his points in the second half, and kept Carolina in that game prior to the heartbreak at the end.

Roy Williams clearly remembered how successful Maye was against the Wildcats.

The basket that Maye sunk to win brought his point total to 17 for the game, well above the 5.5 he averaged for the year. He was the talk of the week, and everyone’s hidden gem for the Final Four.

That...didn’t quite hold up, and that becomes the biggest question for the hero of the Elite Eight. Maye had his moments last season, and he had times when he seemed to dissappear on the court. It was easier to get away with it when you’re only averaging 14 minutes a game, but a lot more is going to be required of him with the deep losses in the front court. He’ll see a lot more time against a team’s best 4, and will be tasked with trying to chip in more than 3.9 boards a game and 5.5 points.

The advantage Maye will have is his range. In this day where your 4 is just as likely to pull up from deep as he is to drive to the basket, Maye is a player who will stay with someone on defense versus those in the past. He also has a pretty good shot from deep, hitting 40% last year. If defenders have to take that shot seriously it can take some pressure off the young big men down low, as teams won’t be able to double the post.

The Final Four games should have given Luke plenty of tape to know where he needs to work on his game, and if he takes a similar leap that he took last season, then he’ll make Jake’s prediction of All-ACC come true.