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UNC vs. Northern Iowa: Three things to watch

What to look for when the defending champs open the 2017-18 season.

NCAA Basketball: Final Four Championship Game-Gonzaga vs North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

The North Carolina Tar Heels officially open the 2017-18 season tomorrow evening against Northern Iowa in Chapel Hill. With an absence in the backcourt and questions in the frontcourt, there are plenty of areas to watch in the early season.

Pinson and Johnson to Set the Example

When UNC hits the Smith Center court Friday night, they will be without senior point guard Joel Berry II. The point guard runs the on-court show in Chapel Hill, and Berry will undoubtedly be the floor general once again for the Tar Heels.

However, in his absence there must be players to step up and fill the on-court leadership void left by Berry. Two veteran leaders, Theo Pinson and Cameron Johnson, must set the defensive and offensive tones for this team.

Much like last year, Pinson can lead by example through his defensive efforts and support on the glass. A young Carolina frontcourt will need this type of support.

Pinson was worked in at point guard during the Disaster Relief Jamboree, but this was likely an exercise to improve his comfort running the offense if necessary. His playmaking ability is well known, but with Seventh Woods and Jalek Felton available, Pinson’s point guard duties may be limited to relief or emergency situations.

For Johnson, his offensive ability have been on display in the preseason. He shot very well in the Disaster Relief Jamboree, and was not afraid to put up some shots against Barton College, going 4-12 from the field, including 1-6 from three.

By all accounts, Johnson has meshed with the team very well. The biggest question will be when he has a day like the one against Barton College, how will he work to get himself and his teammates higher percentage shots?

Roy Williams teams have never lived and died by the three-pointer, but with the inexperience in the frontcourt, Johnson, Berry, Felton, Kenny Williams, and Andrew Platek may see more opportunities than in the past to shoot from deep.

Johnson’s experience and judgment on the offensive end of the floor will be an important factor in the offensive efficiency of this team, especially without Berry on the floor.

Which Freshman Big Man Takes the Early Lead?

There is a spot at the five for the taking for a freshman. Who will seize the opportunity? Garrison Brooks (6’9”), Brandon Huffman (6’10”), Sterling Manley (6’11”), and to a lesser extent Walker Miller (6’10”) will compete for a starting (or, depending on the lineup, the first big man in relief) position.

Coach Williams said at Carolina’s media day that Brooks is farther along than Huffman and Manley, but that he was “scared to death about those big guys.” He joked that if you took the best characteristics out of the four freshman big men and combined them into one, “you still wouldn’t have a player.” Ol’ Roy knows how to downplay the personnel situation to the press while providing some of that push to the players that was last seen with Brice Johnson.

Since a variety of lineups were used during the jamboree, the only other indication of the early frontrunner comes from the starting lineup from the Barton College exhibition. In that game, Brooks got the start, along with Luke Maye, Johnson, Pinson, and Woods.

Against Barton College, Brooks was the leading rebounder for the Tar Heels, pulling down nine rebounds. He scored 13 points in the game, doing 5-8 from the field and netting three free throws.

Both Huffman and Manley had seven rebounds against Barton, and both hit three field goals from the field. Manley had eight points on 3-4 shooting and 2-2 from the line, while Huffman had six points on 3-7 from the field.

Perhaps the big guys will be in some type of rotation early on in the season to gain experience, or maybe Williams rides the hot horse. These questions in the frontcourt will certainly be answered, in some fashion, by the ACC opener on December 30.

With Talent on the Perimeter, Where Will the Minutes Go?

As mentioned previously, there is now a potential arsenal of shooters. While Johnson is a known quantity from his performances last year with Pitt, the rest of the perimeter shooters are not defined yet.

Kenny Williams found himself to be a streaky shooter last season before his injury, but he made his mark as one of the top on-the-ball defensive players on the team.

Jalek Felton is described by Coach Williams as the most gifted offensive player on the team, but his defensive efforts have been lacking in the preseason.

Andrew Platek was recruited as a shooter, but his immediate contributions may come from his “scrappiness” and work on the defensive end of the floor.

Throw in a healthy Joel Berry, Luke Maye at the stretch four, and Pinson anywhere from the three to the point, and it seems to be a bit crowded around the perimeter.

Although the end result of games and the season can be easily agreed upon, the opinions for the best method in which that is achieved may differ among UNC fans. If some type of rotation occurs with the perimeter players, at the very best, there will be fresh and capable reserves that will play at a high level in relief of the starters. At the worst, there will criticisms of squandering younger talent and imbalance in the minutes.

It will be much more interesting to see how Roy Williams juggles the lineups as the season marches towards conference play. Perhaps there will be similar (but maybe not as extreme) combinations tomorrow night as there were at the jamboree.