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Five Questions for UNC Men’s Basketball

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Some new questions. Some old questions. Do we have answers?

NCAA Basketball: ACC Operation Basketball Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

It’s finally here. We are on the brink of the 2018-2019 men’s college basketball season. UNC begins their season tonight at Wofford. You know, the team that beat the Heels on their own court last year. With the departures of Joel Berry II and Theo Pinson, the Heels find themselves facing a little more uncertainty than recent years.

Let’s dive into a few of the questions surrounding them. Some of these may seem familiar or repetitive, but we’re trying to dig a little deeper than, “Will Coby White or Nassir Little start?”

Sterling Manley’s Progress

The general belief is that the guard-oriented lineup will be UNC’s most talented option. With Roy’s preference for two big men, even if the “small” lineup proves to be the “best”, can the “big” lineup still be good enough to see significant minutes against the majority of opponents? Last year, the answer depended on who UNC was playing.

This season, the answer to that question lies with Sterling Manley. I freely admit that I think he’s a future NBA player and was my favorite recruit of the 2017 class. That doesn’t change the fact that Manley was always going to take three years to be a consistent impact player. Nonetheless, UNC’s ability to play with a “traditional” roster is going to depend on his growth, development, and effort.

Garrison Brooks will receive some burn down low, and his defense and rebounding ability will make him effective in short spurts at the 5. But at 6’8, he’s a combination of being undersized and lacking any discernible post moves to be a consistent factor on the block. He may find success in the early part of the season against smaller lineups, but when the calendar flips to January, nightly consistency will be hard to come by. Ditto for Luke Maye, albeit with different strengths and weaknesses.

Instead, if Manley can be productive for 13-18 minutes a night (depending on the opponent), that would allow Brooks, Maye, Nassir Little, and maybe even Leaky Black to rotate at the trail position. It would also ease the burden of Maye and Brooks having to bang down low for long stretches against taller, stronger opponents. If that seems like a lot playing time, remember he averaged 10 minutes a game as a freshman (though just 9.1 mpg in ACC play). As the only true option at center (apologies to Brandon Huffman), the effectiveness of the big-man lineup throughout the season depends on him. Full stop.

Who backs up Kenny?

With so many perimeter players, this may seem like an odd question. Kenny Williams is only one of two true “shooting guards” on this team. Andrew Platek is the other. As much as I look forward to Platek being a Dante Calabria-lite in his junior and senior seasons, I don’t think he’ll be the first one to hear his name called when KWill needs a breather. Whereas Little, Johnson, Robinson, and Black can all see time at the wing/small forward/3, the options are limited on the other side of the court.

It’s true that the wings in UNC’s defense are largely interchangeable, but Williams’ irreplaceable value comes on the defensive and getting down the court in transition. Sure, Cameron Johnson can slide up to the 2 in the offense, but he won’t be as effective on defense. Maybe Coby can slide over from the PG position to help push the pace? Running two ball handlers together with Woods and White could be a troublesome duo for opponents. Or is that where Brandon Robinson can finally carve a role for himself?

It may seem small now, but replacing a 3-and-D wing like Williams for 10-12 minutes a game may be much harder than it seems. There are answers on the bench, but it will take some time to see what those answers are.

Roster Roulette?

Yeah. We get it. This roster is deep. There has been plenty of talk about who should or will start as the season goes on. That, largely, is an overrated conversation. I’m mentally exhausted from all the “versatility” talk.

With a squad that can legitimately go 11 deep, there are going to be some weird combinations that take the court. That’s not a surprise. Most seasons, the Heels can survive Roy’s creativity. Depending on your definition of “survive”, that may or may not won’t change this fall.

With a schedule that has regularly been called the toughest non-conference slate in the country, just how much leeway does the three-time national champion coach actually give his team? At what point will he begin tightening his rotation? Last year, less heralded players like Andrew Platek and Brandon Robinson saw important minutes in numerous games. With just two departures and the arrival of three highly-touted freshmen, how much playing time is really available for trial and error in the early parts of the season?

Most seasons, roster questions revolve around if a certain player has made significant improvement or who wins a certain position battle (more on that below). This season, those questions are all over the place and are different depending who you talk to and what day of the week it is. Watching the coaching staff fit the pieces together on any given night may be more extreme than recent years. How does the team respond?

Point Guard Competition?

Ok. Before you roll your eyes, I admit this is played out. By now, most think Coby White will maintain the starting role after he stepped on the court first against Mount Olive in last week’s exhibition. Luckily, this isn’t about who will start. Instead, one has to acknowledge that both White and Seventh Woods bring different skill sets to the court. Which one is going to prove to be the best fit for this current roster?

As the season goes on, White’s scoring prowess and ability to push the ball to the basket will bring plenty of cheers and gasps from the stands. A risk, however, is that a ball-dominant scoring point guard – a freshman, at that – could stagnate the offense. As he learns when and how to initiate the offense instead of attacking the rim, can White also spread the ball around the court? How often will his youthful exuberance and aggression lead to unnecessary turnovers? How do the more experienced players handle the shift from Joel Berry?

Woods does not have the scoring acumen of White, but he brings a knowledge of the system. That knowledge, mixed with explosive athleticism and defensive ability (when healthy), are traits that will be sorely needed along the perimeter. With so many scoring options on the roster, this does this UNC team need massive offensive production from the point guard spot? Or just someone to get the ball to the right spots? Can Woods provide that steadiness as the season goes on?

Who is the “break out” player?

Every season, someone exceeds (or finally meets) expectations and becomes a household name. Some years, they turn into Tar Heel legends. The best UNC teams have had one. Sean May in 2005. Ty Lawson in 2009. Kendall Marshall and Reggie Bullock in 2012. Luke Maye, Justin Jackson, and Brice Johnson have been that player the past three seasons.

Who will that be this year? What defines “breakout”? Do Kenny Williams or Cam Johnson average 16 points behind improved three-point shooting? Does Nassir Little meet all expectations and play like the top-3 NBA draft pick he is projected to be? Maybe one of the big men turns into a double-digit rebounding machine.

Everyone has a favorite choice. As the season begins, they all seem viable. For UNC to make another deep run in March, someone has to take that step.