clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

UNC Basketball: Wofford Game Preview

New, comments

The Terriers run out almost the exact same team; the Heels not so much. Will they be ready this time?

NCAA Basketball: Wofford at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

An intriguing Carolina team simmering with Final Four potential must first repent its worst sin from a decent but underwhelming 2017-18 season. The No. 8 Heels head three hours down I-85 to take on Wofford in Spartanburg, S.C. on Tuesday night at 7 pm, ten and a half months after the Terriers shocked UNC and the country with a 79-75 win in the Dean Dome.

Senior guard Fletcher Magee, who scored 27 points in the historic upset, returns for his final season at Wofford to follow up on a 22.1-points-per-game average last year, good for 14th in the nation. The three other Terries who averaged double figures in scoring – senior forward Cameron Jackson and junior guards Nathan Hoover and Trevor Stumpe – all remain as well. Wofford shot 41.3% from beyond the 3-point line on the season.

In other words, UNC Coach Roy Williams shouldn’t have too hard of a time grabbing his players’ attention for this season-opening test in Jerry Richardson Indoor Stadium. Carolina was fortunate to even make last year’s Dec. 20 game close, rallying from a double-digit deficit midway through the second half to within one point on two occasions late. But Wofford didn’t crack, making clutch few throws and a few key baskets to put some early Christmas coal in the Heels’ stockings.

The Heels largely salvaged their season, defeating archrival Duke twice and earning a two-seed in the NCAA tournament. However, the Heels are also desperate to shake off a disappointing performance in their most recent official action. Carolina laid an egg in in the second round of the Big Dance, getting pummeled by Texas A&M 86-65 for the second loss under Coach Williams as the seed favorite prior to the Elite Eight round (for comparison, Coach K and Duke have suffered nine such losses in the same period).

Regretfully, that was the final game in the careers of program stalwarts Joel Berry and Theo Pinson. The two 2017 champions graduated and moved on to their professional careers, and in their place arrives the next trio of talented freshman – UNC’s best recruiting class since at least 2014 (Berry, Pinson, and Justin Jackson).

Tonight marks the much-anticipated debuts of guard Coby White (Wilson, N.C.) and forwards Nassir Little (Orlando, Fla.) and Rechon Black (Concord, N.C.). All three diaper dandies made impressive plays in Carolina’s 107-64 exhibition win over Division II Mount Olive on Friday night.

White, a 6’5’’ combo guard, scored 10 points, dished out six assists, and grabbed seven rebounds in 22 minutes. Little, a 6’6’’ wing and UNC’s highest-rated recruit, added 11 points in 16 minutes. Black, a 6’7’’ wing, chipped in four points, four assists, and three rebounds in 13 minutes.

The freshman promise is hard to deny, but the young kids may still have to wait their turn just a bit in terms of playing huge minutes. The point guard spot is particularly touchy, making it questionable whether White will be handed the keys from day one (i.e., tonight) based on historical precedent. Remember, Coach Williams started Bobby Frasor over Ty Lawson and Larry Drew II over Kendall Marshall for a good portion of the 2006-07 and 2010-11 seasons, respectively.

The guess here is that Coach Williams lets down his philosophical guard earlier this time around. Both White and Little will start and/or play 25-plus minutes per game no later than the end of the calendar year as the rotation naturally shrinks over the course of the season. The nominal starting point guard is junior Seventh Woods, who flashed some improvement against Mount Olive, though White did start and edge him in minutes 22 to 16.

Of course, a lot of this has to do with how the elder Heels in front of the hungry first-years perform. Lifetime hero and senior forward Luke Maye was named an AP Preseason First-Team All-American after averaging 16.9 points, 10.1 rebounds, and 2.4 assists per game last year.

He is joined by a strong duo of sidekick guards in fellow seniors Kenny Williams and Cameron Johnson. This trio figures to lead the way in outside shooting, as they combined to hit 169 of 433 three-pointers (39.0%) in 2017-18. In Friday’s warmup, Maye scored eight points, Williams 15, and Johnson 11.

Another Carolina trio – sophomore big men Garrison Brooks, Sterling Manley, and Brandon Huffman – will staff the frontcourt for the second consecutive season. They each took turns being alternately productive and frustrating as freshmen a year ago, but there is plenty of reason to believe consistent improvement is on the horizon.

Manley in particular has the looks of a hard-to-handle springy stat-sheet stuffer. He scored eight points and snatched four rebounds against Mount Olive, while Huffman added a bucket and four boards, and Brooks showed he might have plenty in store with a 16-point, 16-rebound frenzy in only 18 minutes.

As is typically the case with Carolina, the defensive end is the main question mark heading into the season and likely will determine whether the Heels can reach their third Final Four in four years. With a lack of established one-on-one defenders, it will take solid team effort and communication on a nightly basis, as well as gritty contributions from unheralded players like junior guard Brandon Robinson and sophomore guard Andrew Platek in the minutes they see.

Tonight presents a challenge right off the bat against a sharp-shooting Terriers squad that is plenty capable of pulling off the upset, even with the advanced warning of last year’s stunner. Just since 2010, Coach Mike Young and the third-smallest school in Division I have won four Southern Conference championships and tallied regular season wins over Cincinnati, Clemson, Georgia, North Carolina State, South Carolina, Purdue, Virginia Tech, Xavier, and… of course our beloved North Carolina.

This impressive track record, in addition to viewing clips of Magee (SoCon Player of the Year) launching moon balls on what is now Roy Williams Court, should be all the motivation and focus the Heels need.

ESPN’s Basketball Power Index (BPI) gives the Terriers a substantial 23.5% chance of doing it all over again in front of their home crowd, despite UNC ranking second overall in that same metric at season’s start.

After pulling off the unthinkable in Chapel Hill last season, Wofford finished just 13-8 the rest of the way, including a loss at UNC-Greensboro in its very next game. The Terriers also ended their season with a defeat to Coach Wes Miller and UNC-G in the semifinals of the SoCon Tournament on a last-second three-pointer to post a 21-12 record (11-7 SoCon). Now they return their top six scorers and nine of the top 10 – ergo, the same team.

This is only the seventh road opener for UNC in the ACC era (since 1953-54). The Heels have a 5-1 record in such outings, losing on Nov. 19, 2004 to Santa Clara, only to go on to win the national championship in their final game that season.

The only other time the programs have met in the modern era was on Nov. 18, 2015. Berry, Brice Johnson, and Kennedy Meeks each scored 16 points in a 78-58 UNC home win.