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Are the freshman big men growing up?

Brooks and Manley saw increased playing time last week. They delivered. Don’t be surprised if that continues.

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

Before the season began, there was some concern about UNC’s freshmen big men and how they would adapt to the college game. Those questions seemingly were validated when Roy Williams replaced Garrison Brooks with Cameron Johnson. Since that move was made on January 9th, an optimist would say UNC’s has been unlucky to drop a few very close games. A pessimist would argue that the NIT awaits (Hint: It doesn’t). A realist would say that the uneven and inconsistent performances were understandable, but these Heels are still a very dangerous team.

Whatever side you align yourself with, it’s hard to argue that any future success, for this season and beyond, depends on the growth of Sterling Manley and Garrison Brooks. As North Carolina gets ready for a brutal 5 day stretch that includes games against Duke, at N.C. State, and against Notre Dame, the mismatches and balance that the two freshmen post players bring to the court can help correct UNC’s current trajectory. If you’re looking for some difference-makers in the coming week, those two may be where you begin your search.

Despite what some head coaches in the Triangle may think about depth and developing players, the only way to gain experience is to get on the court and play. If the past two games are any indications, it appears that the UNC coaching staff has reached the same conclusion. Fortunately, Brooks and Manley have produced. See their production from the last two games. Yes, I know, it’s a very small sample size.

at Clemson - 20 minutes,. 6 points, 6 rebounds
vs Pittsburgh - 7 minutes, 10 points, 1 rebound
4 games prior to Clemson - 30 minutes, 13 points, 5 rebounds

at Clemson - 17 minutes, 2 points, 4 rebounds
vs Pittsburgh - 18 minutes, 10 points, 2 rebounds
4 games prior to Clemson - 48 minutes, 14 points, 6 rebounds

Both Manley and Brooks scored in double-digits for the first time since December of 2017. Nobody should overreact to those numbers. Pittsburgh can give anybody a false sense of security. However, an 8 and 10 joint effort against the Tigers shouldn’t be ignored. Against the Tigers and Panthers, the duo produced more in 62 minutes than they did in a combined 78 minutes in the previous four games.

More importantly, they’ve played limited minutes together at the 4 and 5 in the past week. As Theo Pinson provides additional minutes at point guard, the entire lineup will see a small shuffle. There will be a need for critical minutes in the post. Luke Maye, for all of his talents, can only handle short defensive stints and certain matchups at center. Brooks and Manley’s ability to play just a few minutes together could provide much needed relief.

The starting lineup has three players, Joel Berry II, Theo Pinson, and Luke Maye, who average more than 30 minutes in conference play. Just seven players are averaging more than 10 minutes a game since ACC play started. Brooks (15.2 mpg) and Manley (10.3 mpg) serve as the most used reserves. This is the most imbalanced UNC roster since 2012-2013.

Their continued growth and improvement would also give UNC an effective 1-2 punch with lineup versatility. We’ve all seen how lethal the lightning lineup can be (shout out to Alan and his Tar Heel Hangover!). Yet, for all of its offensive potential, that lineup has struggled on defense. If the Brooks and Manley can find (or be allowed to find) a consistent rhythm, they could provide a larger, physical, consistent change of pace that could cause difficulties for opponents. As Alan coined a few weeks ago, they would provide a little thunder to go with the lightning, if you will.

For the Heels to stay competitive and make a deep tournament run, a combined double-double from the freshman duo is a realistic necessity. If the last two games are any indication, then maybe, just maybe, Brooks and Manley are beginning to transition from stereotypical “freshmen” to much-needed “contributors”. At a minimum, it appears the coaching staff is willing to rely on them and increase their opportunities for development (because you can’t develop on the bench).

The next three games will show just how committed the staff is to that philosophy. In return, Brooks and Manley have the opportunity to be key contributors as the season hits the homestretch. As we prepare ourselves for the first clash with Duke, don’t be surprised if these two continue their ascension.

Go to Hell Duke.