Great news everybody: we are officially less than a week away from Carolina basketball’s first (official) game. The Tar Heels will play in an exhibition game against Winston-Salem State tomorrow, but the real show begins next Wednesday when they open the season against ACC opponent Notre Dame. As opposed to how it’s gone in years past, the first game of the year absolutely matters, and it could be the difference between the Heels being undefeated in conference play for the month of November, or being 0-1 during that stretch.
The Tar Heels are bringing back a number of players from last year, but lost a bunch of production as well. As many readers know, the Heels had numerous players leave for the NBA, and Seventh Woods transferred to South Carolina to finish out his college career. However, this year the team brings in prized freshman point guard Cole Anthony, five-star center Armando Bacot, four-star guard Anthony Harris, and three-star guard Jeremiah Francis. Roy Williams also brought in Christian Keeling and Justin Pierce as graduate transfers to help round out this new batch of players. We won’t dive too deep into these players’ skillsets in this preview, but if you’re interested in reading about them as well as the current players on the team, check out Jake Lawrence’s player previews at the bottom of this article.
As far as returning players are concerned, Garrison Brooks, Brandon Robinson, Leaky Black, and Sterling Manley are key players that will see time in the Heels’ rotation, with Brandon Huffman likely playing significant minutes as well since Manley is still recovering from an injury. Leaky Black is widely thought of to be the X-factor this year, and quite possibly the most important person on this team. He has length, he can shoot, and he knows how to facilitate, which draws a lot of comparisons to Theo Pinson in that regard. His versatility will play a big role in what Roy Williams has planned for this season.
Focusing in on the frontcourt, Garrison Brooks and Armando Bacot will likely be the starting big men for this team. Bacot starting at the five slides Brooks over to his natural position, which is power forward. Brooks has been working a lot on his offensive game, and if he manages to resume his defensive dominance from last year as well as produce on the other side of the ball, he will be more complete, dangerous player this year. As far as Bacot goes, this five-star center is in excellent shape for a UNC freshmen big man. He also showed flashes of aggression during Late Night with Roy that I personally didn’t see as much of when he was at IMG. Both Brooks and Bacot have a lot of potential to be dominant forces in the paint, and I expect Roy Williams to do everything in his power to get the ball into their hands early and often.
When looking at the backcourt/wings, Brandon Robinson, Christian Keeling, and Cole Anthony seem like they may round out the starting lineup, but Leaky Black or Justin Pierce getting the nod wouldn’t surprise me. Out of this group of five, there is a lot of potential as far as perimeter shooters go, but we won’t really know how well anybody will be able to fire away from deep until the season starts. After having the luxury of having players like Cameron Johnson and Kenny Williams the last couple of years (and Coby White for 2019), the Heels are in a precarious position where they will need someone to step up with confidence and knock down shots on a consistent basis. Each of the five are more than capable, so we will see who stands out in the first several games.
That brings us to arguably the best player on the roster, Cole Anthony. While the idea of this might rub some fans the wrong way given how UNC’s teams are usually constructed, Anthony is undoubtedly the most talented player on this team, and the season will likely live or die by how well he is able to perform. He was able to put on quite the show at Late Night, and he has earned a slew of preseason recognition across the country. For this season to succeed, Anthony will have to use every bit of his leadership, speed, athleticism, and intelligence to keep the Tar Heels in each and every game. This team has a lot of unknowns, and what’s unknown is who else will step into the spotlight with the dynamic New Yorker. However, what we do know is that any and everything will likely run through Cole.
There are three major keys to this team reaching it’s ceiling: who will step up when it matters the most, health, and finding players that can contribute consistently off the bench. This isn’t the deepest team that Roy Williams has ever had to say the least, and what he’ll need down the stretch are players that are not only able to get healthy, but are able to make a statement going into March. The most important player that needs to get healthy is Sterling Manley, as he will be needed big time to spell Bacot and/or Brooks, particularly if Brandon Huffman isn’t able to get the job done. Jeremiah Francis and Anthony Harris also would be huge to get back at some point during the season, and we’ll see if the Heels are able to do so.
In short, If everyone can get healthy, key players can step up, and the team can find some consistent bench production, I think this could be a pretty good team. In terms of how far I think they can go, this is one of those seasons that weren’t meant for any strong expectations before games are played. They will be in the mix for the ACC regular season title, they will make the NCAA Tournament, but that’s about all that we can really bank on for now. What I can tell you is this: the 2019-20 Tar Heels will be a fun team to watch, and I can’t wait to see what this season holds.