It’s finally here! As much as football season has actually been something to enjoy this season (and, as one of the writers here who’s most into football, I appreciate this even more than most), the feeling of being a Carolina basketball fan and having the season upon us is second to none. With this team in particular, with six players who haven’t worn a UNC jersey before and only one who’s played more than 1000 minutes in one, there’s a lot that we don’t know, and consequently a lot to look forward to learning: just like with the best Roy Williams teams, the joy of this one will be seeing it grow into what is very possibly elite potential, because he is a hell of a coach and if that potential is there, it will be realized by March.
We’re previewing the season for the next couple of days, and in this edition of our UNC Men’s Basketball Previews, we’re going to look at the 2019-2020 team’s most apparent strengths and weaknesses.
- I don’t think that it’s an exaggeration to say that, while this team’s most important pieces may be at the point and in the post, this roster is built from the wings out. Including 1 / 2 and 3 / 4 hybrids (like Anthony Harris for the former and Justin Pierce for the latter), the Heels have six players who will likely see a majority of their minutes on the wing, or just under half the scholarship allotment: Brandon Robinson, Christian Keeling, Leaky Black, Justin Pierce, Anthony Harris, and Andrew Platek. This is easily the Heels’ most experienced group as well, with just one freshman (Harris) and one sophomore (Black) who saw significant action last year and whose game is much more mature than his age anyways. Robinson and Keeling are the presumed starters based on Friday’s exhibition against WSSU, pending Robinson’s health checking out (he’ll be out at least a couple of weeks). Robinson flourished in the back half of last year as a tenacious defender and an excellent spot-up shooter, finishing around 46% from beyond the arc on limited, but substantial enough, volume. With a distributor like Cole Anthony running the show, he’ll have ample opportunity to maintain that role, hopefully filling the void left by Kenny Williams’ graduation. He hasn’t yet shown much of an ability to win one-on-one or create his own shot, but he can definitely fill it up, play with some grit, and give the team energy. Keeling, the graduate transfer from Charleston Southern, is a flat-out scorer, with ability from all three levels: He was 61% at the rim last season as the primary and secondary scoring option, shot an excellent 42% in midrange, and was 38% from beyond the arc, usually creating his own shot: just 43% of his total made field goals were assisted, which, while I don’t have time to do the math, I am confident would have been dead last on last year’s UNC team. He’s undersized, but he also gets after it on the boards, which is why I think Roy Williams recruited him as a graduate transfer: we know how much he loves rebounding. They’ll be supported primarily by Black and Pierce, who have really complementary skillsets: Both have excellent size for wings and put that size to use on the glass, Black standing around 6’8 with 8.3 rebounds/40 minutes last year and Pierce maybe an inch shorter with a 9 boards/game average last year at William & Mary as a small-ball 4; and while Black excels with the ball in his hands as a playmaker and matchup exploiter, Pierce is a master of moving without the ball, finding open spots as a shooter and running in transition for easy finds and finishes. He’s got some touch, too:
November 2, 2019
Behind them, we have Platek, who’s garnered experience as a backup the past two seasons. His primary role is as a sharpshooter, but he understands Williams’ defensive system better than most on the team and can be counted on to not be out of position and let everybody do their jobs. Harris, the incoming freshman who’s recovering from a knee injury, is largely an unknown. But combined, it’s clear that the Heels have a lot to throw at opposing teams on the wings, and while it’s not the loudest position group, it might be the one that overwhelms opposing teams the most.
- Related: This is going to be an excellent rebounding team. UNC loses one of its best individual rebounders ever, Luke Maye, to graduation, but there’s a good chance the Heels equal last year’s effort as a group that got them to 4th in total rebounding rate and 8th in defensive rebounding rate. Garrison Brooks, previously undersized at the center position, will better be able to box out opposing power forwards and clean up the boards more effectively than he has his first two years as a Heel, and incoming freshman Armando Bacot is primarily known for his hands and positioning on the glass as well. I wouldn’t be surprised to see both, if they manage starters’ minutes without fouling too much, to flirt with double-digit rebounding averages. But rebounding will be important from the guard positions as well, and this team will check that box in spades. I talked already about Keeling, Pierce, and Black as wings who are exceptionally good rebounders, but I haven’t mentioned Cole Anthony yet in this article, and for all his other strengths, rebounding may be one of his more underrated. He’s not a small guard (we think), listed at 6’3, but his bounce and tenacity accentuate that: as a senior in high school, he rebounded at a very high rate thanks to both his gifts and willingness to box out whomever he found. As a whole, going back to a true two-big system and guards who will get after it on the glass (especially on the defensive end) will make this, even more, I think, than most Roy Williams teams, a terror on the boards.
- And finally, it’s time for a section about (well, not entirely) Cole Anthony. Enough has been said on various outlets about his passing having been underrated in the recruiting process thanks to his explosiveness and scoring ability, but it’s starting to come out: The Stepien’s pre-draft report calls him a pass-first point guard, Roy Williams called him one of the most complete point guards he’s had, and he had seven assists, several of them of the eyebrow-raising variety, in the televised exhibition. It remains to be seen exactly how good a playmaker Anthony will be in this offense, because he’s a freshman and that comes with unknowns, but it’s probably a fair assumption that UNC will have a full-time point guard creating offense for others at a level we haven’t seen since early Marcus Paige at least, and since Kendall Marshall at best (Theo Pinson doesn’t count, as a part-timer). But he’s not the only one to consider here: His primary backup, Leaky Black, also had seven assists against WSSU and averaged 5 assists/40 last year. And on the wings, too, we see some players capable of playmaking: Robinson spent a lot of his high school career playing point guard and has continually flashed passing ability, and Anthony Harris, while we haven’t seen much of him, was recruited as a part-time point guard. While the players are still learning to play together and will probably turn the ball over a lot in early action (23 against WSSU helps confirm this), that’s also a sign of the kind of willing ball movement that could make them extremely hard to guard come February/March.
- I’ll keep this a little shorter because these have already been alluded to up above, but the primary weakness this team is going to face is that of chemistry. A freshman point guard, as incredible as Cole Anthony is and has been reported to be, means that nobody on the roster has really learned to play with the guy who’s going to be running the show, and that’s only going to be exacerbated by the fact that many of them haven’t played with each other before this season, either: Besides Anthony, this team has 5 newcomers, 2 of whom are probably going to be starting when this team gets fully healthy. Again, this team had 23 turnovers against a squad that it vastly out-talented. Against ACC competition, without some quick growing up together, that could get ugly, and fast. Anthony and Armando Bacot have played together before, so that will help a little, but on the whole, relying on this team to gel is a leap of faith that we just can’t take yet. Expect some early head-scratching games. Additionally, a freshman starting at point guard and another at center means that two of Roy Williams’ most important positions are going to be, basically by necessity, up and down as the season goes on. As Cole Anthony goes, so will go this team, and we can’t expect a freshman point guard to be at his best all the time. Ditto for Bacot, even though he probably won’t dictate the flow of this team quite that much.
- The Anthony problem will be magnified by the fact that the bodies behind him, at least to start the season, are almost nonexistent. Leaky Black should be the primary point guard when Anthony sits, but for now, he might get pushed into starting on the wing with Robinson out, and will generally be called upon to provide Swiss Army Knife depth from positions 1-4 depending on game flow. That’s really great for the team to have, but it means that he can’t be relied upon to give real backup point guard minutes, as much as he’ll be needed elsewhere. Other than him, we have Harris and Jeremiah Francis, neither of whom has practiced with UNC yet or played basketball in at least 3⁄4 of a year: they probably can’t be trusted quite yet to run the team without somebody alongside them. Anthony, like White and Joel Berry before him, will probably see something like 35 minutes a game, and if he’s having a clunker, as he inevitably will, this squad doesn’t have much to cushion him.
- And finally, while this team figures to be really good at playmaking, it doesn’t have too many guys who can create their own offense when the chips are down. Anthony can get his, for sure, and will probably bail the Heels out of more than a few busted offensive possessions as the season goes on. As alluded to before, Christian Keeling also has experience creating shots at all three levels, though if he can do this consistently against ACC competition remains to be seen. But other than that; Leaky Black has so far been an extremely pass-first guard, Brandon Robinson is at his best when he doesn’t have to dribble and ditto for Justin Pierce, and Garrison Brooks so far has had an offensive game made primarily on cheap points off offensive rebounds or guard penetration; his post-up and face-up games so far have been sporadic at best. Armando Bacot had a pretty advanced post arsenal in high school, but his conditioning isn’t quite at the level yet where it can be counted on to work for the full length of a game. It should come together as the season goes on, and Brooks is rumored to have a more complete offensive game after this past offseason, but for a two-big lineup, UNC might be lacking in the ability of its bigs to really work on their own. I don’t know how much it will matter that this roster has maybe two proven shot creators who can score when the system isn’t doing it for them, neither of whom has done it in a UNC uniform yet. But it’s something to keep an eye on if and when UNC runs into a defensive brick wall.