College basketball is finally back and the Tar Heels will get things started tonight against Notre Dame. Carolina lost its top five scorers from last season but Roy Williams reloaded with a stellar recruiting class headed by Cole Anthony and Armando Bacot and a couple of grad transfers in Christian Keeling and Justin Pierce. However, with so many new faces, it’s natural to wonder how this team will come together. Here are five questions for the 2019-20 Carolina basketball season.
Can Roy Williams smoothly transition back to a traditional two-big lineup?
Roy Williams has long been extremely vocal about his desire to have two legitimate forwards/centers in his starting five. The last time the Tar Heels consistently went with a traditional lineup was when they won the national championship in 2017. You could argue that last year’s starting lineup, featuring Luke Maye and Garrison Brooks, fit the “two-big” mold, but both players were undersized for their position.
The departure of Luke Maye along with the arrival of five-star center Armando Bacot means that Garrison Brooks can slide to the four, his natural position, and Bacot can take over the five spot. The duo combined for the 28 points and 21 rebounds in the Tar Heels’ exhibition win over Winston-Salem State. Though the competition was obviously smaller and inferior to the teams they’ll be playing during the regular season, it was still nice to witness a dominant frontcourt performance. The Heels will need these two to provide consistent production to make up for the losses from a season ago.
Which returning players can make significant leaps?
There’s been lots of chatter about the newcomers throughout the offseason, and rightfully so. Cole Anthony and Armando Bacot figure to be instant-impact freshmen, and graduate transfers Christian Keeling and Justin Pierce will be integral pieces as well. However, Roy Williams’ best teams are ones that feature players that have experience within the program. With so many key departures from last season, who will be the ones to take that next step?
Garrison Brooks is the most obvious choice, as he’s the only returning starter on the team. As mentioned earlier, Brooks will finally be able to play his natural position this year. He hasn’t exactly proven himself to be a consistent low-post scorer but, then again, he hasn’t exactly needed to be. The ball is sure to be in Brooks’ hands much more often this season, so it’ll be interesting to see if he can increase his offensive production without taking a big hit efficiency-wise (57.4 FG% last year).
Brandon Robinson is a senior now but he’s never played more than 11.9 minutes per game in a season. An ankle sprain suffered in the exhibition will likely keep him out for at least the first couple of games, but when he returns he should assume a starting role. 3-Rob quietly led the Tar Heels in three-point percentage last season (46%), but like Brooks, he must prove he can maintain that efficiency with a much higher workload.
Leaky Black has perhaps the most intriguing role on this team. Roy Williams’ decision to replace the injured Robinson with Justin Pierce to start the second half of the exhibition game makes it pretty clear that he wants Black to serve primarily as the backup point guard to Anthony. However, the two were on the court together at various points during the game. Black’s stat line (nine points, seven assists, and five rebounds) was Pinson-esque, and the sophomore’s jumper appears to be further along than Pinson’s was at this point in his career. Leaky has a chance to be that dynamic spark plug off the bench this season.
Can Cole Anthony live up to the hype?
Anthony definitely had some nerves going into his first game in the Dean Dome, which is to be expected. He hoisted a pair of three-pointers that missed entirely and he committed a couple of head-scratching turnovers. However, the ability and athleticism were apparent and that’s about all we really needed to see. That’s not to say Anthony won’t have his struggles, but for a player so used to being under the spotlight, I don’t expect nerves to continue to dictate his play.
With that being said, is it possible that unrealistic expectations have been set for the young guard? Personally, I don’t think so, but it’s important to remember that we still haven’t even seen him play a true division 1 college basketball game. Moreover, as it’s been said before, point guard is traditionally the most difficult position to learn in Roy Williams’ system (though one could argue that Coby White broke the proverbial seal for freshman PGs at UNC).
White had his learning moments, as I’m sure Anthony will too, but it’s hard not seeing him being an important leader of this team and one of the more difficult players to guard in the ACC. With the conference’s expansion to a 20-game season, we’ll find out sooner rather than later how legit Anthony is when the Heels take on Notre Dame tonight.
How good can this team be beyond the arc?
Last year’s team relied heavily on the three-point shot with Cameron Johnson and Coby White leading the charge. However, with Kenny Williams and Luke Maye having worse-than-usual seasons from beyond the arc, the Tar Heels’ 36% mark from deep was not entirely indicative of just how prolific they were at shooting.
This year’s team likely won’t depend on the outside shot quite as much, but just how good can they be in that area? Brandon Robinson and Andrew Platek both possess a natural shooting ability, but neither one has enough in-game experience to prove they can hit consistently. Leaky Black is in a similar situation, though he did knock down both of his three-point tries in the exhibition. Cole Anthony isn’t necessarily known for his shooting prowess but all reports indicate he is more than capable. Perhaps the most trusted shooter at this point is Christian Keeling, who possesses arguably the purest stroke on the team and notched a 38% mark from three for Charleston Southern last season.
Ultimately, this team’s shooting ability will depend on how successful they are in playing inside-out. If the Heels can pound the ball inside and establish their size, that will create opportunities for their shooters. However, this is not a team that can afford to get complacent and just start chucking up threes.
What is this team’s ceiling?
With so many unanswered questions, it’s difficult to know exactly what this team’s ceiling is. The arrival of Cole Anthony gives the Heels a reliable leader and go-to option, but then again, Carolina’s best teams typically feature veteran point guards. Garrison Brooks is really the only one on the team to play significant minutes in a Carolina uniform. Essentially, this roster features a group of guys that have little to no experience actually playing together in actual games.
Moreover, the Heels are dealing with a bevy of injuries at the moment, and it’s unclear when/if those players will be available. Sterling Manley, Anthony Harris, and Jeremiah Francis were all sidelined during the exhibition, and as mentioned earlier, Brandon Robinson sprained his ankle during the game. This has left Carolina with basically a seven-man rotation to start the season. Thus, we won’t know the full potential of this team until later in the year.
Overall, once fully healthy, I believe this can be a final four team, but a lot of things have to happen. The returnees must take some major steps forward and the newcomers must live up to their billing. Though it won’t have much bearing on the team’s long-term goals, tonight’s tilt with Notre Dame will be a good litmus test for where the Heels stand now.