We are less than a week away from Carolina basketball. It sounds weird every time I say it. The last time this team took the court was also the very last ACC game of the 2019-20 season due to the COVID-19 outbreak, and Florida State was crowned the champion. It was a surreal, it was confusing, and most importantly, it was pretty scary. Word of advice: it’s not fun to find out the NBA is shutting due to an airborne virus while you’re surrounded by thousands of fans in Greensboro.
I digress, now that the beginning of the 2020-21 season is finally almost here, it’s time to figure out what is the ceiling and what is the floor for this year’s team. In the interest of full disclosure, I almost shelved this piece because I have no idea whether or not college basketball will survive COVID. Though to be fair, I had the same feeling about MLB, NFL, and college, and though all three of these have been chaotic, the seasons have completed and/or continued on. So, predictions must be made.
I won’t waste anymore time. Let’s discuss the best/worst-case scenarios for the 2020-21 Tar Heels.
During the 2019-20 season, Carolina reminded us that they are not immune to Murphy’s Law, and that 50 terrible things happening at once is very possible. Truly we are spoiled by Hall of Fame coach Roy Williams, so it was reasonable to think that if they ever missed the tournament it wouldn’t be by much. Well, that is something that we no longer know as being true, and it is something that we have to take into consideration when discussing the 2020-21 team’s floor.
The harsh reality is that this team has a lot of freshmen. I mean, a lot of freshmen, and they will all be really important in UNC’s success this year. The guard situation is very freshmen heavy, as Caleb Love, R.J. Davis, and Kerwin Walton will have quite a bit asked from them immediately. In the frontcourt Day’Ron Sharpe and Walker Kessler will join Garrison Brooks and Armando Bacot in hopes of becoming one of the deepest, most game-breaking groups we’ve seen in Chapel Hill. Finally, Puff Johnson will arrive on campus to back up Leaky Black at the small forward position, hopefully bringing at least a fraction of his brother Cam’s deadly perimeter shooting with him. Six freshmen that will have a lot of weight on their shoulders to get redemption for a season they weren’t even a part of. What could go wrong, right?
Factor in the amount of pressure that the returning pieces of the roster likely feel to make up for last year, COVID-19 looming, and the weirdness of having little to no fans, and we’re looking at what could possibly be the biggest psychological challenge that any UNC team may ever face. Should this team break under the weight of all of these factors, or the freshmen fault to catch on to Roy Williams’ game plan soon enough, or, well, bad shooting carries over from last year, the NCAA Tournament shouldn’t even be a conversation entertained. In fact, they may end up in the middle of the ACC rankings by the time this is all over.
Oh and by the way, injuries are still a thing too. I would just rather not talk about those. Healthy vibes only.
Now that we got all of the pessimism out of the way, let’s talk about what this team could be. To revisit the freshmen for a moment, UNC is bringing in the second-best freshmen class in the country. That’s right, set to debut next week are three five-star players as well as three four-stars, and one of those four-star players (R.J. Davis) was trending upwards in the rankings before basketball was shut down. This class ranking is the highest that Roy Williams has achieved since 2009 when he brought in John Henson, Dexter Strickland, David Wear, Travis Wear, and Leslie McDonald.
Needless to say, this class has a lot of talent. That alone should keep UNC out of the pits of despair from last season, but they are all still freshmen. This means that UNC’s success depends on a lot of factors. Should Caleb Love develop quickly when it comes to the point guard position and R.J. Davis proves to be as deadly of a shooter in college as he was in high school, then things will be great. If Puff Johnson and Kerwin Walton give the Heels productive minutes off the bench, then things will be even better. Finally, if Day’Ron Sharpe and Walker Kessler help Garrison Brooks and Armando Bacot become one of the most dominant group of bigs we’ve ever seen, then we can expect UNC to start making flight arrangements to Indiana by the end of January.
Freshmen aside, the returning roster is going to be on a mission going into this season. Preseason ACC Player of the Year Garrison Brooks is going to be the most important player on this team, and what will be interesting is to see how much his game has developed since we last saw him. He already had developed a pretty consistent jumper last season, and during warm-ups it wasn’t uncommon to see him nailing three-pointers. Considering the year he had last year, if he’s able to add three-point shooting to his in-game repertoire, then he just may end up being a first-team All-American player.
Armando Bacot, Leaky Black, and Anthony Harris are also going to be important players to watch this season. For all three of these players, staying healthy will be the name of the game. Anthony Harris is not expected to make his return in the opening game against Charleston, but we should see him back this season. Leaky Black is stated that this is the healthiest he’s felt in a long time, and he will finally get to focus on the small forward position barring any emergencies at the point guard spot. Finally, Armando Bacot went down a couple of times last season, and if we want to enjoy the wall of bigs that I mentioned earlier, him staying healthy will be extremely important in making that happen. If these three players manage to reach their full potential this season, then this team may not have much of a ceiling at all.
So what is the best-case scenario of this team? While this may stun certain readers out there, I think that at best this team could finish second or third in the ACC, continue the tradition of losing a frustrating ACC championship game, and make it to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament. Realistically, I don’t see this being a Final Four team. One of the greatest lessons that I’ve learned in life is that if you have to say the word “if” too many times, then the road to achieve your goals will be an extremely difficult one. This team isn’t built like a traditional UNC Final Four team, but it should be a lot of fun regardless.
What do all of you think this team could do this year? What do you think their floor is? Let us know in the comments below. Stay safe, be kind to one another, and Go Heels!