We’re midway through June which means basketball season is, hopefully, four months away. Without a NCAA tournament, and spring or summer evaluation periods, last season’s disappointment feels like a distant memory. However, without any solidified plans for the return of college sports, next season feels equally far away.
Recently, there were signs of hope for a return to the hardwood. This week the NCAA proposed a revised recruiting schedule in August and September. It also proposed guidelines to allow a return to summer basketball activities on campus. Those proposals, in addition to schools welcoming players back to campus, which UNC has also announced, are steps in the right direction if sports are going to make an appearance this fall. With those events in motion, most fans should be asking a very important question.
What’s next for UNC basketball?
Coming off such an underwhelming year, it’s an excellent inquiry. Let’s go over a few answers with a mini-primer on what to expect next year.
An influx of freshmen recruits will dominate most of the early season conversations. Six new Heels are expected to take the court this upcoming season. They are listed in chronological order of their commitments. Click on their name to refresh your memory from their commitment announcements.
Day’Ron Sharpe – Center, 6-10, 245 pounds
Walker Kessler – Center, 7-0 (and reportedly still growing), 245 pounds
Caleb Love – Point Guard, 6-3, 170 pounds
R.J. Davis – Point Guard, 6-0, 160 pounds
Puff Johnson – Small Forward, 6-7, 185 pounds
Kerwin Walton – Shooting Guard, 6-5, 195
UNC hasn’t had a class boasting this amount of depth and talent since, arguably, before Roy Williams won his second national title. For perspective, no school had more 2020 McDonald’s All-American selections than the quartet of Kessler, Sharpe, Love, and Davis. Those four selectees tie a program record, joining the 1990 and 2009 classes. Help is on the way, but it may not be as immediate as some hope.
There are glaring needs at three positions, with playing time available at all five. There is ample opportunity for playing time. The infusion of talent will be appreciated, but the learning curve will require some patience. Unlike the last two recruiting classes, there are currently no sure fire one-and-done candidates, though Caleb Love used a strong senior season to trend that direction. That can obviously change by January, but this is June.
Love is expected to be UNC’s fourth different starting point guard in the last four years. All the ups and downs of that roller coaster won’t be a surprise. R.J. Davis and Puff Johnson will likely get first crack at supplanting Leaky Black and Andrew Platek (or Anthony Harris, if he's healthy) on the wings, but that will be more difficult than many fans expect. Kessler and Sharpe will help buoy a likely starting front court of Armando Bacot and Garrison Brooks. Kerwin Walton, the latest addition to the squad, brings a shooting touch and quick developing game to the perimeter.
If there’s a reason I seem tepid in my expectations for this crew, keep reading.
UNC’s starters, when not sidelined with injury, weren’t as bad as the final record indicated. Most seasons, the trio of Garrison Brooks, Armando Bacot, and Leaky Black would keep fans optimistic about a return to the top four teams of the ACC, if not compete for a regular season title.
Brooks averaged 16.8 pts and 8.5 rebounds, earning second-team All-ACC honors. He’s the only player on either first or second-team All-ACC to return next season. Bacot finished one of the best freshman seasons for a post player in the Roy Williams era with 9.6 points and 8.3 rebounds. If he can make the sophomore leap and protect his playing time, all-ACC honors are a legit possibility. Black, finally unburdened from point guard duty and in his natural small forward/stretch-four role, averaged 7.7 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 3.3 assists over the final 12 games as an afterthought scoring option.
Even if you didn’t account for a senior Andrew Platek (who is more important than many want to believe), or tantalizing redshirt freshman Anthony Harris, that’s a competitive core of returning starting talent. Realistically, aside from some health concerns, the returning players were not the cause of last year’s issues. That’s a huge benefit considering additional outside influences that are imposing their will.
Return to Post-Dominance
After being forced into multiple guard-oriented and stretch-four centric offenses over the past three years, a return to a true rotation of multiple post players is on the horizon. Kessler and Sharpe add size and versatility to the Bacot and Brooks front court. If Sterling Manley can return and simply replicate his freshman season, the Heels will have five post players capable of playing important minutes in January, February, and March.
That doesn’t mean the coaching staff will (or should) abandon a new found comfort with stretch-four match-ups, but, UNC’s traditional system won a title as recently as three years ago. It works.
UNC is notorious for their off-season programs, conditioning, and pick-up games. This is often attributed as one of the biggest factors to early-season success.
None of that happened as originally planned in June, and July activities won’t follow the typical protocol. For a program bringing in six new freshmen, this off-season was going to be crucial to minimizing early-season bumps. Assuming the season begins as scheduled, the team could enter fall work-outs six weeks behind schedule. That’s a significant detriment to a program that requires strong fundamental understanding of offensive and defensive systems.
Staying with the assumption that the season will begin on time, this also needs to be addressed. Partly because of the new players and partly because of the COVID-19 restrictions, don’t be surprised to experience a rather tumultuous November and December. We’re already familiar with the coaching staff experimenting with lineups, but with so many new faces and shortened/restricted prep time, the learning curve is going to be steep. Results like last year’s early season roller coaster won’t be a surprise.
If you’re nodding your head in agreement right now, please remember these words near exam week and you can’t understand why Roy is playing R.J. Davis, Kerwin Walton, Puff Johnson, Walker Kessler, and Walker Miller for three minutes in the first half of a four-point game.
What Does it Mean?
Barring any more catastrophic injury news, this team will be competitive on a nightly basis. Whether or not anyone can step in a Joel/Coby/Cole role of taking over a game remains to be seen, though the best candidates are Brooks and Love. Success will also depend on how quickly the freshman grasp the college game if their natural talent doesn’t mitigate inexperience. Depth is a legitimate concern, especially if Manley or Harris are slow to return.
There is plenty of time for deep dives and in-depth previews, but the bottom line is this: Despite an emerging all-ACC core of returning talent, look for stretches of freshman dominated lineups and manage expectations accordingly.
Next season will bumpy, but it will also be better.