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UNC Basketball: Breakout Candidates

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Which Tar Heels will breakout and take control of the team’s fortunes?

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Wisconsin at North Carolina Mike Dinovo-USA TODAY Sports

The last two seasons have been disappointing by UNC’s impeccable standards. While the Tar Heels technically did not miss out on the NCAA Tournament (due to COVID-19), they finished their injury-ravaged 2020 season with a losing record.

The following year, they were bounced from the Tournament in the first round by a hot-shooting Wisconsin team, a first for Roy Williams at Carolina, which will allow him to better empathize with Coach K when they hit the road on the retired coaches circuit after this season.

With Hubert Davis taking over the program and bringing an updated vision for playing the Carolina Way - with more spacing and an emphasis on perimeter shooting - it’s not exactly clear who will carry the weight for the team. Here are some breakthrough candidates for the 2021-22 season.

Armando Bacot

This is the easiest one to project. The junior forward returns with an opportunity to showcase his established low-post skills, and to show NBA scouts his expanded game, which includes perimeter shooting and drives to the rim from the elbow. Bacot showed marked improvement his sophomore season after gutting out ankle injuries his freshman year. Bacot improved his scoring average (up 2.7 ppg to 12.3 last season) and shooting percentage (up 16% to .631) despite putting up just about the exact same amount of shot attempts per game as his freshman year. His rebounding dipped slightly (down 0.5 rpg to 7.8) but his offensive rebounding increased to 3.2 per game, leading to easier shots (and putback dunks) at the rim.

Last season’s big-man surplus made his rebounding a bonus, but this season, he’ll be counted on to snag as many as possible. Bacot will often be the lone offensive Tar Heel in the paint (at least prior to the shot) and the replacement bigs aren’t known as monster rebounders. With his size, athleticism, and superb conditioning, Bacot will have the opportunity to post some Sean May-type box scores.

Even if Hubert Davis emphasizes perimeter shooting while transitioning Carolina to modern, positionless basketball, one old Roy Williams-adage remains true. It’s easier to score two feet from the basket than from the 3-point line, and without quality big men to challenge him, Bacot will always find a way to put points on the board from up close. Expect Bacot to lead the team in scoring most nights, especially if they don’t have a true center that can defend him on the block.

Caleb Love

Nobody suffered more than Caleb Love last season from congested paint. The St. Louis native must have felt like he was driving straight into the Arch on most nights, as even when he got past his defender, he’d run into whoever was guarding Bacot/Brooks/Sharpe/Kessler. There was no room to breathe!

With four-out/one-in spacing, Love suddenly has more room to drive against smaller defenders. Love has the strength to absorb contacts from guards to get good shots up. He shot decently from the foul line (80.8%) even if his FG and 3PT shooting was much worse (31.6 and 26.6% respectively), but that means he can only go up! Love’s solid free-throw percentage leads me to believe that his shot will go down if he takes higher quality shots, and that quality will definitely improve without a cavalcade of bigs congregating at the rim.

Love also struggled with turnovers, ending the season with a 3.1 per game average. Miraculously, he averaged more assists per game (3.6) than turnovers. With proven shooters all over the floor, including big men snipers Brady Manek and Dawson Garcia, expect Love’s assists to start creeping up, too.

Justin McKoy

This one is kind of cheating, as it’s based on an anticipated statistical jump. I expect McKoy to break off the chains of Virginia life and embrace the freedom to stretch his legs in Blue Heaven. McKoy saw a modest increase in minutes during his sophomore season in Charlottesville, and his shooting splits (48.3 FG, 33.3 3PT, 80 FT) were respectable, but he only scored 3.5 ppg. Clearly, his shots were limited.

If the Tar Heels play at the speed Hubert Davis demands, expect those shot attempts to go up. McKoy’s versatility (able to play on the wing or in the post) means he will likely see time in a variety of match-ups, which means more shots.

I’m not sure if he’ll start over Leaky Black, but he’ll certainly split time, and if Armando Bacot is in foul trouble, forcing Garcia and Manek to slide to center, he’ll see some time at power forward, where he’ll likely launch 3’s. I think he’ll double his Virginia scoring average and increase his 2.2 rebounds per game career average.