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UNC Basketball: Strengths and Weaknesses

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Hubert Davis might want to play a more perimeter-oriented game, but the frontcourt is still the strength of this team

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

There are 13 days until UNC opens its men’s basketball season with a game against Loyola (Maryland), and we’ve been slowly previewing the season’s big-picture aspects. Today, I’m going to be going over a surprisingly hard topic to cover given a new coach and an abundance of roster turnover: What we know about this UNC team’s strengths and weaknesses. Hubert Davis is probably going to end up proving me wrong in several ways very quickly, but I’ll be far from the only one — Kenpom has UNC as preseason #40 in the country, for example. Anyways, it’s good to have a starting point, so here we go.

Strength: Frontcourt

The loss of three post players (transfer, graduate transfer, and early entry to the NBA Draft) doesn’t stop UNC’s frontcourt from being one of its strengths, particularly after the addition of graduate transfer Brady Manek and Marquette transfer Dawson Garcia to established star Armando Bacot. Bacot will be an early front-runner for first-team All-ACC and possibly ACC Player of the Year honors after leading last year’s team in points, rebounds, and blocks per game as well as posting their highest field goal percentage. He’s an imposing post presence who makes tough finishes through contact and dunks anything within 3 feet of the basket, using his impressive standing reach and ability to carve out space, and he’s a pretty good passer out of the post. He’s also a good defender who stands his ground in the post and can hold his own if he’s switched onto a guard. This season, his challenge will be to be the team’s undisputed best player, asserting himself every game rather than floating in and out of focus as he did last year. He’s also apparently added a fledgling jump shot to his game, as we’ve seen him hit at least one three-pointer in both Late Night activities and the scrimmage highlights against Florida.

It’s unclear who will start alongside him between Manek and Garcia, but both will play plenty. Both have quality pedigrees but offer very different skillsets. Manek, who graduated from Oklahoma and used the pandemic-induced extra year of eligibility to come to Chapel Hill, is a known commodity, because he was more or less the same player for 4 years in Norman — a stretch forward who’s shot around 38% from distance every year of his college career and has nice touch and a face-up game inside, doesn’t rebound overly well but is a surprisingly good shot-blocker at 6’9, and makes smart, simple decisions with the ball. His is a skillset badly needed coming off two of the worst three-point shooting seasons in program history, and his wealth of experience make it seem likely that his strengths will translate into helping UNC win games.

Garcia, on the other hand, is more of a modern prototypical power forward. He’s got an outside shot, but it’s not his bread and butter like it is Manek’s — he shot ~36% on under three attempts per game while Manek shot ~38% on about 5. Garcia, who UNC recruited before the surprise commitment of Walker Kessler, has the ability to put the ball on the floor and drive past opposing bigs and has a more varied post package than Manek, and is a better rebounder, though he’s still only decent. He also has some learning to do as a defender, where he’s still learning how to position himself, though he’s got fantastic potential on that end with his mobility and length. He also averaged over 2 turnovers per game as a Golden Eagle, a problem that comes with youth (as we UNC fans are too familiar with after last year). He’s only a sophomore and has a lot of room to grow, but he’s a good player right now.

Weakness: Proven Commodities on the Wing

For UNC to be good this year, Caleb Love and R.J. Davis, the team’s ballhandlers, are going to have to be much, much better than they were last year, where they struggled as facilitators and as scorers. It seems like the expectation from anybody who’s been connected to the program at all this offseason is that they’ve both been exactly that. Obviously, we have to see it in a game first, but I’m not going to say that lead guard is a weakness on this team just because it was being run by two freshmen who had to learn a complex system at odds with their high school education amidst a global pandemic. Where there’s more concern is on the wing. Kerwin Walton had a record-setting year as a sharpshooter and is primed to pick up where he left off, but behind him, the wings on this team don’t seem to have a ton of offensive firepower. Leaky Black hasn’t had it come together in 3+ years on campus; Anthony Harris is good for a spark but most of his contributions are on defense and hustle plays; Puff Johnson is a complete unknown; Justin McKoy looks good but hasn’t had a big offensive role and also will probably play a good bit as a small-ball power forward. Walton can’t be on the floor for 40 minutes, and in lineups where two of them are on the floor with just one of the point guards, it’s hard to see where the offensive threat on the perimeter will come from unless one of those four makes a development we haven’t yet seen in their college careers. We’re hearing good things about McKoy, but again, we’ve got to see it in games.

Strength: Roster depth

That said, there’s a lot to like as far as the talent on this UNC team. Two years removed from Roy Williams bemoaning the “least gifted” team he’d ever coached, the roster has turned over substantially, and now having Walton, Bacot, Manek, and Garcia as bona fide good players, expected improvement of Love and Davis into that tier, and McKoy, Harris, and Black as complements, not to mention the flash of Dontrez Styles we saw at Late Night, feels like a group of 10 that most teams in the country can’t match. It’ll be a wild ride, as any first-time coaching gig is, but it looks like this UNC team at least has the pieces to be really fun, and that’s as much as you can ask for right now. Bring on the season.