It was extremely difficult to not come away from the 2020-21 North Carolina Tar Heels basketball season completely and utterly drained. There are plenty of reasons why that is likely the case for many of you reading this, but the number one reason we can all agree on is COVID-19. This year’s college basketball atmosphere was chaotic to say the least, as we all had to anxiously navigate each and every day wondering if any Tar Heels tested positive, if another team tested positive, were around someone outside of either team that tested positive, etc. It was an unprecedented season, and it was one that I hope none of us have to live through ever again.
With all of that said, there was still a basketball product that was provided to us. The Tar Heels finished their roller coaster of a season with an 18-11 overall record, and went 10-6 in ACC play. They were the only ACC team from the state of North Carolina to participate in the NCAA Tournament, but they were also one of four teams in the conference to lose in the round of 64. The other teams that joined them in losing their first game are Virginia, Virginia Tech, and Clemson, who all finished ahead of the Heels in the ACC standings.
Truly this has been a tough season, mostly due to minimum amounts of fans at games, the quality of the ACC, the lack of a preseason, and yes, the roller coaster that was Carolina basketball. However, we cover the Tar Heels specifically here at THB, so let’s stick to discussing three things that we learned about this team in 2020-21.
The great point guard conundrum
One of the worst-kept secrets in Carolina basketball history is that playing the point guard position as a freshman isn’t an easy task. While this is true, however, Roy Williams has never shied away from starting freshmen point guards throughout his time at UNC. This season, however, produced a freshmen point guard tandem out of pure necessity. Ever since Joel Berry graduated, Williams has had both Coby White and Cole Anthony leave after one season to pursue their NBA careers. The result of this was Caleb Love and RJ Davis stepping up to the plate, and while they did admiral jobs, one can’t help but wonder what could’ve been if they were backing up the likes of White or Anthony.
Love and Davis both started off their college careers playing next to each other in the starting lineup. The idea behind this was that both of these prolific scorers out of high school would be able to take turns bringing the ball up the court and learn how to create for others while tearing apart teams with their shots. Unfortunately that is not what happened, as Love and Davis finished the season shooting 31.6% and 35% from the field respectively, and neither player shot above 35% from deep. As far as their playmaking abilities go, we saw flashes of both players being able to do some good things, but mostly we saw a large amount of turnovers. Love was the biggest culprit, finishing the season averaging 3.1 turnovers per game, which somehow was fewer than Cole Anthony finished with (3.5 per game) in his lone season at UNC.
It’s hard to be extremely upset about something that we’ve all seen before from freshmen point guards at Carolina, but now the big question will be if either of them stay with the program. While we won’t speculate what could or could not happen, it is worth noting that the NCAA has left the door wide open for every player in the country to do a one-time transfer. Should one or both of them stay, it will be a huge gift to Roy Williams as he hasn’t been able to keep a point guard since Joel Berry left (Seventh Woods and Jeremiah Francis both transferred). If both of them leave, it’s hard not to expect another rocky season in 2021-22.
Evaluating the big man quartet experiment
Garrison Brooks, Armando Bacot, Day’Ron Sharpe, and Walker Kessler were poised to be one of the greatest groups of bigs that Carolina Basketball has ever seen. For the most part they definitely lived up to their billing, as they finished the season as the best offensive rebounding team in the country averaging a ridiculous 15.76 rebounds per game. They also finished the season averaging 27.10 defensive rebounds per game, which was good enough for 58th in the country.
As far as overall play goes, things really only looked as good as who was on the court with which set of bigs. Armando Bacot took a huge step forward this season, averaging a team-high 12.3 points per game and also averaged 7.8 rebounds. His aggressiveness at the rim took a sizable step forward from last season, and he was especially lethal when he shared the court with Day’Ron Sharpe. Speaking of Sharpe, he had as impressive of a freshman year as one could’ve hoped for, as he finished the season averaging 9.5 points and 7.6 rebounds off the bench. Walker Kessler also made his presence known once he was able to get a fair amount of playing time, as he was able to deliver a few really impressive performances for the Heels off the bench.
If there is one disappointment out of this group, it has to be Garrison Brooks. After putting the team on his back last season with multiple spectacular performances, Brooks took a couple of steps backwards this year. He finished averaging 10.2 points and 6.9 points per game, but his efficiency dropped quite a bit. Overall he didn’t look nearly as aggressive as we’ve seen him look, and teams had a field day whenever he had to guard them on the perimeter. Brooks’ legacy with Carolina will have some fun memories, but it’ll be hard to ignore some of his deficiencies as a power forward when it’s all said and done.
Overall, this roster of four talented bigs worked well, but not quite as well as we all were hoping. There were times when it just felt like there was too many cooks in the kitchen, but with Walker Kessler transferring and Garrison Brooks (maybe) graduating there are at least two fewer bigs going into the 2021-22 season. Once again, I will not speculate on Day’Ron Sharpe or Armando Bacot, but should they stay another season they will be one of the most dominant duos in college basketball.
Kerwin Walton saved this team from imminent doom
What can be said about freshman shooting guard Kerwin Walton that likely hasn’t been said already on this website. The Minnesota native may have been the difference between the Heels being able to make the NCAA Tournament, and having to watch the entire thing from home just like Duke and Kentucky. Despite Caleb Love and RJ Davis having disappointing seasons from beyond the arc, Walton was a dead-eye shooter for the Heels, finishing the season averaging 42% from the perimeter. Arguably his best performance of the season was his 13-point performance against Kentucky, as he went 3-3 from deep.
If there was one gripe about Walton’s performance this season, it was his defense. Roy Williams had to make the difficult decision to value his shooting ability over his defense, and it was a choice that mostly paid off. I’m sure that he will improve in that department in time, and we can only hope that he doesn’t make the decision to take his talents elsewhere thanks to NCAA’s new transfer policy. If I’m Coach Williams, I am doing everything I can to keep Kerwin Walton on campus at all costs. Only time will tell if Walton is willing to hang around.
To wrap things up, this season was quite a roller coaster that has somehow spawned new tracks and is extending into the offseason. Yes, there will be more transfers other than Walker Kessler. Yes, some of those players will likely be key pieces. However, as we have all heard a million times over the last 48 hours, the transfer portal is a two-way street. We’ll see how things look by the time the dust settles, but as far as the 2020-21 season goes, there’s no shame in how things turned out. I mean, making the NCAA Tournament is a step forward from the disaster that was last season, right?