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UNC Basketball: If things go well next season...

For the first time in 18 seasons, Carolina fans don’t really know what the team will look like. Here’s what it could look like if things go well

ACC Men’s Basketball Tournament - North Carolina v Florida State Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

After a second painful basketball season in a row, Roy Williams retired and Hubert Davis took over the UNC team during a critical period in program history. Thanks to COVID-19 and the last two seasons, the 2017 national championship season seems like it happened a decade ago, rather than just four seasons.

Luke Maye gave Carolina a brief glimpse of what the team could look like with a modern stretch-4, helping lead the Heels to the NCAA Tournament with a #2 seed in 2018 and a #1 seed (and a share of the ACC-regular season title with Virginia) in 2019.

The ill-fated 2019-20 team saw a return to Roy’s traditional two-big system with Garrison Brooks flanked by Armando Bacot. The 2020-21 team doubled down on that game-plan - literally - adding 6’11” Day’Ron Sharpe and 7’1” Walker Kessler to the mix. Space in the paint was at a premium, and with freshman sniper Kerwin Walton the only Tar Heel capable of consistently hitting 3’s, the paint was always congested.

So far, head coach Hubert Davis has indicated that he intends to carry on Carolina’s principal style of play, but tweaking the system to bring it more in line with modern, NBA-style basketball. That has manifested in the recruitment of bigs who can shoot, and by doing so, create space.

What does this mean for next year’s Carolina basketball team? Going into the offseason with no tape to study, I can only offer my best guess, but here are three things I’d expect to see from the 2021-22 team if things go well.

Caleb Love finds room at the rim

Playing point guard is hard. Playing point guard in college is really hard. Playing point guard at the University of North Carolina... you get my point.

For any high school All-American, the step up into ACC competition is a daunting challenge on its own. For Caleb Love, the transition was made even tougher as he was primarily a scorer in high school. He struggled with turnovers, shooting, and playmaking throughout the year.

Love’s shooting percentages are hard to overlook, since he shot a high volume. His 31.6 FG% (26.6 FG3%!!!) is rough. Reps in the gym and confidence will help his 3-point stroke. But what will really help his overall field goal percentage is better looks at the rim.

Caleb Love consistently broke down his defender one-on-one to get a step past his man on the way to the rim. Unfortunately, he usually had one or two post defenders on the block and elbow to navigate past on the way up. This led to him getting too deep on penetration and having awkward lay-up angles, or getting blocked by a help-side defender that knew he had to jump before going out of bounds. He also got blocked by blindside defenders since they were already in the paint and didn’t have far to recover.

With Oklahoma transfer Brady Manek - he of the 37.5 FG3% last season - patrolling the 3-point line instead of posting high/low with Armando Bacot (expected to return next season), Caleb Love suddenly doesn’t have as many trees in the forest. I’d expect a number of his forays into the paint to turn into made lay-ups or dunks, that last season resulted in turnovers or bad misses. Couple this with Love’s excellent free-throw shooting (80.8 FT%), I’d expect the sophomore point guard to attack the rim relentlessly next season.

Armando Bacot expands his repertoire

Earlier this week, Brandon wrote about Armando Bacot’s 3-point shooting workout, and how he was able to knock down many treys in a row. This will certainly help Bacot win many games of 21, but do I think that it will become a staple of the North Carolina offense? No. But could the threat of hitting a wide-open three help Bacot get to the basket? Absolutely.

As painful as it was for me to re-watch the Wisconsin loss, I was buoyed by Armando’s performance at the beginning of the second half. With the Heels down by 16 points and incapable of generating any easy offense, they had only one real option; feed the beast. Bacot had a direct hand in 17 of UNC’s next 19 points, hitting six baskets and 3-3 free throws, and assisting Garrison Brooks for an easy dunk. He went up strong for dunks and putbacks, drove from the elbow, and hit a midrange baby-hook. The full toolkit was on display. Most of that offensive burst is shown in the extended highlights below, starting at the 4:35 mark:

Last season’s version of Armando Bacot is probably what we were expecting to see during his freshman season before ankle injuries took their toll. Credit has to be given as Bacot bravely soldiered on for a team that was going nowhere. Come to think of it, Cole Anthony did the same thing when he returned from knee surgery. Those two guys are just tough, gritty dudes.

With Garrison Brooks playing his bonus year in Stark-Vegas and Day’Ron Sharpe off to the NBA, the paint suddenly becomes a canvas for Bacot to paint his junior season masterpiece. I’m hopeful that his NBA workouts and feedback fuel a similar junior season to Justin Jackson, resulting in an ACC Player of the Year award and national championship. That may be a bit of a stretch goal, but first team ACC and Sweet Sixteen shouldn’t be off the table.

UNC’s perimeter shoots more like 2018-19 than 2019-20

Hubert Davis made his bread in the NBA by shooting the three.

With his emphasis on perimeter scoring and spacing, I’m confident that he will look to put the Tar Heels in positions to take good 3-point shots. Kerwin Walton and Brady Manek are the only proven shooters on the squad as of May 9, 2021, but players like Caleb Love, R.J. Davis, and Puff Johnson came into the program with reputations as strong high-school shooters. Maybe more scoring than shooting in Love’s case, but he’s shown that he can knock down perimeter jumpers, particularly if he sees “Duke” on the opponent’s chest.

The 2018-19 team shot a blistering 37.9 FG3% in conference play, good for 2nd in the ACC. Opponents could not key on a single shooter (like they could last season on Walton) as Cam Johnson and Coby White - and to a lesser extent, Kenny Williams and Luke Maye - all loomed large on the scouting report.

The 2019-20 team shot 30.9 FG3% in conference play, dropping down to 11th in the ACC. Only Cole Anthony and Brandon Robinson carried any real threat, although in his five games before tearing another ACL, Anthony Harris shot 42.9 FG3%. It would’ve been very interesting to see what a full-season percentage would look like with more volume from Harris, even though he was only 4/16 this past year.

When Cole Anthony went out with his knee injury, the perimeter shooting was just dreadful. All UNC could lean on was the berserker-version of Garrison Brooks, which got them a few wins, but ultimately led to possibly the worst UNC season of the millennium. If Carolina can’t shoot above 35 FG3% next year, they’ll have to hope that Armando Bacot can play at a similar level to junior-year Brooks.

Tomorrow, I’ll similarly explore what I think could happen with UNC basketball if things do not go well. I’ll obviously hope for this version to occur instead.