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Five Questions for UNC Basketball this season

This season begins very differently from the last.

NCAA Basketball: Final Four-National Championship-Kansas vs North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

First of all, let’s take a step back and realize how cool it is that, in the span of just over half a decade, we fans of UNC Basketball will have gotten to watch two title redemption chases with teams that actually look well-equipped to do it. In the past decade, UNC’s one of just two programs to come off an NCAA Championship loss and begin the next season in the top 6, and they’ve done it twice (the other was Gonzaga this past season). It’s a rare story in college basketball, where rosters turn over so heavily and championship efforts usually take years to build, and we’re super fortunate to get the chance to see it be told again.

A lot has been said and observed about this upcoming season for UNC, from the fact that it returns nearly everybody who played significant minutes in conference and postseason play last year, to the addition of a sought-after graduate transfer, to anticipation of what Hubert Davis can do with a full season of coaching under his belt — all the things that led to them being the AP’s preseason #1-ranked team and one of oddsmakers’ 4 teams tied for the best odds of cutting down the nets in April. But even a team starting from heights as lofty as this one has some questions to answer, and that’s what I’m here for — I’ve got a few questions I think are going to shape this season for the Heels, and what’s behind them. Here they are:

1. What is the Point Guard situation going to look like?

We all know Hubert Davis is endearingly prone to hyperbole, but in conjunction with Love being pressed into playing point guard for UNC’s exhibition against Johnson C. Smith with R.J. Davis’ injury, he said something pretty eyebrow-raising: “I’ve really challenged him... I think [Love] can lead the ACC in assists.” His play in the exhibition backed that up, too, as he handed out 8 dimes in addition to his 20 points and made a number of impressive, in-control plays for his teammates: athletic dumpoffs, skips with both hands, lobs, you name it — he certainly didn’t look like a secondary ballhandler, like pretty much everybody writing about UNC Basketball has assumed this offseason after the offense took a leap forward last year once Davis took the reins. If Love really has leveled up his game to that level of control and patience, I’m not saying this is a question with a wrong answer, but I am curious: are we going to see more of a split-time point guard situation between the two starters than expected, or maybe more of a whoever-gets-it-goes situation rather than last year’s arrangement where the called sets dictated who brought up the ball? And how will freshman Seth Trimble figure into this — has he been getting ballhandling reps in practice, or will his minutes mostly come with one of the two starters on the floor? Again, this probably isn’t a question on which the season will turn for better or worse, but it is one I’m very interested to see answered.

2. How will Hubert Davis use his bench?

Last year, after losing his sixth man, Dawson Garcia, to issues with his family in Minnesota, and his seventh man, Anthony Harris, for unknown reasons that may have been related to academics (academic eligibility issues are also going to keep Harris from playing for Rhode Island, where he’s transferred, until January), both right around the beginning of conference play, Hubert Davis used his bench pretty sparingly, as nobody below 7th in the rotation had really earned regular playing time. This led to the birth of the “Iron Five,” which has been well-documented and deservedly celebrated. Some of those reserves started to show up in the postseason. Dontrez Styles had a breakout game against Baylor, playing great, physical defense and hitting the three-pointer to start overtime that pushed the Heels past the finish line. Puff Johnson came into his own against Duke in the Final Four and then played the game of his career to this point against Kansas, leaving it all on the floor on both ends.

So this year, the expectation is that things are different. Johnson and Styles are ready to take those breakouts and become regular contributors, and D’Marco Dunn starting in place of R.J. Davis in the exhibition game signals that he’s got trust from the staff as well. And then there are the freshmen — Seth Trimble and Tyler Nickel look ready to play immediately, at least in spurts, and Will Shaver’s already got experience practicing with the team — and this team is a little short on ready-to-play bigs. Some of these players will entrench themselves into the rotation and some of them won’t, that’s how a college season works. But Davis’ success came when he didn’t really have a rotation, and all eyes are watching how he’s going to manage a deeper bench — what rotations and lineups will look like and how he’ll make decisions based on them, and ultimately, what contributions UNC can get from its bench a year after setting Tar Heel records for the percentage of production that came from its starters.

3. Speaking of those freshmen: what are we going to see from them?

Last year’s freshmen, Styles and Dunn, were both clearly going to be good players, but were also always pretty developmental prospects. They were ranked 66th and 68th in the country in large part on the strength of their athleticism, and it was evident that they needed some time to get comfortable playing system basketball. This year’s freshmen, Davis’ first class as a head coach, could be a little different. Trimble was one of the best high school point guards in the country and Nickel was one of the best shooters in the country, and their skillsets look, on early observation, to have translated pretty well to this level. We haven’t seen Jalen Washington as he continues to rehab the injuries that kept him out of most of the action he would’ve seen his last two years of high school, but Adam Lucas and other sources around the program are adamant that the former five-star talent will play once he’s healthy, and Shaver’s experience is a good thing to have in a thin frontcourt. The freshmen are a key part of the bench looking different for the Tar Heels this time around. As with any season, what we’ll see from them is an exciting question to have for now and the future.

4. What will this team look like defensively?

One of the big deals in turning UNC’s season around was going from an abysmal defensive team without a clear defensive identity from November to mid-February to a borderline elite one in the second half of conference play, and then a level past that in the postseason. Increased familiarity and cohesion among the players seemed to be the driving force, but Davis also started to find coverages and schemes that were working with his personnel — and, going back to the first point, rarely changing that personnel probably helped with that. Things could be different this year, with the expectation of more bench minutes and Pete Nance occupying the spot Brady Manek once did, with a very different skillset. So, will Davis’ schemes from late last year carry over into this season? What kinds of coverages will we see, and will Davis keep experimenting like he did early last season, or does he think he’s found an identity to latch on to? The continuity of the roster that finished last year has made people feel like this will be a good defensive team, and they’re probably right. Again, my questions aren’t so much about this team’s fortunes as they are about what it will be like to watch them.

5. Can they play with a target on their chests?

To some extent, this question is asked of every team that plays in Chapel Hill, just by virtue of playing for one of college basketball’s true bluebloods. But in the past few years, as college basketball has started losing casual fans with the NBA resurging in popularity and quality, and as UNC’s exposure in the NBA has relatively underwhelmed that of its blueblood peers, things were a little different. UNC was still a big deal to a lot of opposing players, but maybe not the biggest deal, and that was only compounded with an abysmal 2020, and a mediocre 2021. Then Roy Williams retired, taking the most recognizable aspect of the program away, and with a new coach, especially after a shaky start to the season, last year’s Heels weren’t really playing with a ton of weight on them outside the fanbase. A lot of us talked in last year’s tournament about how the Heels were playing with house money, especially after but even before beating Duke in the Final Four. This year, things are different. With two wins against Duke that redefined the rivalry, the Heels forced themselves back into the national college basketball narrative. They’re the #1 team in the country in a championship-or-bust season, as far as the media narrative is concerned. Every team they play is going to want to take a shot at the presumptive champs. That’s a kind of pressure that’s not new to Chapel Hill, but is new to this group of players and this head coach. Ultimately, the question of the season is this: can they handle it? Can they be the champs everybody thinks they can be?