With the first official college basketball game of the season in just a couple of hours, it’s time to wrap up our preview series with our Tar Heel Blog staff predictions and preseason awards for the UNC Men’s Basketball team. We’ve got some consensus, some confusion, and a lot of excitement, so let’s get started with the awards voting and individual predictions:
Not much of a surprise for the big award, that is, Team MVP. The Tar Heels’ two longest-tenured players and leaders, R.J. Davis and Armando Bacot, were evenly split among 8 out of the 9 of us for who would end the season as the Heels’ best/most important player. We do have a bit of spiciness, with one contributor predicting that freshman point guard Elliot Cadeau will be the Heels’ most invaluable player by season’s end. If he pushes his way into the starting lineup and is given the keys to the offense as a passing point guard, I could see it happening, but Davis and Bacot are certainly safer bets.
On a roster with just four returning players who played at all last year, there were really only two choices for a Most Improved Player, seeing as Davis and Bacot, as a senior and super-senior respectively, mostly are who they are. They can play better than they did last year, of course, but as far as improving their games rather than their performances, most of that seems to have been established over the course of their careers. That leaves the sophomore guard, Seth Trimble, and the sophomore big, Jalen Washington. Eight of the nine of us voted for Washington to be the most improved out of the two of them, based on the promise he showed in limited minutes last year in his first basketball action since he was a junior in high school — it’s easy to imagine that said promise translate into consistent production now that he’s back in the swing of playing basketball. The vote for Trimble is understandable, too; the point guard did some good things but couldn’t get much going offensively all last season and could look a lot better if he just gets some shots to drop. He might have a longer road to playing time, though, behind Davis, Cadeau, and Paxson Wojcik.
Ooh, this one is fun. The nine voters were evenly split between Trimble, Harrison Ingram, and James Okonkwo for who they thought would end the season as UNC’s best defender. Adding to the messiness is that each of them plays a different position: Trimble is a point guard whose primary calling card is his on-ball defense, Ingram is a long wing who gets his hands in the way of passes and lazy shots to gum things up off-ball, and Okonkwo is a center who was added to the roster to shore up UNC’s rim protection. Ingram may have the most opportunity as a presumptive starter, but Trimble and Okonkwo both have promise as defensive specialists off the bench. This will be fascinating to track as the season goes on.
Some variety here, too, as should be expected for a prompt that asks who will surprise the most. Ingram and Washington make appearances here; Washington probably for the same reasons as his votes for Most Improved. Ingram’s ability to surprise will probably be directly related to his three-point shot; there’s no doubt he knows how to play basketball but was limited his first two seasons of college basketball by a low outside shooting percentage. If he’s right and his percentages were depressed by taking difficult shots, he could go from starter and contributor to a legitimate star. There was a vote for Paxson Wojcik, too, the graduate transfer from Brown who’s been billed as a three-point specialist but could be much more than that if the skills he showed against the Ivy League can translate to the ACC. But the highest vote-getter, with 5 of 9 votes, is freshman big man Zayden High, who impressed with his energy and activity in the exhibition against St. Augustine’s. High wasn’t expected to be a major contributor as a freshman, but if he keeps playing like that, that expectation is going to be blown out of the water.
We finish with a gallery of two categories that are more individual predictions than awards — Most Three-Pointers and Most Bench Minutes. The former category has more or less a consensus of R.J. Davis, UNC’s leader in three-point field goal percentage last year despite an injured hand for much of the season. There is also a vote for Cormac Ryan, the grad transfer from Notre Dame who’s hit 212 threes in his career. As for bench minutes, Cadeau and Washington lead the voting there to not much surprise. Wojcik is a presumptive starter right now, but if he and Cadeau switch roles at some point in the season, maybe that vote will prove prescient. And Jae’Lyn Withers, the wing/stretch 4 transfer from Louisville, is a bit of an unknown but boosts the athleticism of this roster, which might be needed at times.
We’ll do these as a group, because everybody seems to have similar ideas but they’re different enough that doing the pie charts would get exhausting. The gist of things is that everybody’s predicting a finish in the top 3 of the ACC with close to 25 wins, leading to a top-3 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Jack’s slightly more pessimistic, and that’s maybe warranted for a team that didn’t make the Tournament last year — but he also sees an Elite Eight finish, maybe envisioning a decent regular season team and a great postseason one in the vein of Hubert Davis’ first team as head coach. A plurality of us picked them to get to the Sweet Sixteen, which would also qualify as a successful season after last year’s disappointment. And every team has to have an optimist, and ours is Ethan — picking a road win against Duke, a first-place finish in the ACC and 1-seed in March Madness, and the Heels to cut down the nets in April. We can only hope. Bring on basketball!