Basketball season is just around the corner. “Secret” scrimmages have been played and exhibitions are currently in full swing. The Tar Heels are two weeks away from their first official competition against Northern Iowa. The Heels obviously have plenty of questions after losing Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Hicks, Justin Jackson, Tony Bradley and Nate Britt.
Personally, I think losing Stilman White is equally damaging. Who else could your make heart flutter like this?
All kidding aside, this year’s team also has plenty of known quantities and strengths. Let’s take a look at three strengths and three (alleged) weaknesses.
It would be easy to type “Joel Berry,” throw up a picture of the NCAA Trophy and move on. Berry has the opportunity to become one of, if not the, most legendary UNC point guards to ever pass through Chapel Hill. We’re biased here at Tar Heel Blog, but we’re also of the mindset that he is the best point guard in college basketball. That alone is a significant strength.
However, he is joined by Theo Pinson, Luke Maye and Kenny Williams. These four players make up a nucleus that have experienced near unparalleled success at UNC. Juniors Maye and Williams have never seen their season end before April. Theo Pinson, having battled through injuries and adversity his entire career, maintains an affable, fun-loving attitude in any situation (and led the team in assists last season with 3.7apg). He’s also the only player on the team that can help Berry control his super-emotional, hyper-competitiveness.
There is nothing this crew has not experienced. Heartbreak against Villanova, triumph against Gonzaga, and everything else in between.
This has been discussed in every corner of the internet. I wrote about it earlier this summer. Enough ink and keyboard clicks have been spent on this topic. And yet.....
What makes this team potentially so much fun are the sheer number of effective lineups they can play. Notice I said “effective” lineups. Any team with 13 scholarship players can make creative rotations, but UNC’s has a unique ability to go super big or super small while still remaining competitive. Roy Williams will never truly abandon emphasis on rebounding and post play, but he has the talent to create unconventional lineups and defensive mismatches as situations dictate.
If this seems like an easy answer, I don’t care. He enters the season with five Final Fours and three titles in 15 years, back-to-back NCAA championship games, eight ACC regular season championships, and one massive NCAA monkey off of his back. Wes Miller, Jared Haase, and C.B. McGrath have continued the Carolina coaching pipeline as head coaches. Not to mention, if you account for Marvin Williams, he actually has the most titles using one-year players than any other coach. Isn’t that ironic?
Some may call him overrated. I call him the best all-around coach since the turn of the century. Maybe even the best that’s ever coached at North Carolina. It is, at the very least, debatable. On a team with as much roster turnover as UNC saw in the offseason, if that is not a strength, I don’t want to live in this world any longer.
Replacing Meeks, Hicks, and Bradley
The three departed post players accounted for 31.4ppg and 20.1 rpg. Incoming freshmen Brandon Huffman, Garrison Brooks, Sterling Manley, and walk-on Walker Miller are unlikely to match that production. Early season struggles are expected. Roy has said that between the four of them, he doesn’t even have one player. That doesn’t mean that they will be forgiven or opponents will just roll over because the Heels are young.
However, the season and success in March will hinge on their ability to grow, develop, and learn UNC’s system. The secondary break is poetry in motion when it’s run correctly. Knowing when to cut across the lane, how to gain position on the block, or how to just set a solid screen will take time and hundreds of repetitions. If December rolls around and there isn’t noticeable improvement on the court, the ACC season may make for a long winter.
It always seems like defense, specifically along the perimeter, is a weakness for UNC. With seasoned veterans in Berry, Pinson, Williams, and graduate transfer Cam Johnson one would think that would finally change this season. With Cam and Theo able to guard 3 or 4 positions, this team has the potential to be defensively flexible dominant. A deeper analysis shows it’s not that easy.
The issue will be with UNC’s bench. While considered talented, especially with freak athlete Seventh Woods and freshman Jalek Felton, the bench is low on minutes played or understanding of what high defensive output requires. Allowing Barton to score 80 points is evidence of that. The concept of helping your teammate, defending screens, or just getting a hand up to contest long-distance shots requires an attention to detail and focus that many underclassmen struggle with. Even Justin Jackson was inconsistent until the light flipped on for him last March and April.
The inexperience in the post is also going to make UNC susceptible to teams with elite guards driving deep into the paint to draw contact or dish to an open man. Young guards tend to struggle with keeping the ball in front of them. Young post players struggle with seeing the whole court and knowing when or where to provide help. These same deficiencies also lead to foul trouble.
Of the returning players expected to contribute significant minutes, only Seventh Woods, Luke Maye and Theo Pinson had a defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) under 100 last season. Wood’s clocked in with a 96.6, DRtg, Maye at 98.2, and Pinson scraped by at 99.1.
The Heels will have to figure out a way to limit early season defensive lapses.
Joel Berry is the only returning double-digit scorer from last season’s team, with 14.7ppg. The next highest returning scorer is Kenny Williams at 6.2ppg. That is a significant gap. Last month, I explored the difficulty teams have winning a championship when they rely on their point guard to lead the team in scoring. Someone is going to have to provide some relief so Berry does not become the single point of failure for this offense.
Cam Johnson has the experience and ability to shoot from anywhere on the court, but can he attack and create his own shot? Luke Maye is ready to show opponents that he’s more than just a novelty three-point shooter, but can he be a consistent threat every night? Will Felton grow into the backcourt mate to Berry, that Berry was to Paige in 2016? Or maybe, Pinson finally puts it all together this season, stays healthy, and terrorizes opposing defenses while playing all five positions (ask Florida State how that worked out for them last year?)
Whatever the outcome, buckets have to come from somebody. Or multiple bodies. If they don’t, Berry’s toughness and talents will be tested to maximum capacity.
Winning a title is difficult. Last season, Kenny Williams stepped up when Theo went down. Luke Maye turned into a cold-blooded assassin. Tony Bradley developed into a first round draft pick. Kennedy Meeks became the most underappreciated UNC player of my lifetime. Nate Britt was the consummate teammate, filling in wherever and whenever he was needed. Justin Jackson became an All-American. Everything had to break just right.
This season will be no different. However, there is enough talent to make a deep run in March. When the tournament rolls around, all you can ask for is a chance. If the young guns grow into their roles, Cam Johnson is as good as advertised, and the worst injury UNC suffers all year is Joel Berry’s hand, then the Heels will remain competitive. They’ll get their chance.