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UNC basketball: Player to watch vs. Northern Iowa

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Will Seventh Woods step up in the wake of Berry’s injury?

NCAA Basketball: North Carolina State at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Basketball season is finally upon us as the North Carolina Tar Heels begin their title defense tonight against the Northern Iowa Panthers. Plenty of questions remain unanswered after the Heels lost three starters (Justin Jackson, Isaiah Hicks, Kennedy Meeks) and two key rotation players (Nate Britt and Tony Bradley), but hopefully the first regular season game offers some answers.

Given that there are seven new faces on the roster and vastly different roles expected from the returnees, choosing the first “player to watch” of the year is a tough one. Conventional wisdom points towards one of the freshman big men, all of whom will have to step up in a huge way if Roy Williams wants to stick to the conventional two-forwards, three-guards lineup. However, I’ve got my eye on Seventh Woods in this one.

It’s no secret that the point guard is the backbone of the team. This rings especially true for UNC under Coach Williams, whose championship runs have been defined by experienced, talented, and fiercely competitive point guards, like Raymond Felton, Ty Lawson, and Joel Berry II. The position has also served as a big determinant of how well the Tar Heels can defend their titles and avoid championship hangover.

Following the 2005 national championship, a freshman Bobby Frasor was handed the keys after Quentin Thomas failed to live up to expectations. Frasor offered an intelligent, low-error presence, and he guided the Tar Heels to a 3 seed in the tournament and a sweet spoiling of J.J. Redick’s senior night.

Of course, things didn’t go as smoothly after the Tar Heels won the 2009 championship. Larry Drew II took the reigns of the offense and fell flat on his face. Drew was a disastrous decision maker and turnover machine, and he led what was supposed to be a top ten team to a trip to the NIT.

This season is sort of an anomaly in that the Tar Heels will have a Final Four MOP in Joel Berry running the show. Since Berry is out with a broken hand to start the season, it leaves Seventh Woods with some big shoes to fill.

Woods averaged 1.5 points, 1.2 assists, and 1.1 turnovers per game in 7.7 minutes of action last season. Often knocked for trying to play too fast, Woods will look to prove that he has adjusted to the college game in his second season.

Woods, whose athleticism made him a YouTube sensation in middle school, hasn’t exactly had the impact originally expected of him. He hasn’t had many opportunities to truly run the offense, though. To be successful, he’ll need to refrain from seeking out the flashy play and simply make the smart one. If he does that, the flashy plays should come naturally for both him and his teammates.

Of course, he’ll need to play well just to stay on the court. Roy Williams has indicated that both Jalek Felton and Theo Pinson could see time at point guard. While I believe Woods will get the start, the general feeling around Chapel Hill seems to be that nobody really has a stranglehold on the position. The performance of Seventh Woods tonight will be a defining factor for this team and his role for the rest of the season.