The Tar Heels will, like all defending champions, spend the entirety of their season with a massive target on their back. Teams and fanbases already get riled up when the boys in Carolina Blue come to town. When they come as defending champs, well, that's something special. The Heels will be one of the BIG GAMES on everyone's schedule and big time players make big plays in big games. Here, in reverse order, are the best:
Reid Travis (Stanford): The big man finished off his first injury-free season in 2017 with averages of 17.4 ppg and 8.9 rpg. He'll be relied on heavily as the Cardinal are utterly devoid of backcourt talent. They do, however, have a strong front court and will be an early test for UNC's unproven bigs.
Quentin Snider (Louisville): The point guard may be playing his senior season under the cloud of NCAA sanctions, but next to Joel Berry, he's the most reliable veteran floor leader in the ACC. His solid junior numbers (12.4 ppg, 4.1 apg) will grow now that Donovan Mitchell has bounced to the NBA.
Deng Adel (Louisville): As with Snider, Adel will benefit from a larger role in the offense now that Mitchell is gone. Adel had a solid sophomore year (12.1 ppg, 4.5 rpg) but came on particularly strong late in conference play and nearly entered the draft over the buzz he created from it. As the premier wing scorer on the Cards, Adel will be a tough cover.
The Top Five:
#5- Bruce Brown (Miami)
There might not be a more underrated player in college basketball than Bruce Brown. His freshman year saw him called upon to assume ball-handling duties for the Hurricanes, despite being a pure shooting guard in high school. He performed admirably and also managed to average 5.6 rebounds per game on top of that. His 11.8 ppg will only go up now that Davon Reed is headed to the NBA.
Despite his impressive offensive versatility for a freshman, Brown's true strength is in his defense. His tough-as-nails approach, coupled with his NBA physicality (He's six-foot-five and 200 pounds) make him a nightmare for perimeter players to deal with. He'll have the keys to Jim Larranaga's team next year and will make Miami an ACC contender.
#4- Grayson Allen (You-Know-Who)
We've heard it all at this point, but trips, tantrums, and a punchable face notwithstanding, Grayson Allen is still a force on the basketball court, and he tends to bring his A-game against the Heels.
Last season saw his brilliant sophomore numbers drop, but let's not kid ourselves here: Allen was playing out of position on a team that couldn't figure itself out, and it's reasonable to say that the self-inflicted pressure he had to deal with got to him. He's now a senior and, more importantly, has an elite point guard in Trevon Duvall handling the rock. He can now return to his favored off-ball position and will be leaned on as a veteran leader (good luck with that) on a very young Duke team.
#3- Bonzie Colson (Notre Dame)
I'll say it: I love Bonzie Colson's game. He's undersized for the power forward but you'd never know it by watching him. His numbers last season were preposterous considering what he's called on to do: 17.8 ppg, 10.1 rpg, while shooting 43% from beyond the arc. Were he a couple inches taller, he'd have been an NBA Lottery pick. His size kept NBA Scouts wary, so he's back for his senior year at Notre Dame.
Colson can do it all: He's a bruising rebounder and a high motor defender with a low center of gravity that he uses well against big men with college bodies. He can turn over either shoulder and can shoot the ball extremely well for his position. It'll be interesting to see what Carolina player draws him as an assignment when the Irish come to Chapel Hill.
#2- Marvin Bagley III (That Team Up the Road)
I know. I'm not over it either. Bagley's reclassification and commitment to Duke gives the Blue Devils the best pure talent in all of college basketball. I know you don't want to hear this right now, but Bagley's just a force of nature. He's an athletic freak. He can shoot the three well and the midrange brilliantly. He is quick and agile around the basket and can finish with either hand. He can handle the ball. He's got hops. He has good defensive instinct and lateral quickness to go with it.
Barring utter madness, Bagley will be a top-three pick in the NBA Draft next year, joining the growing list of Coach K one-and-dones. In terms of pure potential, he may very well have the highest ceiling of all of them. He asked for Danny Ferry's number and they gave it to him, what does that tell you?
The only thing holding him back is his youth. He's only 18 and even phenomenally talented players can struggle to adapt to the college game. Maybe K doesn't utilize him properly, like Skal Labissiere at Kentucky. But that's a lot to hope for.
#1- Miles Bridges (Michigan State)
Now, UNC facing Bridges and MSU is not a sure thing: The Tar Heels and Spartans are both playing in the PK80 Tournament in Portland but each would have to make the final to play each other. They are the two best teams in the field, though, and I'm banking on them holding serve.
Bridges shocked a lot of experts when he decided to spurn the NBA Draft and return to East Lansing this summer. He was projected as a potential top-10 pick following his brilliant freshman season for a pretty bad Spartan team. Bridges posted big time numbers of 16.9 ppg, 8.3 rpg, and shot 39% from 3. His brilliant play is the biggest reason everyone is expecting a bounce back year from Tom Izzo's squad.
Bridges has NBA athleticism and strength, a good motor, and plays solid defense. His game will only get better with a full season now under his belt and he, along with Michael Porter of Missouri, will be the odds-on favorite to win the Naismith Award. If the Tar Heels and Spartans do meet in Portland, let's hope Theo Pinson eats his Wheaties that morning.