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UNC Basketball vs. Notre Dame: Three Things to Watch

UNC debuts a team with a brand new look, both in personnel and lineup formation

NCAA Basketball: North Carolina at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Man oh man does it feel good to have basketball back! North Carolina takes on Notre Dame tonight and, after one of the biggest turnover offseasons in UNC history, we will finally see the 2019-20 Tar Heels in competitive action. Here are three things to watch when the Heels square off against the Irish.

Leaky Black’s Expanded Role

Way back in April, following Cole Anthony’s commitment, I predicted that Leaky Black and Brandon Robinson would be the vital X-factors on this year’s squad. Fast forward to November and Brandon Robinson will be out for the next couple weeks with an ankle injury. In addition, Anthony Harris and Jeremiah Francis will also miss tonight’s game. UNC’s backcourt and wing depth just got thin in a hurry. This makes Leaky Black more than just an X-factor tonight: he’ll have to be a primary component.

Leaky, of course, has battled injuries of his own: A high ankle sprain in late January kept him out for February and ACC Tournament play, and his offseason has been an extended rehab that has featured a number of different regimens. He’s recently described himself as being “around 98-99%”. Ideally, he’d start off the regular season off the bench in relief of Robinson, but he’ll have a massive part to play against Notre Dame, something Roy Williams has emphasized this week.

Leaky will start at the 3, but he’ll also likely see time with ball handling responsibilities in the (few) minutes Cole Anthony is not on the floor. This is not unfamiliar or uncomfortable for him (he dished out seven assists against just one turnover against Winston-Salem State), but being asked to wear several hats right out of the gate will be quite the season premiere for him. His wing defense, perimeter shooting, and facilitation will all be called upon and how he delivers with starter’s minutes will be fun to watch.

The Return of the Two-Big Lineup

It’s no secret that Roy Williams likes a traditional lineup with two classic big men in the paint. His championship teams alone bear that out. In 2005, he leaned on Sean May and Jawad Williams with the versatile Marvin Williams coming off the bench. In 2009, it was Tyler Hansbrough and Deon Thompson, with Ed Davis in relief. In 2017, Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Hicks, and reserve Tony Bradley pounded teams on the glass.

For the last two seasons, this has not often been the case due to personnel: True, Luke Maye and Garrison Brooks were nominally the two bigs, but Maye was a stretch four on offense and Garrison’s preferred spot is at power forward. When UNC required maximum offensive production, they’d shift Maye to the five and use Cameron Johnson to guard the post as well. This year, with the addition of Armando Bacot, UNC has a true pivotman and Brooks can slide back to his natural position.

How Brooks and Bacot operate together will be fascinating: Bacot is fast for his size and could be a real asset as a rim-runner when UNC gets out on the break. His post game and interior defense need work (he is a freshman, after all) but he still presents more of low block scoring threat than UNC has had in two years. Brooks, meanwhile, is a trendy breakout candidate who made some big strides last year. He’s already UNC’s best defender, but if he can expand his offensive game as a four and improve his rebounding, he could be an All-ACC contender.

Cole Anthony Unleashed

Let’s be real: Ever since April 23rd, THIS has been what we’ve all be looking forward to above all. There’s a new floor general at Point Guard U and he arrives with a fanfare unseen in Chapel Hill since Harrison Barnes skyped his commitment to Roy and Co. in 2010. Let’s not belabor the familiar points about Cole: Suffice to say that he appears to have all the tools, intelligence, and character needed to be the next great UNC star and this team will go as far as he can take them.

Tonight we see him in a game that counts for the first time. Sure, we’ve heard that he was lights out in the scrimmage against Nova, and he largely went through the motions in the exhibition against Winston-Salem State, but now we get to see him with our own eyes and the training wheels off.

Cole figures to shoulder a whole lot of responsibility this season, but tonight he will likely shoulder even more. With the injuries to the backcourt, he’ll see very little time on the bench and could go 35+ minutes if this game stays close. How he handles that heavy workload will be interesting: At times in his high school career, he tried to do too much himself rather than work his teammates into the game. With a supporting cast that may be a bit wanting at this point in the season, how patient he is as a facilitator will be a key point of interest.