The best thing you can probably say about UNC during the scandal years is that Roy Williams has done a brilliant job of managing his team without UNC’s traditional high-end recruits. Two Final Fours and a national championship - this one with no (evident) academic fraud - really speaks well of his coaching ability, if not his ability to know what is going on off the court.
But everyone knew he could coach.
Williams was an immediate success at Kansas despite inheriting Larry Brown’s problems and probation and he’s been good ever since so we expect the Heels will be good again as they emerge from the train wreck of academic fraud and all the rest of it. There are some questions but some real strong points too, starting with Luke Maye.
We have great admiration for Maye. He’s made himself into an All-American player and hit the key play to knock Kentucky out of the tournament in his sophomore year. He has gotten as much out of his talent as anyone possibly could.
But here’s the problem with the senior from Cornelius - his ceiling is limited and he tends to struggle when he comes up against superior talent. We’re hugely impressed with him but, we think, realistic.
As a sophomore, Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks had his back. Last year, when UNC got hammered out of the tournament by Texas A&M, he had Cameron Johnson and Theo Pinson. Johnson is essentially a 6-8 guard and Pinson, who was also brilliant, was basically a 6-5 power/point forward. While he rebounded, defended and passed superbly, Pinson was still undersized. There’s only so much you can do at that size and Maye, who is 6-8, is now the most reliable big man on the roster. Only he’s not really a big man but until someone else is ready, he’s the best they have.
Maye does rebound exceptionally well, though less well against elite athletes, and he is a solid perimeter threat. That helps but it’s not necessarily exactly what UNC needs from him.
Since Maye can hardly be expected to be an inside power player, UNC needs for sophomores Sterling Manning, Brandon Huffman and Garrison Brooks to step up. They had moments, but none of them started in the A&M loss and combined for just 26 minutes, 10 points, four rebounds, no blocks, no steals and no assists.
Fellow sophomore Walker Miller, 6-10 brother of former UNC walk-on Wes Miller, is also available but hasn’t shown that he can play at this level yet.
Maye is admirable but he can’t carry the frontcourt, least of all defensively.
Still, Williams didn't go after any big men for this season so he must be confident that his sophomores can develop.
UNC has another problem and it’s a big one: how do you replace Joel Berry?
He was never an overwhelming physical talent - the NBA hasn’t shown much interest - but he was tough as he could be and incredibly competitive. Jalek Felton might have been the intended replacement but he’s long gone, having left UNC last season under murky circumstances. You can google the rumors yourself.
Kenny Williams might be able to move to the point. He was a tough defender and generally solid last year.
Seventh Woods is also an option but despite being occasionally dazzling, the elegantly named junior has not made a big impact so far at UNC.
It could be that Williams feels his best option is freshman Rechon Black. The 6-8 native from Concord could be a real luxury at point guard. He’s tall enough to pass over a whole lot of people and he has solid guard skills. That would be a lot of fun to watch. It’s hard to believe now but when Chris Collins’ dad Doug went to the NBA, people doubted he could play guard at 6-6. A few years later, Magic Johnson revolutionized the position.
Fellow freshmen Coby White, 6-4, could also see time at point though he’s probably a better scorer. He’s quick and knows how to score. We could see him in sort of a Microwave role, ready to heat up in a hurry.
The best freshman though is going to be Nassir Little. A 6-7 wing out of Orlando, he’s the real deal. He’s going to start from Day One and be a major impact player.
Little and Black bring us to what should be the strength of this team and that’s the midrange players.
Cameron Johnson was a pretty useful player for UNC last year, averaging 12.4 ppg and 4.7 rpg. He’s a solid all-round player and remember that Jamie Dixon talked about using him at point for Pitt.
Those three guys are all pretty versatile and Williams should be able to move them around accordingly.
If we had to guess, we’d think Ol’ Roy will start Maye, Johnson, Williams, Black and Little. It’s an interesting and, aside from Maye, a pretty athletic lineup. It still has a real weakness inside and we don’t know yet about Black and Little’s defense but every team has weaknesses. It’s the strengths that matter more.
Aside from the developing big men, UNC has some interesting likely reserves in White, Woods, Andrew Platek who is a solid three point shooter and Brandon Robinson, who was well regarded out of high school but who hasn’t done much in his first two seasons but who is certainly talented. Any of the three could emerge as a vastly improved player this year.
UNC also has two legacy transfers in Ryan McAdoo, nephew of UNC legend Bob McAdoo, and KJ Smith, son of former UNC great Kenny Smith.
McAdoo comes to UNC from Florida Gulf Coast where he barely played and Smith transferred in from Pacific. Smith looks strikingly like his dad, who now is most famous for his work on Inside the NBA on TNT. He was reasonably productive at Pacific but the WCC is a long way, literally and competitively, from the ACC.
This UNC team will be very different from recent Tar Heel outfits. It’ll be smaller overall, sleeker, likely faster and will want to run a lot to avoid mismatches on the inside or generally getting beaten up by more physical teams.
How far it goes depends on how well the defense coalesces, development of the centers and power forwards and how point guard plays out.
It’s a big change for Williams, who like Dean Smith before him likes two big men on the court, but there’s talent enough for a smaller and quicker UNC to make a deep run in March.