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ACC Preview #1 - UNC

The Tar Heels are about to enter a new era with some uncertainty but also some real promise

ACC Men’s Basketball Tournament - North Carolina v Florida State
GREENSBORO, NORTH CAROLINA - MARCH 12: Caleb Love #2 of the North Carolina Tar Heels celebrates with teammate Armando Bacot #5 during the second half of their semifinals game in the ACC Men’s Basketball Tournament at Greensboro Coliseum on March 12, 2021 in Greensboro, North Carolina.
Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

We realized the other day that it’s almost September which means we’re actually behind on ACC previews. So as always, we start with our diminished blue neighbors down the road, UNC.

Typically in the ACC, Duke and UNC get most of the attention and are the most interesting stories. That’s not always true of course.

In 2019, Virginia had an incredible run to the national title. Last year, Georgia Tech played brilliantly at the end of the season and won the ACC title.

But typically, Duke and UNC are the big stories and that’s perhaps more true this year than ever with Roy Wiliams having retired this past spring and Mike Krzyzewski planning to step down after the season.

Williams stepped aside saying he wasn’t sure he was the man for the job anymore, which was brutally honest and a bit sad. We also recall a story from earlier this year where someone saw Williams watching some distinctly average teams at an AAU team and being asked why he bothered. His answer?

We can’t quote verbatim, but basically he said that he had a better chance of being a good coach if he had great players. It was a pretty human moment, a bit of vulnerability we never expected.

Still, coaches who last a long time tend to slow down near the end and not win as much. In his last couple of seasons, Williams finished 32-30 and you know that ate at him. He took a certain amount of abuse from UNC fans who turned on him, despite him winning the national championship in 2017 and running up a 121-32 record in the four seasons prior to his last two.

That two-year stretch doesn't take away from his immense accomplishments. He won three national championships, nine Final Fours and nine ACC championships. He’s been a member of the Hall of Fame for 14 years, having been voted in in 2007, just 19 years into his career. He ends with a career record of 903-264. You don’t have to like him to see that that is a brilliant career.

But he’s done now and his AD did as he wished and hired Hubert Davis as his successor.

And Davis has hit the ground running.

After last season, UNC lost Day’Ron Sharpe, Walker Kessler, Sterling Manley, Garrison Brooks and Walker Miller all left, and only Sharpe headed to the NBA.

So if you’re keeping track, you’ll notice that all those guys were over 6-10. Toss in junior Armando Bacot, also the same height and who did stay, and you have to ask yourself: who in their right mind needs six guys over 6-10?

In short order, Davis has pretty substantially remade the Tar Heels.

Bacot, 6-4 Anthony Harris, 6-8 Leaky Black, 6-4 Caleb Love, 6-0 RJ Davis, 6-8 Puff Johnson and 6-5 Kerwin Walton return for Davis’s debut season and brings in freshmen 6-4 D’Marco Dunn and 6-6 Dontrez Styles. You’ll notice that most of those guys are perimeter players.

But Davis also brings in three transfers: 6-9 Brady Malek from Oklahoma, 6-11 Dawson Garcia from Marquette where he played one year for Steve Wojciechowski and 6-7 Justin McKoy from Virginia, so UNC has restocked its traditional pond of big men in a big pond.

Only it’s a bit different.

At one point during his run at UNC, Dean Smith said that he didn’t mind that Williams “stole” his UNC system to use at Kansas, but it did bug him that he ran it better.

What Williams basically did was to run it faster. His Kansas and UNC teams really got up and down the floor.

But during his time at UNC the game changed a lot and the perception, fair or not, was that he was a bit stuck in his ways at the end (see paragraph six again).

We couldn't see how he could possibly use Bacot, Brooks, Kessler, Sharpe, Kessler, Manley, Brooks and Miller.

And realistically, Manley’s injuries kept him from playing much at all while Walker, who had his moments, was a walk-on. So leaving those guys out of it, you still had four guys with overlapping skill sets competing for minutes.

Covid complicated things too but fundamentally, it was a flawed, top-heavy team and now Sharpe is in the NBA, Kessler is at Auburn, Brooks is at Mississippi State and Manley is pursuing a pro career.

Guard play didn’t help much either. With the right teammates, Black could have been really good in a complementary role. He didn’t have that.

And the other guys?

Harris has had injuries to deal with, Love and Davis were erratic as freshmen while Kerwin Walton emerged as an outstanding shooter. Puff Johnson is the younger brother of former UNC star Cam Johnson, but as a freshman he really didn’t play much. That’s not to say he can’t develop, but last year he wasn’t ready. We’ll see how he does.

The freshmen are going to be athletic. Dunn is an outstanding three point shooter while Styles, the latest big-time talent for little Kinston, is a guy who can sort of plug into the concept of positionless basketball. He probably won’t start as a freshman but he’ll be a key reserve and he’s athletic enough to be a plug-and-play defender at at least four positions.

As far as the transfers go, Manek is also an outstanding three point shooter. Garcia is probably not but has excellent all-around skills. He’s going to be really useful in a number of scenarios.

It may take longer to find a way to work McKoy in but UNC could move to a smaller lineup and use guys like McKoy, Black, Styles, Love and whoever else Davis decides to plug in.

What we’ll be looking at is how the perimeter play develops. Love, who was a huge Duke fan growing up, didn't light Chapel Hill on fire as a freshman. He was erratic and clearly had a lot of growth ahead of him.

You can imagine that new assistant Jeff Lebo, who was a very skilled point guard for Dean Smith, will work extensively with Love.

If he doesn’t work out at point, for whatever reason, where does UNC go?

Anthony Harris is your first bet assuming he’s healthy and ready. But we wouldn’t write off D’Marco Dunn just yet and, conceivably, Leaky Black. He wouldn’t be a pure point guard obviously, but when Duke has had a year without a true point, they went to what Coach K has called conveyance. Essentially it’s just working together to advance the ball and then get into scoring position.

And don’t overlook Bacot. He’s less desirable to the NBA because the league currently doesn’t value traditional low post play as much as it used to. But with the spacing the three point shooters should provide, Bacot could have a monster season.

Williams may well have been correct to say that he’s not the right man anymore and that’s not to diminish his brilliant career. But his system was, generally speaking, position based and though he somewhat modified his approach from Smith’s, he still liked a power game inside, still liked two bigs and wasn’t a big fan of the three point shot, or at least failed to recruit three point shooters late in his career.

Davis is just getting started but look at the changes he’s made. Both Manek and Garcia depart from the traditional UNC big man template. Dunn and Styles have the potential to be versatile, athletic performers who would fit in at Duke, Alabama or what Buzz Williams did at Virginia Tech and is trying to do at Texas A&M.

And depending on how fast he moves, and how much they are capable of changing their roles, he may be able to add Walton, Black and Johnson to that as well.

We can glean more from UNC’s 2022 commits: 6-9 Jalen Washington, 6-3 Seth Trimble and 6-9 Will Shaver.

Washington is said to have a (you guessed it) versatile skill set, who can handle the ball, shoot threes, rebound and defend the whole court - a thoroughly modern player, in other words.

Trimble is a point guard (and the younger brother of former UNC player JP Tokoto). Point guard is the one position we don’t expect Davis to change too very much. As Jeff Capel says, it’s the only position left in basketball. Trimble is probably going to be pretty good.

Shaver is a bit different. He reportedly lost a lot of weight to get down to 240 - most big guys have to work hard to get up to that - but he is a good three point shooter too.

And most intriguingly, we’ll see him soon: he’s going to enroll for the spring semester.

Okay, we won't see him: he’s going to redshirt. But he’ll be working out and getting ready for next year.

His physique reminds us a bit of Kennedy Meeks, who came to UNC as a quite chunky big man before really redefining his body and helping UNC win the 2017 national championship.

But that all is to come. This year, Davis has to resuscitate the Heels, follow a legend, and show that he can coach at this level.

And truthfully, no one really knows.

He’s an absolutely loyal Tar Heel and realistically, he’s hard to dislike (we’re sure ACC fans will manage though). He was a tremendous presence on ESPN when he was broadcasting and, again, immensely likable.

But winning comes first and if he struggles, or has growing pains, UNC fans may not be that patient. It’s going to be really interesting to see that dynamic. As we saw over the last several years, a certain part of UNC’s fan base vocally turned on Williams, demanding that he do this or change that or pack it in.

UNC was incredibly blessed to have Williams (ultimately) follow Smith and basically match his accomplishments. How often does that happen? We’ve said before that Smith was the better coach, and Williams concurs on that, but he won three titles to Smith’s two. He also finished with quite a few more wins.

It’s hard to know how things will unfold, but Davis appears poised to make changes that should help UNC next season and down the road. And don’t overlook this: the man is, as we’ve said, very likable and he’s also the first African-American head basketball coach at UNC. He’s probably going to recruit very well and in fact is off to a great start. The question now is what kind of game coach he turns out to be.