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ACC Preview #1 - UNC

North Carolina v Kansas
NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA - APRIL 04: Head coach Hubert Davis of the North Carolina Tar Heels look on in the first half of the game against the Kansas Jayhawks during the 2022 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament National Championship at Caesars Superdome on April 04, 2022 in New Orleans, Louisiana.
Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Hubert Davis certainly had an interesting first season. For much of the year, fans were not very happy with the way things were going and for a while, it looked as if...well, it’s not that the wheels were coming off, but the team wasn’t transitioning very well to his vision and there was certainly some tension. This was best illustrated by some yahoo caught on TV after a bad play who yelled, quite audibly and with great frustration: come on, Hubert!

It was also illustrated by Davis himself who, for a good part of the season, publicly complained about his team’s effort, which didn’t make a great first impression.

Down the stretch though, UNC toughened up and his vision came into focus: he wasn’t particularly interested in the Dean Smith/Roy Williams double post/high percentage formula, which we suspect Smith, if not Wiliams, saw as a mathematical formula for success.

Instead, Davis installed an offense that sacrificed some offensive rebounding for three point shooting and a more open court. That’s a major simplification but gets to the core of things.

It began to work when Brady Manek started to click. His outside shooting was deadly and, in return, made Armando Bacot much more dangerous inside.

Bacot, who is back for his senior season, illustrates the transition UNC is undergoing in a very interesting way: he’s a powerful inside player who almost no one can stop. That should translate into a high draft pick, right?

Well, no.

Bacot is limited to the inside, at least as of last season, and the modern game demands versatility, which he lacks. So ironically, his lack of versatility allowed Davis’s introduction of a more contemporary offense to (ultimately) succeed.

UNC also started 6-9 Leaky Black, who is versatile in every aspect except three point shooting, 6-4 Caleb Love and 6-0 RJ Davis. Black is a senior while Love and Davis are juniors.

So UNC is an easy pre-season #1, right?

Well, maybe.

The Tar Heels, of course, ended Mike Krzyzewski’s Cameron career and then later knocked Duke out of the Final Four, to the delight of UNC fans everywhere. It was a coup de grace of rare proportions. But Planet UNC would be wise to remember a book the Duke legend wrote though - A Season Is A Lifetime.

You might partly sum it up this way: a season stands alone and just because you get most, or even all, of your guys back doesn’t mean that everything will go the way you expect next time.

First, teams will have more of an idea of how to play against Davis now. Second, the chemistry, inevitably, will be different. And third, there are a million variables that no one can foresee, including potential injuries.

In the first case, rival coaches will have been watching film all summer and have a good idea of what UNC did to succeed. The third by definition is unknown.

And the second?

Well, success is not always easy to handle. Duke’s lesson for this remains the 1979 team. Bill Foster got the entire team back, but it had issues. Bob Bender and the late John Harrell were competing for the point guard spot and that caused problems. Duke went to an event in New York early in the season and lost 18 point leads two nights in a row. Things went south considerably after that.

UNC also has to slot someone in to replace Manek. The general sense is that it’ll be Pete Nance, who transfers in from Northwestern. UNC lists him at 6-11 and 230, and the buzzword around Nance is versatility. He said this about his game: “I’m kind of somebody that can do a little bit of everything. Shoot, pass, dribble, I kind of try to pride myself on being versatile.”

He actually shoots the three a bit better than Manek and is more athletic, but we’d give Manek a bit of the old-guy-at-the-Y credit because he had a bit of a mean streak. Does Nance? Who knows.

He comes from a basketball family though: father Larry Sr. played at Clemson back in the day and brother Larry Jr. is a New Orleans Pelican.

But it’s impossible to know about the fit until the season starts. Remember last year, Dawson Garcia, Kerwin Walton and Anthony Harris all had issues of one sort or another. All three ultimately left the team.

Bacot is the star and a candidate for National Player Of The Year. Bacot also spent part of the off-season filming Outer Banks episodes for Netflix. That’s NIL smart, but that’s also a distraction and time that he’s not spending working on his game. Will it matter? We can’t know, but we do know this: coaches hate distractions.

Black, who struggled mightily in Roy Williams’ final season, was really good as a complementary role player/defender last season. We expect he’ll be very good again and if his shot improves, a huge asset.

The battle-scarred backcourt returns. Love has been the point guard, and Davis the shooting guard. Typically that would be reversed since Davis is much smaller, but both averaged 3.6 apg. Interestingly, Davis out rebounded the taller Love by nearly a full rebound per game (4.3 to 3.4).

As a 6-0 shooting guard, Davis’s NBA future is uncertain, to say the least, but he is really dangerous in college. And he’s gutty as hell, too.

As for Love, he has undeniably shown an instinct for the clutch but even teammate Bacot seemed frustrated by his shooting, at one point saying you don’t know what you will get with Love, or words to that effect.

These guys could switch with Davis becoming the point guard or doing what Duke did with Jason Williams and Chris Duhon and just run the pair. But again, that changes things and we can't know what results from that.

What about Justin McKoy? He left Virginia, presumably at least in part over playing time. He didn’t get much at UNC either as his minutes actually went down. He’s not likely to move up in the rotation.

Puff Johnson got some minutes but will he maintain or increase that? Hard to say.

The real questions with the returnees come with sophomores Dontrez Styles and D’Marco Dunn. Both were highly rated recruits but barely played, with Styles getting 5.8 mpg and Dunn 4.1, mostly in garbage time or because no one else was available. Are either of them ready to move up? Will one or both accept limited roles again?

Then there are the freshmen, who should be pretty good. Seth Trimble is the younger brother of former Maryland star Melo Trimble, who wasn’t bad. At 6-3, Trimble should be a useful reserve, at a minimum.

Tyler Nickel, a 6-7 wing out of Virginia, is an excellent shooter. Can he defend at the college level? We can’t know that yet, but the offense won’t hurt.

Will Shaver is a 6-11/260 lb. kid out of Alabama. He was listed at 245 in high school so presumably he’s been using his redshirt season to bulk up. He’s said to be a good shooter but there are a lot of guys in front of him.

Jalen Washington may be the cream of the crop, but he suffered an ACL injury during his senior year and as we know, sometimes that’s a hard thing to get past. Washington does too - it was his second ACL, one in each knee. At 6-10/225, he’s a skilled and versatile big guy - you may notice some themes here - but with two ACLs in his past, he has some red flags. We’ll see.

Back to chemistry.

Last year, Davis went ride or die with his starters. Black got the least minutes with 29.7. After him came the soon-to-be-transfers, Garcia, Walton and Harris. And after those guys only Puff Johnson saw double digits. That’s a huge change from Ol’ Roy Williams, who liked to give a lot of guys a lot of minutes.

This year could be really different as Styles and Dunn should be improved and Washington and Trimble should get minutes. Then there’s Johnson, who has been reliable. How does that work out?

Part of what happened last season was simple: whatever his reasons, after his early frustrations, Davis stuck with his starters as much as possible. Will he do that again? Will he use a much deeper bench? Who gets bumped down? How will they respond? How will the reserves respond if they are not used this year as well?

It’s easy to pencil UNC in as a top team and rational, too. The Tar Heels should be good. However, like all teams, there are issues to sort through. We’ve gotten a glimpse of Davis struggling and also succeeding. This year we’ll learn a whole lot more about who he is and where he could take the program.