- Ky McKeon
Key Returners: Luke Maye, Cameron Johnson, Kenny Williams, Sterling Manley, Garrison Brooks
Key Losses: Joel Berry, Theo Pinson
Key Newcomers: Nassir Little, Coby White, Rechon Black
Outlook: We all know UNC is a historically great college basketball program, but it’s worth it every now and again to take a step back and really appreciate the work Roy Williams has done in his 15-year tenure as head ball coach. Since 2004, UNC has gone 424-126 (.771) and has won 8 regular season ACC Championships (most), made 5 Final Fours (most), and won 3 National Championships (tied most). Yes, Roy brings in talent, but not an overwhelming amount (on paper) like some of his contemporaries, especially in recent years. Williams has stayed true to a system that has proven time and time again to produce results even in the most competitive basketball climate.
This season, the Heels will be without two of their bigger impact players from a year ago, Joel Berry and Theo Pinson. The eye test and the data both agree this is a major loss to a squad with yearly Championship aspirations:
Berry and Pinson were both leaders on the floor and in the locker room, and Williams will need to rely on freshmen to pick up the slack, something he hasn’t often needed to do.
UNC’s offensive identity will be largely the same as any Williams team, focusing heavily on attacking in transition and pounding the offensive glass. Last season, the Heels ranked 16th in FGA% in transition and 3rd in FGA% 0-10 seconds following a defensive rebound (both per Hoop Lens). From an offensive rebounding perspective, Roy has only had one team in his 15 years rank outside the national top 21 (on a rate basis) and his squads have ranked in the top five the past four seasons. In 2017-18, UNC shifted a bit more towards a perimeter oriented attack, a result of their roster makeup and relative lack of scoring bigs. Despite Roy’s obvious preference to play a traditional 5-man lineup, this trend may continue given this year’s roster makeup and the fact that a small ball lineup of Maye / Johnson / Pinson / Williams / Berry scored a blistering 1.25ppp last season (per Hoop Lens).
Clearly the biggest question mark surrounding the 2018-19 version of the Tar Heels is who will pick up the point guard mantle. With only two true PGs on the roster, the answer will have to be either junior Seventh Woods or incoming 5-star freshman Coby White. Woods has been freaking brutal in his first two injury-ridden seasons at UNC, posting a 60% turnover rate in 7 ACC games last season. Williams likes playing his vets, but Woods, a former top 60 recruit in 2016, hasn’t proven he can run an offense. White, a 2018 McDonald’s All-American, is very much a score-first point guard that possesses a tantalizing combination of blow-by speed and size. He shouldn’t have issues putting points on the board, but the question will be if he can facilitate enough to lead a title contender.
On the wing, UNC has a trio of talented players to support White / Woods. Cameron Johnson and Kenny Williams return for their senior seasons and Nassir Little comes in as one of the most highly touted recruits in recent Heel history. Johnson, a former Pitt Panther, and Williams are first and foremost catch-and-shoot perimeter threats, which fits perfectly with a drive-first point guard (White), scoring big man (Luke Maye), and all-around playmaker (Little). Johnson and Williams ranked #2 and #3, respectively, in the ACC in offensive rating last season and both players expanded their games to become more than standstill shooters. Johnson is valuable for his ability to play the 4 in small ball lineups with his 6’9” frame. Defensively, Williams can be one of the better perimeter stoppers in the conference.
Little is the player to watch amongst the wing trio. After his dominating performance in the McDonald’s All-American game in which he captured MVP honors, many have started talking about Little potentially being the best player in the class of 2018. While not an elite shooter, Little is great at literally everything else: he is an explosive athlete, skilled finisher, and potential defensive nightmare with his 7’1” wingspan.
Backing up the main trio will be a slew of role players in Andrew Platek, Brandon Robinson, and freshman Rechon "Leaky" Black, a 6’7” top 100 recruit who possesses point guard level handles.
The frontcourt rotation is where Williams will have some decisions to make. Luke Maye, a 3rd Team All-American last season, figures to be the heart and soul of the Heels this year. Whether playing the 4 or the 5, Maye is a force to be reckoned with on offense and is a much better defender than people give him credit for (read: he isn’t an awful defender). An obvious comparison for Maye’s game is NBA Kevin Love, a stretch forward that possesses elite rebounding ability and a knockdown three-point shot. As a junior, Maye ranked in the top ten in both offensive and defensive rebounding in the ACC, by rate, and ranked #1 in 3P% in conference play. Expect Maye to get his typical 30+ minutes a night and average another double-double.
Behind Maye, UNC will turn to a pair of sophomores, Sterling Manley and Garrison Brooks, to provide meaningful minutes. 3MW was very impressed with Manley when we watched him at the PK80, he’s a big time rebounder (grabbed 10 boards in 10 minutes against Lispcomb in the Tourney) and shot blocker, and finishes well at the rim. While not an offensive “creator” in the post, Manley is valuable as a dump and dunk asset. Brooks had the better recruiting pedigree than Manley coming in, but was decidedly less impactful than his frontcourt mate. While also a top notch rebounder, Brooks isn’t quite the offensive player or rim protector that Manley is. Both bigs will see plenty of run behind and alongside Maye this season. Brandon Huffman, another highly recruited big, likely resumes his role as seldom-used bench warmer.
Defense in the Roy Williams era has usually been good-not-great. Last season, the Heels were nearly impossible to score inside against with the bevy of trees standing in would-be scorers’ ways, but UNC was often torched from three-point land. The additions of White and Little, two sizable perimeter players, could potentially patch up this hole. The interior should be as stout as ever and the offense should once again be one of the best in the country.
North Carolina strangely seems to be flying under the radar in super early preseason polls. Berry and Pinson are big losses, but the returning talent plus the influx of Little make the Heels a squad as likely as any to challenge for the National Title.