#5 North Carolina 2019-20 Preview

- Ky McKeon

Key Returners: Garrison Brooks, Sterling Manley, Brandon Robinson, Rechon “Leaky” Black
Key Losses: Coby White, Luke Maye, Cameron Johnson, Nassir Little, Seventh Woods, Kenny Williams
Key Newcomers: Cole Anthony, Armando Bacot, Christian Keeling (Charleston Southern), Justin Pierce (William & Mary), Anthony Harris


Outlook: Death, taxes, UNC basketball, the three certainties in life. UNC turned in yet another successful season, splitting the ACC title under the direction of Roy Williams, the Huckleberry Hound of college basketball. The Tar Heels earned a 1-seed in the NCAA Tournament for the 8th time in Roy’s 16 seasons, the most in the country since 2004. Four starters depart last year’s Sweet Sixteen squad, but Ole Roy brings in a dynamite set of newcomers via high school and the transfer wire. Another 1-seed and an ACC title seems well within UNC’s grasp.

UNC’s offense is unlike a box of chocolates because we know exactly what we’re going to get. The Tar Heels are looking to push the tempo in transition and score on the run every single possession. Last year, UNC was the 6th fastest team in college basketball (#1 in the ACC) and attempted an astounding 40.1% of their initial FGA in transition (2nd to Savannah State), per Hoop-Math. The two primary drivers of UNC’s transition game are 1) the defensive glass and 2) opponent scores:

The Heels were the 16th best offensive rebounding team by rate in 2018-19 and ranked in the top five each of the four years prior. Williams usually has a big team and has historically preferred to play two oversized bigs together. Luke Maye’s emergence forced Roy to switch his style a bit, but this year’s bunch looks prime for Roy to bring back the good ole days. Garrison Brooks should retain his starting role at the 5-spot after starting every game in 2018-19. Brooks was highly efficient in his center role, ranking 3rd in the ACC in offensive rating, and rebounding and finishing at a high rate. He’ll be joined in the frontcourt by either 5-star freshman Armando Bacot or 6’11” junior Sterling Manley. Lineups with Brooks and Manley, though rare, scored an impressive 1.23 PPP last season, but Bacot will push hard for immediate minutes. The 6’10” top 20 freshman is a big body on the low block and fits perfectly into UNC’s relentless glass crashing strategy – he also has the mobility to keep up in transition, a trait he shares with both Brooks and Manley. Brandon Huffman, a former 4-star recruit, will likely remain in his bench warming role.

Maye and Cameron Johnson are enormous losses, but the departure of Coby White is UNC’s most significant turnover event from last season. White took to the Power 6 PG role like a fish takes to water, leading UNC in usage and leading the squad into battle. Thankfully, Roy found himself the best replacement on the market in top five recruit Cole Anthony, the son of UNLV legend Greg Anthony. To quote Ron Burgundy, Cole Anthony is “electric” – there are simply not many people in the universe that can do what Anthony can do on the basketball floor. His explosiveness and forcefulness driving through the lane and dunking the ball is reminiscent of Russell Westbrook, and he has the shooting to back up a deadly dribble-drive game.

The one knock on Anthony’s game is that he’s more of a “score-first” point guard rather than a traditional facilitator / game manager, but honestly that’s exactly what UNC needs. The Tar Heels need scoring and Anthony is All-American-level good.

To help in the scoring department, Roy looked about 300 miles south and plucked himself one of the best grad transfers on the market in Charleston Southern’s Christian Keeling.

He’ll fit right in…

A Big South First Team All-Conference member last season, Keeling is a legit playmaker and scorer from all three levels on the floor. It’s always tough to gauge the level of impact a mid-major will have on a Power 6 school, especially in the ACC, but at the very least Keeling should be able to provide shooting and solid defense. He’ll compete with sophomore Leaky Black and senior Brandon Robinson for a starting spot next season. Black saw limited minutes and suffered an ankle injury during the second half of the year, but he played well when he saw the floor. He’ll serve as a secondary ball handler on the wing to Anthony and three-point threat, and he’ll be one of UNC’s best assets on the defensive side of the ball. Robinson is the stereotypical “3-and-D” guy; he shot 46% from downtown on 50 attempts in 2018-19 and was one of UNC’s best defenders last season.

A second highly coveted grad transfer, William & Mary’s Justin Pierce, is a bit of a wild card. Pierce had a great junior season and earned a spot on the CAA’s 3rd Team All-Conference, but his once-elite three-point shooting fell off a cliff from 41.3% as a sophomore to just 32.8%. The 6’7” wing was one of the most versatile players in the CAA the last three years, contributing in the defensive, rebounding, passing, and scoring realms, but he’s much less of a “sure impact player” than Keeling. Against Tier A+B competition last season (a.k.a. @ODU, @UVA, @Charleston, @Northeastern, and @Hofstra), Pierce posted a brutally poor 83.7 O-Rating and shot just 15.8% from deep. This trend is consistent with Pierce’s sophomore (90.6 O-rating) and freshman (79.4 O-rating) seasons, so it’s very much unclear if he’ll be able to hang with opponents in the ACC.

Since Roy is a man of luxury, he went out and recruited two additional point guards in the class of 2019. Anthony Harris, a 4-star and top 100 player, and Jeremiah Francis, a 3 or 4-star depending where you look, likely won’t see too much run in their inaugural seasons in Chapel Hill, but both have potential to be key pieces in the future. Harris probably sees some time this year due to sheer lack of PG depth, and I’d bet dollars to donuts that he’ll be a better option at the backup PG spot than the departed Seventh Woods.  

Defensively, UNC should be as solid as ever with the aforementioned Black and Robinson roaming the perimeter and behemoth forwards Brooks, Bacot, and Manley manning the paint. Last year’s Tar Heel squad had the 6th best adjusted defensive efficiency (per KenPom) in the Roy Williams era and ranked 15th nationally. Size has always been a key driver of defensive success for UNC and they’ll have plenty in 2019-20.

Bottom Line: UNC seems to be somehow cruising under the radar in many outlets’ preseason Top 25, but rest assured the Tar Heels are a legitimate title contender. Roy has size, scoring, and one of the five best players in the country on his roster, more than enough to compete with Duke, UVA, and Louisville for an ACC Championship and beyond.