Key Returners: Joel Berry, Luke Maye, Theo Pinson, Kenny Williams (?)
Key Losses: Kennedy Meeks, Justin Jackson, Isaiah Hicks, Tony Bradley
Key Newcomers: Cam Johnson, Jalek Felton, Garrison Brooks, Brandon Huffman, Sterling Manley
Outlook: UNC basketball is a paradox of highs and lows at this stage. The good: they have made the national title game in back-to-back years, including capturing the NCAA Championship in 2017. The elephant in the room, though, is the NCAA investigation into the program’s academic practices: did Rashad McCants actually ever have to stay up until 4am, slamming Red Bulls, scrambling to finish a term paper?? Or did Nerdy McGlasses write all of Rashad's essays for him?
I am not here to pass judgment on the veracity of such rumors, but I doubt UNC has much to fear. The NCAA did not exactly thrash Syracuse and Louisville in response to their own recent scandals, so let’s just assume the Heels will not suffer heavy consequences, either.
Okay, how about we talk some hoops! The 2017-18 campaign is particularly intriguing for Roy Williams due to the choices he’ll have to make regarding playing style and youth. Ol’ Roy has consistently had the luxury of a deep and experienced frontcourt to facilitate his preferred style of interior play: dominate the offensive glass and punish the rim via post-ups, cutters, and put-backs while also getting out in transition and wearing teams down with depth. This year, though, he will only have Elite 8 hero Luke Maye (an underrated rebounding force) and three freshmen post players with which to build his frontcourt, a stark contrast to Brice Johnson, Isaiah Hicks, Kennedy Meeks, and even elite recruit Tony Bradley in years past.
Those freshmen will have to give Williams some quality minutes early in order to continue the interior barrage. Most likely to contribute right away is Garrison Brooks, a late commit who decided against attending Mississippi State because playing for Ben Howland sounds largely terrible. Brooks is ready-made physically, a strong player who uses his body well and exhibits some shot-blocking instincts. If he can protect the rim at all, he will find the court immediately, because Maye is little more than a scarecrow against opposing drivers. The other two freshmen bigs, Brandon Huffman and Sterling Manley, are slightly lower-regarded recruits and seem to be more upside than production at this point, but one or both will need to contribute – there are very few other options.
Thankfully, UNC pulled off a coup in the offseason after suffering all of its NBA Draft losses: Williams snagged forward Cam Johnson from Pittsburgh after a long transfer saga (during which Kevin Stallings continued to be a curmudgeon). He has two years of eligibility and can play right away, and he will be a vital piece on a team looking for some experienced talent. Johnson and Theo Pinson are two incredibly versatile defenders, and UNC should explore playing those two with Maye at center. As opposed to smallball as Roy has been, he did occasionally go with Justin Jackson at the four last season:
Rebounding will suffer, but the Heels can offset that by forcing more turnovers, getting free points in transition, and capitalizing on Johnson’s deadeye shooting (please don't let Pinson shoot, though - he might injure a fan). Crossing into the smallball threshold may hurt Roy's heart, but it's also potentially the team's best lineup.
Regardless of the lineup choices Williams makes, the UNC transition offense will continue to be deadly, led by its maestro, Joel Berry. Berry is a prime All-American candidate this year, based on productivity, efficiency, and opportunity – he’s the only one of their top five scorers to return, and the sixth (Kenny Williams) had a second knee surgery in July that has placed his availability in doubt for at least the start of the season. Berry has gotten better every season in college, and the combination of his shooting, creation, and ability to beat defenders one-on-one is a nightmare to defend.
If opponents slow down the initial transition opportunity, Williams’s offense is also excellent in the secondary break, getting the ball to the wing with space to attack or feed a post threat (if Brooks/Maye can emerge into one). Freshman stud Jalek Felton, a combo guard who should be Berry’s eventual successor, will get a chance to earn playing time immediately as the All-ACC guard’s running mate, but Roy’s players are notorious for their freshman-to-sophomore leaps, so expect breakout performances from Seventh Woods and Brandon Robinson. Both were inefficient as freshmen (especially Woods, my goodness – pass to the team wearing Carolina blue!), but one only has to look at the improvement Kenny Williams showed last year to see what can happen over an offseason in Chapel Hill.
Bottom Line: The Heels don’t have the same returning depth that they’ve enjoyed the past two years, but with Berry, Maye, and one of college basketball’s premier talent developers in Williams at the helm, writing off UNC would be crazy. Johnson gives them a major scoring lift, and if Roy gains comfort in playing a little smaller, the transition attack may be even more deadly than normal. Expect some slight regression without true dominance on the glass, but better (and more frequent) outside shooting will help offset that.