Key players leave, but high expectations remain. Such is life for North Carolina coach Roy Williams. The Tar Heels lost stalwarts Joel Berry II and Theo Pinson after falling short of the NCAA title game for the first time since 2015, but there’s reason for optimism in Chapel Hill. UNC returns an All-America candidate in senior forward Luke Maye, has a nice group of perimeter shooters, and welcomes a trio of highly touted freshmen to replenish its high-end talent.
“We’re losing some tremendously gifted kids who shared the leadership of that team maybe as well as any team I’ve ever had,” Williams says. “And yet we’re bringing in some kids who I think are very gifted, maybe even more gifted than what we’re losing.”
At a Glance
HEAD COACH: Roy Williams
2017-18 RECORD (ACC): 26-11 (11-7)
2017-18 POSTSEASON: NCAA: Lost to Texas A&M 86-65 in the second round
G Joel Berry II (17.1 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 3.2 apg)
F/G Theo Pinson (10.3 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 5.1 apg)
Williams departed from his preference of playing two traditional big men together as last season progressed, and he will have similar options this season. Regardless, Maye is locked into major minutes. The ACC’s Most Improved Player last season after averaging 16.9 points and 10.1 rebounds, Maye was the sixth UNC player in the last 40 years to average a double-double. He is a career 41.7 percent 3-point shooter, making him a matchup nightmare.
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The Tar Heels would like to give Maye more help inside. Garrison Brooks and Sterling Manley were inconsistent as freshmen and watched their roles shrink late in the season, but both should be better in 2018-19. Brooks lacks eye-catching physical gifts, but he is an intelligent player with a knack for being in the right spot. Manley, who has the size and length to be a force, must turn short flurries of contributions into long stretches of production. Brandon Huffman provides strength after grabbing 41 rebounds in 98 minutes last season, but he is raw offensively.
Junior Seventh Woods and freshman Coby White are the top candidates to replace Berry, a three-year starter at point guard who was the Most Outstanding Player of the 2017 Final Four. Woods, a supreme athlete who missed 17 games with a broken right foot last season, has yet to fulfill his potential. White, meanwhile, impressed during the summer on the USA U18 National Team and is the leading prep scorer in North Carolina history. Fellow freshman Rechon Black, in the Pinson mold as a playmaking point forward who needs to improve his shooting, also could see ball-handling duties.
On the wing, the Tar Heels have a potential star in freshman Nassir Little and long-range firepower with Kenny Williams and Cameron Johnson. Little, MVP of the McDonald’s All-American Game, is a huge talent with explosiveness and versatility that could make him a high NBA Draft pick after one college season. Williams, who shot 40.2 percent from 3-point range last season, doubles as the team’s best perimeter defender. Johnson made just 34.1 percent of his 3-pointers in his first season at UNC, but that figure should rise closer to the 40 percent mark he posted at Pittsburgh. Brandon Robinson and Andrew Platek provide more shooting off the bench.
This Carolina team is versatile enough to excel against different styles of opponents. “The two question marks are the point guard and the big guy,” Williams says. “Somebody has got to come through at those two spots. If they do, we’ve got a chance to be really, really good. If they don’t, we’ll have to fight.”
At worst, UNC should be solid thanks to its experienced trio of Maye, Kenny Williams, and Johnson. If White and Little are ready for standout roles in Year 1, the Tar Heels could be special.
Postseason Prediction: Elite 8
ACC Prediction: 2nd