New-look Heels still a threat in the ACC
North Carolina will have a different look this season thanks to a couple of factors common in college basketball but largely unfamiliar to the Tar Heels. UNC, which lost two freshmen to the NBA in the first 13 years of the one-and-done era, lost two last year alone. The team also welcomes two grad transfers, the same number it totaled in the previous eight years combined.
It all makes for an exciting, if uncertain, year. Roy Williams must replace three first-round draft picks (Coby White, Cameron Johnson and Nassir Little) — in addition to losing the first UNC player to average a double-double in consecutive seasons since 1976 (Luke Maye) and his best perimeter defender (Kenny Williams).
But few will feel sorry for the Tar Heels. UNC features another strong recruiting class, led by point guard Cole Anthony and big man Armando Bacot, and solid depth.
At a Glance
HEAD COACH: Roy Williams
2018-19 RECORD (ACC): 29-7 (16-2)
2018-19 POSTSEASON: NCAA: Lost to Auburn 97-80 in the Sweet 16
G Cameron Johnson (16.9 ppg, 5.8 rpg)
F Nassir Little (9.8 ppg, 4.6 rpg)
F Luke Maye (14.9 ppg, 10.5 rpg)
G Coby White (16.1 ppg, 4.1 apg)
G Kenny Williams (8.6 ppg, 3.5 apg)
Forward Garrison Brooks, UNC’s lone returning starter, emerged last season. In addition to improving as a passer and finisher, he was the team’s top interior defender. He should play more at power forward, his natural position, with Bacot’s addition. Bacot is a strong rebounder who can score around the basket with either hand. He and Brooks are capable high-low passers who can feed each other rather than relying solely on the guards.
The wild card up front is Sterling Manley, who missed half of last season with a knee injury. Manley still was not fully recovered during the summer, which is a concern. When healthy, he provides shot blocking and offensive rebounding. Brandon Huffman offers size and infectious energy off the bench.
Anthony will carry a large load during his first (and likely only) season in Chapel Hill. The MVP of the McDonald’s All-American Game, he has a complete skill set. He is an accomplished scorer and passer, and at 6'3" he is a good rebounder who can finish through contact.
Anthony will run the point most of the time, but the Tar Heels have other options. Among them is Leaky Black, whose versatility will earn him minutes at three positions. Black’s freshman season was short-circuited by a high ankle sprain, but Williams remains excited about his potential.
Brandon Robinson, Christian Keeling and Justin Pierce also are key players on the wing. Robinson carved out a role last season thanks to 46.0 percent 3-point shooting and an assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.9-to-1. Keeling, meanwhile, provides needed firepower. A graduate transfer, he averaged at least 17.0 points and 5.0 rebounds per game in each of his three seasons at Charleston Southern. Fellow grad transfer Justin Pierce handled the ball in pick-and-roll situations for William & Mary and averaged 8.9 rebounds last season. He shot .416 from 3 as a sophomore before slumping to .324 in 2018-19.
Andrew Platek offers more shooting off the bench, which includes freshmen Anthony Harris and Jeremiah Francis, both of whom are coming off significant knee injuries.
It will be fascinating to see what kind of meal Williams cooks with these ingredients. The players with high-level talent lack experience. The graduate transfers are veterans, but they lack ACC experience. And UNC’s returning players, except for Brooks, have not been counted on for major contributions before. Like always, Williams will give everyone a chance to play as he searches for the best combinations. If Anthony and Bacot are as good as advertised and the wing players shoot well enough, the Tar Heels can contend for the ACC title again.
Postseason Prediction: Sweet 16
ACC Prediction: 3rd