The wait is over for Carolina fans. After coming up “one rebound away” from a national title, Tar Heels fans are hoping this year’s team will follow in the footsteps of the 1982 and 2017 championship squads, who returned to the national title game and won, after losing the previous year.
Carolina is bringing back 4 of their 5 starters from last season, as well as 2 key reserve players. According to NCAA Reference, 82.7 % of the minutes played, and 79.4% of their scoring returns from last year’s roster. All that being said, this is a totally different team without star forward Brady Manek. Northwestern transfer Pete Nance (yes from the Nance family) replaces Manek at the power forward spot, and much like a Jazz group replacing their bassist, the song may be the same, but the essence has certainly changed.
Nance’s game is quite different from the catch and shoot style of Manek’s stretch game. Pete can put it on the floor and has more of a face up game. It will be tough to replace Manek’s production. Not only was he a deadly outside shooter, but he was excellent playing off the ball, making good cuts to the basket at precisely the right time–in addition to having superb court vision as a high level passer. That’s the bad news.
The good news is that with Nance, the Carolina front line will be rock solid on defense with 6’11 Nance (a big who can guard on the interior and perimeter), 7 footer, and POY front runner Armando Bacot, and 6’8 small forward, Leaky Black (one of the best one on one defenders in the country). With a stout front line and probably the best backcourt in the nation, it is no surprise that UNC was ranked #1 in the pre-season polls. But there are many factors to all championship runs, and the most talented team does not always win the NCAA tournament–in fact, they usually don’t. A few things need to go right for Tar Heel nation to hang another banner up at the Dean Dome. Here’s what needs to happen for Carolina to be the last team standing:
The Tar Heels need a lot of luck. Many a championship has been derailed by a bad bounce, a tweaked ankle, broken bones, or ruptured ligaments. The Tar Heels will need to be both good and lucky for the team to hoist one up after a victory on the first weekend of April. There is no need for an Iron 5 to carry the load, as the Tar Heels are wildly talented across the board, but most of their talent on the bench is unproven. Small forward, Puff Johnson played well in the tournament, but has endured a great deal of injuries throughout his college career. He is already dealing with knee soreness that has kept him from playing the first two games of the season. Next off the bench out of Kinston, NC, is Dontrez Styles (if the city sounds familiar, its the hometown of both Brandon Ingraham and Jerry Stackhouse).
Dontrez was the only other bench player getting light to mid-heavy minutes in last year’s tournament run. So far, forward Tyler Nickel, a freshman, freshman guard, Seth Trimble, and Sophomore guard Demarco Dunn make up the remaining players to get minutes this season. The bench won’t have to put in too much work, but they will have to make an impact when they do play in order for Carolina to maximize its talent. Besides, Bacot, I think an injury to Pete Nance would be the only injury they could not absorb for a long (or key) period of time because not only will they be short a big man, but no backup will be available to spot Bacot.
The depleted Tar Heels just may have snuck by the Kansas Jayhawks (clearly the better and deeper team. Kansas needed to play poorly and Tar Heels needed to play near perfectly for the game to even be close) had Bacot not suffered the twisted ankle against Duke in the semi-finals. All the other positions have bodies that coach Hubert Davis can throw out for an extended period of time (which would only benefit these young cats as the season’s stakes get higher). Their front line on paper is stout, but no one is mistaking this for Dean Smith’s 93 championship team, with 7 footers just hanging out on the end of the bench, waiting to spell Eric Montross.
Who will get Brady Manek’s points?
Having a deadly shooter like Brady Manek really opens up the floor for easy baskets, both outside and in the paint. Manek barely got more than a dozen touches, but if you blinked you would miss a barrage of points in a matter of minutes. Having a catch and shoot big man to throw at defenders really opens up the floor, and allows the guards to handle the ball knowing there is a scorer who doesn’t need the ball in his hands all the time. I think this will be the biggest adjustment stylistically. From what I’ve seen so far in pre-season and the first 2 games, there is a lot of dribbling going on (they only had 4 assists as a team in the first game against UNC Wilmington). It would be nice to see some action from the big men out of the high low sets or just some straight up entry passes down on the block to Armando.
I believe Leaky Black is going to step up his offensive production. He seems more confident in his shot, and if he can be a reliable 3 and D wing, this will allow Nance to just get in where he fits in. Of course, Love and Davis, can get 30 on any given night. I think we will see a different hero depending on the opposing coaches’ “pick your poison” strategy. Carolina has 3 different starters who can take over offensively, and a monster on the glass in Armando Bacot. It will be interesting to see what actually works in real time against the Tar Heels.
Play Hard. Play Smart. Play Together
Everyone must improve upon last season.- Armando Bacot needs an effective jumper to open up the floor. Caleb Love needs to learn to value possessions and pick his spots of when to take over. Leaky Black will be needed for his defense and as a perimeter threat for this offense to run at its finest. Pete Nance has to find his niche within the offense and be a constant contributor on defense and on the boards. All the bench players have to maximize their time on the floor, and find ways to contribute in any way they can. Even the training staff and game managers need to be on point. Lastly, Coach Davis needs to really find out who can he count on when its time for a role player to make a play (or just hold a lead). There are no guarantees in a basketball season, but I like the Tar Heels’ championship chances a lot more if the team is fresh going into late March. Its really important that everyone contributes and that Coach Davis can keep the starters’ minutes down to healthy number. No More Iron 5. The key to a lengthy post season run will be balance.
Dean Smith used to say that there are 3 seasons in college ball: the ACC regular season, the ACC tournament, and the NCAA tournament. For a lot of people (UNC players are already on record saying its championship or bust), there will be great deal of disappointment if North Carolina isn’t the last team standing. However, when you consider the breaks that Carolina caught on their way to the Final Four, you realize just how hard it is to win six games in a row against the best teams in the country.
Last March, UNC played three #1 seed teams, and a # 2 seed on their way to the title game. They caught the number 1 seeded Baylor Bears on an off afternoon and won a game they had no business winning. After that, they were playing with house money. The UCLA game (# 2 seed) could’ve easily gone either way, but Caleb Love got hot in the second half. Carolina caught a tiny break when Purdue (who would’ve been a nightmare matchup for UNC with their frontcourt depth), got caught slipping against St. Peters. The Duke game was a classic, but could’ve easily gone the other way on a different night. And despite the close score, I feel the Kansas game was the perfect storm, Bill Self’s squad would’ve won easily in a best of seven series, but happened to play one of their worst halves of the season, and Carolina played a near flawless one.
But this goes to show just how fickle the hoop gods are. Tar Heels are a 1000-to-1 odds on to win this year, but if you’re not a betting person, and just a Carolina fan, my advice is just enjoy the ride, no matter how it ends. Last year’s run was my favorite tournament run since the Roy Williams’ 2003 Kansas undermanned team made it to the title game. And though neither team won its the final game, it was easy to appreciate just how hard both teams fought and clawed their way to the final stage on Monday night, with an entertaining and fun cast of characters on the court.
Every year the underdogs are celebrated, as they should be, but there is something to be said about a good team, overachieving to the point where they look like a great team. In the tournament, as well as in life, sometimes you come up short. It doesn’t mean you didn’t have a special season. I just hope the Carolina players and fans enjoy each step of the journey, no matter where it takes them.
Good Ass Games of the Week
Tuesday: : Duke vs Kansas
Neutral court. Nap town. Blue Bloods. Top ten. Nuff said. This game has a little bit of star power too. Its like a McDonald’s All American game.
Wednesday: Gonzaga vs Texas
Zags’ Drew Timme better not stray too far from Moody Arena if he knows what’s good for his mustache. Those Eastside hipsters’ facial hair will put his to shame. Timme will be digging for his clippers before the plane ride home. I hope the atmosphere in the new arena is electric, but you never know with Longhorns fans. As a rule of thumb, they tend to be more about pigskin than peach baskets, but they have been known to come through when a top 5 team rolls into town. Plus, the Longhorns are ranked very high at the beginning of the season. Might be worth checking out. Besides, its not like there is anything else to do on a Wednesday night. Enjoy the games this week.
Bobby Mickey is the alter ego of writer and poet Edward Austin Robertson. When he isn’t involved in some basketball related activity, actively looking for parties to deejay or venues to perform comedy, banging his head on the keyboard, trying to finish his backlog of writing projects. For booking inquiries, send contact info to firstname.lastname@example.org