Davis’ Deep Dives: No. 16 North Carolina basketball season preview 2021-22

Legendary Roy Williams is gone, but Hubert Davis has plenty of talents to work with in his first season as the North Carolina basketball head coach.

Riley’s Ranking: 13th

You don’t know pain until you watch Brad Davison end your Hall of Fame coach’s career. It’s no coincidence that Davison dropped 29 on the Heels in the Round of 64, and then Roy hung ‘em up 13 days later.

All jokes aside, congratulations to Roy Williams on a phenomenal career. I feel an appreciation for and a connection to Coach Williams that I would guess Tar Heels of the previous generation felt towards Dean Smith. He will stand as a true legend of the game forever.

With that out of the way, let’s turn to some unbiased analysis of the Tar Heels’ outlook as they kick off the Hubert Davis era.

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Since taking over, “shooting” and “spacing” have been Davis’ most-used buzzwords — and his retooling of the frontcourt reflects those values. In September, I wrote about the weird fit of the Day’Ron Sharpe, Walker Kessler, Garrison Brooks and Armando Bacot post rotation. That may sound odd, considering the talent level of the group, but the redundancy of four players operating around the basket cramped the offense.

Upon the Sharpe and Kessler departures, Davis quickly addressed this issue by bringing in Oklahoma transfer Brady Manek. Per Manek, he had never been to North Carolina until arriving on campus a couple of months after committing. But Hubert’s pitch of a modernized system resonated with him. The 6-10 forward will shine as a pick-and-pop threat, supplying prolific shooting that the frontcourt has lacked since the days of Luke Maye.

But Manek wasn’t the only versatile big man to transfer to North Carolina. Sophomore Dawson Garcia migrates south from Marquette looking to build off of a terrific freshman year. With his burgeoning perimeter game, the lefty exposes flat-footed defenders; he knocks down 3s and attacks closeouts with confidence. (This fits perfectly into the aforementioned “shooting” and “spacing” focus.)

As the clip above illustrates, the Heels saw his impact firsthand back in February. He torched UNC for 24 points, resulting in a blowout win in their home arena. Additionally, Garcia’s offensive rebounding (third in the Big East in offensive rebounding percentage in 2021) will ensure Carolina’s continued dominance in that category.

Next to the sophomore stars Bacot, the focal point of the frontline. After an up-and-down first season, Bacot blossomed in Year 2, showing immense two-way promise. Most notably, he emerged as Carolina’s most consistent scoring threat, feasting on putbacks and displaying fancy footwork down low. In the post, Bacot’s lower body strength allows him to finish through contact with either hand. But he also possesses a solid handle for a big; down the stretch of last season, he exhibited a penchant for beating his defender off the bounce.

Teams rarely see their McDonald’s All-Americans stick around for three years, but count the Heels among the lucky few. Now, as the unquestioned leader, “Mondo” will seek to meet sky-high expectations.

Pivoting to the wing, UNC faces questions for the third straight season. For instance, senior Leaky Black has seen injuries hinder his development throughout his career. On offense, in particular, he has never found a solidified role. Perhaps with better shooting around him, Davis can optimize Black’s slashing ability as the lane unclogs. Still, he probably serves best in 15 to 20 minutes off the pine. But what are the backup options? After all, Cam Johnson ain’t walking through that door …

… But could his brother be the next best thing? Sophomore Puff Johnson dealt with his own injury issues as a freshman but anticipates a bounceback in Year 2. Throughout his high school career, the 6-9 wing popped as a movement shooter, flashing skills reminiscent of his older sibling. And word out of Chapel Hill suggests he plays with a physicality that belies his slight frame. Virginia transfer Justin McKoy will also challenge for big minutes, getting on the floor with defensive prowess and two-way rebounding. Also, an uptempo system could unlock his offensive game.

However, UNC’s most effective lineup might feature a smaller option at the 3-spot: 6-5 sophomore Kerwin Walton. Last season, the sharpshooter shocked every Tar Heel fan with how quickly he evolved into a contributor. His long-distance bombs rained like Manna from heaven, providing relief for North Carolina during desolate scoring droughts. In his second season, Walton should grow into a more dynamic player. For example, his shooting off the dribble will be a key development to watch:

Walton for sure starts at either 2-guard or small forward. But which slot likely gets determined by the progression of UNC’s sophomore backcourt. After a “challenging freshman season,” Caleb Love returns, ready to prove last season’s inefficiency was an anomaly. The former top-10 recruit never found his footing, save for two incredible performances versus Duke. More often than not, shot selection, poor finishing at the rim, and turnovers all plagued him.

And yet, not all of it was his fault. Part of why Davis has emphasized spacing this offseason is because it was absolutely ABYSMAL last year (31.8% from three as a team; 262nd nationally). For context, the Heels frequently deployed lineups with three non-shooters in 2021. This often resulted in a hive of defenders pouncing on Love every time he got into the lane. Seeking to gain confidence, the point guard often forced the issue, chucking up contested shots that rarely fell.

However, with Davis’ amended offense, Love should thrive. After all, he still showed glimmers of explosiveness, sticky on-ball defense, and playmaking throughout conference play. I buy his pedigree and his malleable skillset.

The less debated sophomore guard, RJ Davis, also looks forward to a nice sophomore leap. Like most freshman floor generals, Davis struggled with consistency. However, his stretch of play in March gives hope for things to come (9.8 ppg, 38 percent from 3, off the bench). If Hubert can unlock the Love-Davis pairing, the Tar Heel offense becomes significantly more powerful.

Finally, redshirt sophomore Anthony Harris will maintain his role as a defensive bulldog. Now two years removed from an ACL tear, he may finally settle into reliable production. Freshman sniper D’Marco Dunn could also earn minutes if the Tar Heels’ shooting woes continue.

With any new coach comes an adjustment period. And the Heels will not be exempt. The transition could cause some questionable losses in the non-conference, but don’t let that throw you off the scent. So long as Davis can manage rotations and in-game situations, the Heels have the pieces to make a deep run.

TL/DR:

Projected starters: G – Caleb Love (So.); G – RJ Davis (So.); G/F – Kerwin Walton (So.); F – Dawson Garcia (So.); F/C – Armando Bacot (Jr.)

Projected bench: G/F – Leaky Black (Sr.); F – Brady Manek (Sr.); F – Justin McKoy (Jr.); G – Anthony Harris (R-So.)

Strengths: Offensive rebounding; depth

Weaknesses: Shooting in the backcourt; perimeter defense

Best player: Bacot

Breakout player: Love



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