UNC Basketball: Debating the Tar Heels

UNC basketball enters a new era as Hubert Davis takes over. Our Riley Davis & Jamie Shaw debate how the Tar Heels will do in his first season.

After we covered Duke in our first entry in the “Debating” series, it only makes sense to follow up with their Tobacco Road rivals at North Carolina. Like their nemesis in Durham, UNC basketball is in a state of flux as new coach Hubert Davis debuts. Will the Tar Heels drop off in the wake of Roy Williams’ retirement? Or are they a Top 10 team even without Dadgum Roy?

For this bout, our Riley Davis will kick things off by explaining why he thinks North Carolina will be a Top 10 team. Jamie Shaw, then, will play the villain and argue against the Tar Heel hype.

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Riley Davis on why North Carolina will be a Top 10 team

1. A deep and versatile frontcourt

Going into last season, the Tar Heels showcased a big man rotation that looked valiant on paper. But while Michael Scott taught us that real business is done on paper, basketball is not. Their skillsets felt redundant from the start. The post quartet of DayRon Sharpe, Garrison Brooks, Walker Kessler, and Armando Bacot did not lack in talent, but all four operated primarily around the basket.

That won’t be the case this year — Three Man Weave’s Matt Cox points out that Hubert Davis brought in a “Trail Mix variety of prototypes” in the frontcourt for his first season. While the offense will run through the incumbent Bacot, the pieces surrounding him fit significantly better.

Marquette transfer Dawson Garcia, Davis’ crown jewel this offseason, slots in nicely as the starting 4-man. The mobile lefty connected on 35.6% of his threes as a freshman, and he also looks comfortable attacking from the perimeter.

Dawson Garcia, UNC

Also worth noting: in conference play, Garcia ranked third in the Big East in offensive rebounding rate, per KenPom. As a Roy Williams disciple, Davis likely keeps the offensive glass a top priority for the Heels.

Then, there’s Oklahoma transfer Brady Manek. The 6’9″ grad transfer boasts one of the purest strokes you’ll see from a big man. With 235 career made three-pointers, Manek will inject life into a team that made just 31.8% of its three-point attempts a season ago. He complements both Bacot and Garcia when either lines up at the “5.”

2. Increased competition on the wing

In the last two seasons, Leaky Black played 27.6 and 29.7 minutes a game, respectively. This resulted more out of necessity than merit, as injuries hampered the perimeter corps in both 2020 and 2021. In response, Davis brought in Virginia transfer Justin McKoy, who has a good shot to start on the wing.

In high school, McKoy played in a uptempo system where he ran the floor and led the break. Thus, moving to a program that champions pace should do wonders for his game.

Sophomore Puff Johnson, a former top-60 recruit, also returns after a foot injury ended his freshman campaign. Johnson, the brother of former Tar Heel/current Phoenix Sun Cam Johnson, shares his brother’s affinity for the trey ball. But don’t pigeonhole him as a shooting specialist — recently Davis gave glowing reviews for his well-rounded game:

“One of the things that I was really surprised about last year before he got injured is that he was an outstanding offensive rebounder […] so with his size and his length, he can do a number of things out there on the floor […] I really love guys that have versatility. They’re not just stuck on one thing there, they don’t only play one position.”

Should Davis go small, guards Anthony Harris and Kerwin Walton can easily slide down to the 3 position. Harris brings defensive versatility, while Walton provides much-needed floor spacing.

With more options on the perimeter, Black should be able to find his sweet spot as a super-charged sixth man who specializes in defense, rebounding and secondary playmaking.

3. The progression of sophomore guards

North Carolina’s season-long outlook depends heavily on the development of sophomore floor general Caleb Love. The St. Louis product came to Chapel Hill with a five-star pedigree and high hopes of following the paths of Cole Anthony and Coby White.

However, that plan deteriorated. Love never found his footing, posting a gnarly .368 eFG% and a higher turnover rate than assist rate.

Still, context matters. Under Roy Williams, freshmen point guards often struggled at executing his secondary break (observe Marcus Paige and Joel Berry‘s first season, for example). Complicating matters, UNC routinely played three non-shooters, creating all sorts of spacing issues. Nearly every time Love slashed through the lane, a hive of opposing defenders collapsed on him. Finally, COVID prevented a preseason, steepening the learning curve for freshmen. Combine all of that, and the worst-case scenario played out.

And yet, Love still gives reason to believe. He boasts springy athleticism, on-ball defensive prowess, and improving court vision. Plus, his 80% free-throw shooting indicates his shot isn’t broken. With a more complete team around him, Love should be able to return to his high school form.

Fellow sophomore RJ Davis could also make a leap. Davis played his best ball of the season in the ACC Tournament. Versus Notre Dame and Virginia Tech, he flashed the shot creation that earned him McDonald’s All-American honors.

Jamie Shaw on why UNC will not be a Top 25 team this year:

1. Can the Tar Heels shoot the ball?

As Riley pointed out, UNC shot just 31.8 percent from beyond the arc last season, ranking 268th nationally. Only four players in the ACC shot less than 33 percent from three on over 75 attempts. Two of those players were Tar Heel guards in RJ Davis and Caleb Love.

Only one returning Tar Heel shot over 33 percent from deep last year: Kerwin Walton. While his teammates struggled, Walton was the ACC’s best shooter last season. He was the only player in the league to shoot over 42 percent on at least 125 attempts.

UNC does not have many other options for three-point shooting. Virginia transfer Justin McKoy has made three of his nine attempts in 33 career games. Puff Johnson was 1-for-9 in 14 games last season, and Leaky Black is a career 25.8 percent shooter from three.

The only addition UNC made to its backcourt or wings was Rivals150 No. 63 D’Marco Dunn. He was one of the more prolific shooters in his class. Still, without much change to the group, the returning Tar Heels will need to take significant steps from beyond the arc.

RELATED: Why UNC’s D’Marco Dunn is a breakout frosh to watch

2. Weaknesses at the guard position

Love was one of four players in Division I last season with a negative Offensive Box Plus/Minus and negative Offensive Win Shares. He was the only player in D1 to play at least 800 minutes while shooting less than 32 percent from the field and 27 percent from three. By many advanced metrics, Caleb Love was one of the worst-performing guards in all of college basketball last season.

RJ Davis and Anthony Harris were both better than Love, but they still were below average offensively. On defense, Love had the best defensive rating (100.9) of the three. This trio shot a combined 28.8 percent from three, posted a 1.15 assist-to-turnover ratio and notched just 0.84 steals per game. UNC really did nothing to improve their back court in the offseason, either.

The group struggled to protect the ball. They struggled to defend the ball. They struggled to shoot the ball. Despite all that, the staff decided to stand pat with what they had in the backcourt. Love, Davis and the rest of the Tar Heel guards will need to perform significantly better in order to live up to expectations.

3. Did the frontcourt improve?

Hubert Davis brought in two interesting frontcourt transfers in Marquette’s Dawson Garcia and Oklahoma’s Brady Manek. Garcia shot 35.6 percent from deep last year and Manek shot 37.5 percent. Neither player has a problem facing the basket or putting the ball on the floor, and the pair should fit nicely beside leading returning scorer and rebounder Armando Bacot. Garcia should be able to play minutes backing up Bacot.  

While there is a clear fit, the question is: are these two better than the players they are replacing? There were three players in the ACC last season who had a total rebounding percentage over 18% and a block percentage over 4%. One was Armando Bacot. The other two were Walker Kessler and Day’Ron Sharpe. The 6’11” Garcia averaged 6.6 rebounds and 0.5 blocks per game last year. The 6-foot-9 Manek averaged 5.0 rebounds and 0.8 blocks. Those numbers don’t quite add up for the transfers.

Checking in on the pair’s defensive metrics, Garcia and Manek both put up fairly pedestrian numbers. There were only five big men in the ACC last season who played in 25 or more games while posting Defensive Rating above 100 and a DBPM under one, which Garcia and Manek both did last year.

While last year’s UNC frontcourt may have clogged the lanes and affected spacing on offense, they did two of the most important things a basketball team can do: rebound and protect the rim. North Carolina ranked third in the country with 41.8 total rebounds per game, and their 4.7 blocks per game ranked 22nd. With almost assured progression from Armando Bacot, will Dawson Garcia and Brady Manek be able to produce more than just floor spacing for Hubert Davis?



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