By R.L. Bynum
Basketball has evolved into a more positionless sport with post play a lost art in many games.
That’s not about to happen for North Carolina when Coach Roy Williams has the players to use two post players and work the ball inside.
During an ACC video conference on Thursday, Williams remembered talking with Gonzaga coach Mark Few the day before the Tar Heels beat the Zags in the 2017 NCAA final.
“Mark, he said, ‘God, isn’t this great. We both get to play against somebody that’s got two low-post players,’ ” Williams said. “And I said, ‘Yeah, but you know, the game is going in a different direction but we’re the only two left.’ So, it’s okay to do things different.”
Last season, the Tar Heels sometimes had to play 6-foot-7 Justin Pierce at the four or five spot and Williams has been forced at times in recent years to play a smaller lineup. That won’t be the case this season, which the No. 16 Tar Heels open at home Wednesday night against College of Charleston (6 p.m., ACC Network).
With the freshmen duo of 6-11 Day’Ron Sharpe and 7-1 Walker Kessler joining 6-10 senior Garrison Brooks and 6-10 sophomore Armando Bacot, all the elements Williams loves are there. In addition, two more 6-11 players — redshirt junior Sterling Manley and senior Walker Miller — give UNC extra frontcourt depth.
“I think the game has changed a great deal but I like being stubborn,” Williams said. “And I like to play with two post guys if I can. I like to get fouled.”
The concession is that those post players may not be as quick as the opponents they are matched up with and they will have to somehow compensate so that there aren’t matchup problems.
“What it means is, yeah, we’ve got to be able to get out on the court and guard those guys. But they have to guard us as well,” Williams said. “So, we’ve got to get those guys who are going to have to play smaller guys, they’ve got to be able to get out on the court and do it and we try to practice it every day.”
A big advantage this season for Brooks is that he won’t have to carry the load inside and will rarely have to play the five spot.
One player who will play a lot at the five is Sharpe, who has made an impression on Williams through 25 practices.
“He can score inside. He can block some shots,” Williams said. “He’s not where we want him to be defensively by any means. He’s really a good passer. The only problem is, like a lot of quarterbacks, they don’t see the defense. But he will make a great pass and then he’ll turn it over. He’ll need to cut down on that part of it. [He’s] taking the ball to the basket and rebounding his own missed shots and other guys missed shots. He’s been fantastic with that.”
Sharpe will likely be on the court often with a backcourt of two fellow freshmen: 6-4 Caleb Love and 6-0 RJ Davis, who each will play some at both point guard and the two spot.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if sometimes we have five freshmen on the court together,” Williams said. “And I’d like to have about another month of practice because we’re nowhere near ready to play. But the calendar doesn’t stop. We’re anxious to see how we’re doing. We had a season last year that definitely left a bad taste in our mouths.”
“I wouldn’t be surprised if sometimes we have five freshmen on the court together.”
Carolina will have its third consecutive new point guard after Cole Anthony, drafted Wednesday at No. 15 in the first round by the Orlando Magic, and Coby White of the Chicago Bulls two seasons ago.
If there’s anything that Williams likes as much as playing two post players, it’s pushing the pace. White did it superbly, but during preseason practice it’s a work in progress.
“It takes a while, there’s no question, because I do like to push it,” Williams said. “Every kid says they want to run and then they realize how hard it is. It’s not as much fun anymore, particularly in practice doing it every day. My guess is that we will have a freshman at the point guard. And when he goes out, there’ll be another freshman at the point guard.
“I’ve started plenty of freshmen at the point guard over the years,” Williams said. “And it’s just a process that they have to listen every day, knowing that you’re going to get a lot of things the next day and they need to try to grab as many things as they can. The next day we may emphasize the same things and add a few. So, they’ve got to try to grab as many things as they can. But we’ve done it a lot. And so that part is not unusual.”
Williams said that Love and Davis have high standards to live up to when you look at the jobs White, Marcus Paige and Ty Lawson did at that position.
“All of those guys were really gifted and understood the game, too,” Williams said. “And I think that Caleb and RJ give us some of that knowledge as well.”
Williams says that Davis brings a few old-school values to the court.
“He’s always penetrating, probing, trying to see what’s happening,” Williams said. “A little under-sized to play the two, but he’ll end up playing the two some as well this year. And I think that he has a really good feel of how to play the game and the pace that I want to play and he just has good natural instincts. He’ll play a heck of a lot for us.”
Redshirt freshman Anthony Harris will be in the backcourt mix but has been ruled out for the opener and has yet to practice full court. Harris had ACL surgery on his right knee in January.
Williams still isn’t sure how the back-court rotation will go.
“I really have no idea yet,” he said. “And I think it’ll play out more once we get into the games. But they’re spending a lot of time on the court together. They’ve been doing it for 25 practices. And there are some small adjustments they have to make and they’re doing really a pretty good job considering everything else. They will also spell each other, so it’s something that’s gonna have to play out. Am I pleased with it? No, I’m not pleased with anything right now. But they’re doing a nice job.”
Williams is already in midseason form: High expectations, even in practice, and disappointed when they aren’t met.