By R.L. Bynum
The challenges that Coach Roy Williams faces this season — aside from the pandemic-related issues — are dramatically easier to deal with than a year ago.
Williams told anybody who would listen a year ago that his team would struggle to score, and the 14–19 season showed that everybody should have listened.
With the influx of seven freshmen (guards Caleb Love, RJ Davis, Puff Johnson, Kerwin Walton and Creighton Lebo and post players Day’Ron Sharpe and Walker Kessler) mixing in with three returning starters (Wing Leaky Black and post players Armando Bacot and Garrison Brooks), scoring won’t be an issue, and the Tar Heels should be a better shooting team.
College of Charleston at No. 16 North Carolina
— 6 p.m. Wednesday, ACC Network
— Announcers: Jay Alter on play-by-play with former Boston College player Malcolm Huckaby the analyst
— UNC is 4-3 against the Cougars, including 2-0 in the Smith Center.
— Carolina won 74-69 in Chapel Hill in the last meeting Nov. 28, 2010.
Replacing the loss of six scholarship players (guards Cole Anthony, Brandon Robinson, Jeremiah Francis and Christian Keeling and forwards Justin Pierce and Brandon Huffman) won’t be the challenge. The difficult part will be trying to figure out how to deploy all of that talent with six of those freshmen (all except Lebo) expected to get major playing time.
Two days before his Tar Heels open the season at 6 p.m. Wednesday in the Smith Center against College of Charleston (ACC Network), he hasn’t decided who will start.
“No, I have not,” Williams said Monday. “We scrimmaged amongst ourselves last night and that gives you some good feeling, some bad feeling. Some guys move up the ladder, other guys get on the slippery slope and slide down. But I have not made a decision yet and no one on my staff knows the decision and the reason they don’t is because ol’ Roy doesn’t know it.”
You can bank on preseason ACC player of the year Brooks starting at the four spot and freshmen Davis and Love starting in the backcourt. Even though Davis and Love are talented, those two guarantees elicit very different emotions for Williams.
The word that came up in discussing both was security.
“Garrison is the security blanket, there’s no question,” Williams said. “He gives you that feeling that he’s going to do the right thing or come close to doing the right thing every darn time.”
As for who starts in the frontcourt along with Brooks, the obvious candidates are Bacot, Sharpe and Kessler.
“Armando is better; he’s more experienced. And then I think with Day’Ron and Walker, you’ve got gifted kids, and how we’re going to mix up the minutes I have no idea,” Williams said. “I’ve always thought that’s what the exhibitions give you and we haven’t had any of those. The first time we go out there and play somebody else, it counts.”
Although he knows who will start the backcourt, there isn’t the level of experience Williams enjoyed with some past point guards who played extensively as freshmen. He noted that when Bobby Fraser started early, Quintin Thomas had been there three seasons. When Ty Lawson came to Chapel Hill, Fraser gave Williams some experience at the position.
There is no similar point guard with experience for Davis and Love to lean on.
“Both of those guys are freshmen, so there’s not a great deal of security there in my mind. There’s no Linus’ blanket over there on our bench,” Williams said. “But I do trust those kids and I’m beginning to trust them more and more every day. And that’s what we have and we’re gonna let them play.”
So far in practice, Williams says that they’ve worked together very well considering that they never had played together before this year.
“They’ll be sometimes that Caleb will be at the point and there will be sometimes that RJ will be in the point. But they’re going to play a heck of a lot,” Williams said “They’re willing to share the ball. Caleb is more of a volume shooter and I’m more of one of those guys that wants to see a higher percentage. And so, we need to get both of them to understand that.”
Carolina should be a much better shooting team with the influx of good shooters in addition to the likelihood that the Tar Heels get many more easy shots inside and many more second shots.
When Williams listed the best shooters on the team, he mentioned only one returning player.
“I’d say that Kerwin would be the guy I think everybody would pick is the best shooter,” said Williams, adding that Johnson, Davis and Andrew Platek are also in the mix. “Caleb, sometimes his shot looks absolutely perfect. Sometimes he doesn’t use his leg enough and he misses his short more than anything else.
“But, right now, we’re making a heck of a lot more shots from the perimeter than we made last year during the games. But you’ve got to see what it’s gonna be like in the games and can they do it?”
Although he was a little paranoid about jinxing it, Williams said Black has been healthy in practice. His comments suggest that Black is likely to start on the wing.
“The last several practices he has been healthy and, sometimes in our practices, he’s been sensational,” Williams said. “And we’ve got to get that kind of play consistently from him all year long if we want to be the best team that we can possibly be.
“He’s able to do things that other guys can’t do,” Williams said. “His defensive play and his ability to sneak up on the board to block a shot or to deflect the pass. He’s had more of those kind of plays than everybody else on our team put together in the last week or 10 days. He’s been healthy enough to do those kinds of things.”
So, although Williams says he doesn’t know who will start, his comments suggest that the only spot up for grabs is the five spot. He’ll know, and we’ll all know, on Wednesday night.