UNC Preview: Heels return 4 starters, add depth

North Carolina fans, after an up-and-down early season, were more than satisfied with the 2021-2022 year after ruining Mike Krzyzewski’s going-away party. Winning in the NCAA title game would have been the proverbial cherry on top. This season Tar Heel fans want that cherry. With four of five starters coming back, including preseason ACC player of the year Armando Bacot, the Carolina players are on a bit of a crusade to not only get to the final game but to win it. This season reminds many of UNC’s redemption year of 2017 when upperclassmen returned after losing to Villanova in […]

North Carolina fans, after an up-and-down early season, were more than satisfied with the 2021-2022 year after ruining Mike Krzyzewski’s going-away party. Winning in the NCAA title game would have been the proverbial cherry on top. This season Tar Heel fans want that cherry.

With four of five starters coming back, including preseason ACC player of the year Armando Bacot, the Carolina players are on a bit of a crusade to not only get to the final game but to win it.

This season reminds many of UNC’s redemption year of 2017 when upperclassmen returned after losing to Villanova in heartbreaking fashion in 2016 to win it all.

“We kind of want to write our own story,” junior guard Caleb Love said. “This is a new team. This is a new age. For us to go out this year and do what we’ve got to do, knowing what happened last year, we’re more motivated than ever.”

Late last season, when the Tar Heels played with mostly five players, Carolina won 17 of their last 21 games. One of the stalwarts, transfer hot-shooter Brady Manek, is gone and being replaced by another transfer, Pete Nance.

Like Manek, Nance, a Northwestern transfer, will have only one season of eligibility in Chapel Hill. And also like Manek, Nance is a big man that can shoot from outside, having hit 45 percent of his threes last season.

So, it could be a plug-and-play situation with Nance, who scored 19 in an exhibition game prior to the season, stepping into Manek’s starting spot.

But you have to figure that second-year coach Hubert Davis would like to use the bench more this season. Coach Davis never did develop depth early in the season like Roy Williams always did. It could be his philosophy to go with the best five but it’s a long season and there are usually injuries.

That’s where Puff Johnson, a junior who has been beset by injuries, comes in. He was the only Tar Heel other than the starting five to play more than two minutes in the championship game. In the finale, he scored 11 points and hauled in six rebounds. But he has been held out of action in the preseason with knee soreness so others may get a chance to shine early.

Sophomores Dontrez Styles and D’Marco Dunn, who saw some action last season, should see some time as should freshman Seth Trimble, a four-star guard who, in an exhibition game, scored 11 points subbing for starter R.J. Davis, who has been nursing a sprained hand. Justin McKoy, an experienced senior who joined the Heels last season as a Virginia transfer, played in 30 games last year and accumulated 209 minutes. He’ll be fighting for playing time again.

“I’m a giving opportunity coach, not a giving playing time coach,” Coach Davis said. “I tell them that your opportunity is gonna come but I can’t tell them when it’s gonna come, where it’s gonna come, the manner in which it’s gonna come.”

If the Tar Heels need a scoring spark off the bench, with Kerwin Walton having transferred, don’t be surprised if Coach Davis gives the opportunity to Tyler Nickel, a 6-foot-7 freshman sharpshooter who is the leading scorer in Virginia high school history. By all accounts, Nickel has never seen a shot he didn’t like and as long as he’s hitting them, the green lights will continue.

Another newcomer who could make an impact later in the season is Jalen Washington, a 6-10 freshman forward who is recovering from ACL surgery.

“I think he has a chance to be really special,” Bacot said. “I really couldn’t see him being here for longer than maybe two, three years, just because of how good he is. He’s got the measurables – he’s got the long arms, he can really shoot the ball. He can defend. He can score.”

But make no mistake, this is still a team with a core four of Bacot, Love, Davis and defensive guru Leaky Black, who has been named to the Julius Erving Award watch list as the nation’s top small forward. Black is one of just five Tar Heels in history to have 600 points, 500 rebounds, 200 assists, 100 steals and 50 blocks in a career.

If the Tar Heels starters can stay healthy, and that could rely on more breathers during games, this could be another special year with a better overall record than last year.

Coach Davis said that last year there was a lot of noise based on criticism when the team struggled early and that this year there is a lot of noise based on praise. He emphasizes to his team that it’s still noise.

“The consistent theme I’ve been preaching to them is doing the right things the right ways consistently and if we do that we’ll be happy with the results,” Coach Davis said.

My guess is that the Tar Heels will win about 35-36 games, will win the ACC regular season, will at least make the finals of the ACC Tournament and will make the Final Four of the NCAA Tournament. There is too much luck and too many variables to outright predict an NCAA title but this looks like a year that could end with a cherry on top.
– Clifton Barnes