Tar Heels will rely heavily on perimeter play in lieu of front court size, depth.
The defending national champion North Carolina Tar Heels will enter the 2017-18 season with substantially lower expectations than in recent years; particularly that of the past two seasons.
In fact, many outside of Chapel Hill, North Carolina have essentially written off this year’s incarnation of the Tar Heels, citing their lack of size and depth in the front court as an impossible obstacle to overcome.
To the credit of the national media, and the chagrin of North Carolina fans, it’s a valid argument and one that isn’t all that difficult to understand.
It’s no secret that last year’s Tar Heels weren’t the greatest shooting team in history. And they weren’t the best shooting team in North Carolina history. Heck, they weren’t even the best shooting team from Chapel Hill in the past two seasons.
Last year, the Tar Heels shot 46.6 percent from the floor and just over 70 percent from the free throw line. Two seasons ago, those numbers were 48.2 and 74.7 percent, respectively.
The 2017-18 squad did, however, shoot a better percentage from the three-point line, mainly due to the increased efficiency and heightened volume of shots from first team All-American Justin Jackson.
Jackson, who hit just over 29 percent of his three-point attempts as a sophomore, improved his long-range efficiency to 37 percent as a junior. He also took 72 more shots from three-point range than he did in his first two seasons combined.
As a whole, though, North Carolina didn’t shoot the ball well for a team that won 33 games and a national title.
But how were the Tar Heels were able to overcome a season in which shooting wasn’t the marquee part of their offense?
North Carolina boasted one of the best front courts in the nation last year. It was so good, in fact, that poor shooting nights for the Tar Heels rarely impacted the game’s final result.
The trio of Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Hicks and Tony Bradley combined to be one of the most potent front courts in the country, particularly from a rebounding standpoint. Meeks and Bradley were two of the best area rebounders in the nation, touting some of the best offensive rebounding numbers across the sport.
It was that, and not efficient offensive sets or three-point prowess, that guided the Tar Heels to their sixth national championship in school history.
So it’s understandable, what with the loss of Meeks, Hicks and Bradley, that the national media and college basketball pundits everywhere would assume that the Tar Heels will take a step back after cutting the nets down in 2017.
I dare say that there are North Carolina fans, whether they say it out loud or not, who possess some of the same doubt’s regarding this year’s team.
The lack of size and depth in the post is a scenario that North Carolina head coach Roy Williams has faced very few times in his career, particularly during his 14 seasons in Chapel Hill.
Junior forward Luke Maye is the lone returning big man from last year’s championship team, and despite coming on strong late in the season, played just 14.2 minutes per game, averaging 5.5 points and 3.9 rebounds.
Maye, at 6-foot-8 and 235 pounds, is undersized for his position and struggled at times last season when playing extended minutes against bigger, more athletic post players. He does shoot well from long distance, though, and helps spread the floor for the Tar Heels.
But in the absence of last year’s dominant front court, who will he be spreading the floor for this season?
Much of this year’s success will land on the shoulders of incoming freshmen big men Garrison Brooks, Brandon Huffman and Sterling Manley, none of which landed in the top-100 of any recruiting outlet in the nation.
The three freshman bigs are listed at 6-foot-9, 6-foot-10 and 6-foot-11, respectively, and provide the only legitimate size on the team.
Will their performances on the court allow Williams to keep them, and their size advantages, on the floor for extended minutes and allow the Tar Heels to play their traditional offense? Or will the Tar Heels have to adjust to the current make-up of their team?
Yes, newcomers Jalek Felton and Cameron Johnson will help the Tar Heels in their already loaded back court. However, they’ll provide little help in what is obviously going to be an undersized and inexperienced front court.
Perhaps North Carolina’s young big men can make remarkable strides in the early stages of their careers. Or maybe Williams and the Tar Heels will have to use a “4-out 1-in” offense in order to utilize their talented perimeter and mask their interior deficiencies.
Fans won’t have to wait long to find out. The start of the 2017-18 college basketball season is less than two months away.