UNC Now

Five things to watch as No. 9 UNC basketball opens its season against Notre Dame

If you look at North Carolina’s roster entering the 2019-20 basketball season, there isn’t a whole lot of familiarity.

Gone are Luke Maye, Coby White, Cam Johnson, Kenny Williams and Nassir Little — the Tar Heels’ top five scorers from last year.

Now there are players like freshmen Cole Anthony, Armando Bacot and two grad transfers, Christian Keeling and Justin Pierce.

The only returners who played significant minutes last season are junior Garrison Brooks, sophomore Leaky Black, and senior Brandon Robinson, who suffered an ankle sprain in UNC’s 96-61 exhibition win against Winston-Salem State last Friday.

In order for No. 9 UNC to be successful and go deep in the NCAA tournament, the Tar Heels’ first priority will be figuring out how they’ll score. With Robinson out for at least the season opener against Notre Dame on Wednesday, that will make it tougher.

Here are five things to watch as the season begins:

Can Garrison Brooks be a go-to scorer?

Brooks, a 6-9, 235-pound forward wasn’t one of the Tar Heels’ primary scoring options last season. Primarily used as a post player, Brooks averaged 7.9 points per game, with most of his points coming close to the basket.

He’ll have a more prominent role in UNC’s offense this season as its leading returning scorer. Brooks likely will be involved in a lot of pick-and-rolls with Anthony, the freshman point guard, and be the beneficiary of some alley-oops.

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North Carolina’s Garrison Brooks (15) gets a dunk in the first half against Winston-Salem State on Friday, November 1, 2019 at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill, N.C. Brooks lead North Carolina with 18 points in their 96-61 victory. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

Brooks has also been working on his jump shot, something he did not have last season. Having consistency with that shot will be crucial when teams game plan for him and try to keep him out of the paint.

Brooks showed his potential in the exhibition game. He was aggressive, and tried to score early. He scored 18 points and had 11 rebounds. Brooks was also 8-for-10 from the floor. Brooks knows he’ll be counted on to score more this season, and said he’s ready for it.

“I have to bring a lot more energy, and set the tone for us,” he said last Friday.

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How much will Cole Anthony be asked to do?

This question was magnified when the Tar Heels lost Robinson to injury last week. Without Robinson, Leaky Black will likely be playing more wing and less point guard, which would also means less rest for Anthony.

Anthony, a 6-3, 190-pound guard, is a passer first. He does a great job of creating open shots for his teammates.

But his ability to create his own shot, coupled with the absence of a proven scorer on UNC’s roster, may force the Tar Heels to rely heavily on the freshman to be a primary scorer as well. Anthony admitted he was a little nervous against WSSU on Friday. He had 11 points and was 5-for-13 from the floor. He had seven assists and four turnovers.

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North Carolina’s Cole Anthony (2) drives to the basket against Winston-Salem State’s Jaylen Alston (4) and Mason Harrell (2) during the second half on Friday, November 1, 2019 at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill, N.C. Anthony scored 11 points. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

If he does have to do it all, it will be interesting to see how that will affect him 30 games into the season.

Other players, such as Keeling, a grad transfer from Charleston Southern, Black and Robinson (when he returns), will have to step up.

Defense

This team will likely have to rely on its defense to create easy shot opportunities. We saw a little bit of that in UNC’s exhibition game. The Tar Heels forced 22 turnovers last Friday, and scored 28 points off turnovers.

The Tar Heels return many of their better defenders from the 2018-19 team, including Black, who is 6-8, 194 pounds, Brooks, who was the team’s defensive MVP last season, and Robinson.

Williams called Anthony the best high school defensive rebounding guard he’s ever seen.

And Bacot, a 6-10, 232-pound forward, appears to be the rim protector UNC has desperately needed the past two years.

UNC’s better teams in years past could defend well.

But against WSSU, Williams wasn’t happy with how his team played defense throughout the game. The Tar Heels limited the Rams to 33 percent shooting. However, at times, they allowed the ball handler to drive past them, which made their defense collapse and created open 3-pointers.

That would be disastrous against a team like Notre Dame, which can consistently hit those shots.

Where will the 3-point shooting come from?

UNC will miss 3-point shooting players like Johnson, White, Williams and Maye. Last season, the Tar Heels broke a program record for most 3’s made in a single season with 289.

There were games last season where White or Johnson would make seven 3’s alone, a reason why both were lottery picks in the 2019 NBA draft.

The Tar Heels made seven out of 16 3-point attempts as a team against WSSU. The shooting percentage from deep was encouraging, but the volume of 3-point shots in what Roy Williams described as a “glorified practice,” raises questions.

Where the 3-point shooting will come from is currently unclear.

Both Keeling and Black were 2-for-2 from behind the 3-point line. But Pierce, Anthony and Platek combined to shoot 1-for-8 from deep. It was only one game, but it is apparent that this team isn’t built to go on a 3-point shooting barrage.

Who are the contributors off the bench?

Last Friday, Williams said he’s only confident in playing eight players right now. Assuming those players are Brooks, Bacot, Robinson, Keeling, Anthony, Black, Pierce and junior Andrew Platek — the players who played the most minutes on Friday — the Tar Heels need a few more to step up.

Williams likes to go deep into his bench, especially early in the season. It’s often a benefit, especially if a key rotational player goes down with an injury or is struggling later in the season.

Brandon Huffman, a 6-10, 255-pound junior forward, could be that spark defensively.

If Manley, who continues to deal with soreness in his knee, is able to return, he could be a big factor.

Anthony Harris, a 6-4, 190-pound freshman guard, who continues to rehab from a high school injury, also has potential. Harris was a four-star combo guard coming out of high school.

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North Carolina players Anthony Harris (0), Sterling Manley (21) and Jeremiah Francis (13) did not play against Winston-Salem State in the Tar Heels’ exhibition game as they recover from injuries on Friday, November 1, 2019 at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill, N.C. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

Notre Dame at UNC

When: Wednesday, 7 p.m.

Where: Dean E. Smith Center, Chapel Hill

Watch: ACC Network

Listen: WTKK-106.1, WCHL-97.9, WCHL-1360 in the Triangle; WBT-99.3, WBT-1110 in Charlotte;

Projected starting lineups

Notre Dame

G Prentiss Hubb, 6-3, 175, 8.1 ppg, 4 apg

G T.J. Gibbs, 6-3, 185, 13.4 ppg, 3.4 apg

G Rex Pflueger, 6-6, 218, 8.1 ppg, 4.7 rpg

F John Mooney, 6-9, 245, 14.1 ppg, 11.2 rpg

F Juwan Durham, 6-11, 223, 5.7 ppg, 3.9 rpg

North Carolina

G Cole Anthony, 6-3, 185, 0.0 ppg, 0.0 apg

G Christian Keeling, 6-3, 180, 18.7 ppg, 6.9 rpg*

G Leaky Black, 6-8, 195, 2.5 ppg, 2.1 rpg

F Garrison Brooks, 6-9, 235, 7.9 ppg, 5.6 rpg

F Armando Bacot, 6-10, 232, 0.0 ppg, 0.0 rpg

*at Charleston Southern

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Jonathan M. Alexander has been covering the North Carolina Tar Heels since May 2018. He previously covered Duke basketball and recruiting in the ACC. He is an alumnus of N.C. Central University.
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