No. 8 Tar Heels must find answer at point with Berry gone
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina’s Roy Williams likes to joke that he doesn’t ask much of his point guards at the helm of the Tar Heels’ fast-paced attack.
“Don’t turn the sucker over and stay in front of the ball,” the Hall of Fame coach said. “If you can do those, I can work with you.”
Yet Williams opens the season with more uncertainty at the point than he’s faced in years.
The eighth-ranked Tar Heels have a preseason Associated Press All-American and Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year in Luke Maye, returning starters Cameron Johnson and Kenny Williams on the perimeter, and the program’s best recruiting class in years. But they need to find reliable play at the point between junior Seventh Woods or freshman Coby White if they’re going to meet their potential as a contender for the ACC title or a Final Four trip.
Williams had been spoiled of late with steady play at the point with multi-year starters in Marcus Paige and later Joel Berry II, the Final Four most outstanding player who helped UNC win the 2017 NCAA championship after losing in the title game a year earlier.
But Berry is gone along with swingman Theo Pinson, an excellent passer and playmaker in his own right.
Woods is the 6-foot-2 veteran in terms of age, yet his development has been hindered by nagging injuries that left him rarely looking like the high school recruit and dunking sensation preserved in YouTube clips. He missed 17 games with a broken foot last year and has averaged 1.4 points while making 26 of 90 shots (29 percent) in his career.
Woods said he feels good physically and even threw down a highlight-reel dunk during an August exhibition trip to the Bahamas as a reminder of that athleticism that has only flashed to this point.
“I’ve learned very quickly to never search your name on social media,” Woods said. “So after my first couple of games my freshman year, I’ve never done it again. I’m pretty sure I have my name muted on Twitter so I would never see anything bad about myself.”
The other option is White, a 6-5 McDonald’s All-American who set an instate prep record with more than 3,500 career points at Wilson’s Greenfield School.
“I’d like if one guy really steps up and says, ‘You’ve got to play me more than anybody else,’” Williams said.
Here are things to know about the Tar Heels for the 2018-19 season:
MAYE’S NEXT ACT
Maye grabbed headlines when as a reserve he hit the last-second shot to beat Kentucky in the 2017 NCAA Elite Eight. Then he blossomed to average 16.9 points and 10.1 rebounds while becoming a third-team AP All-American last year. What’s the next step for the 6-8 senior? “The kid spent an unbelievable amount of time and sweat to be the player that he is right now,” Williams said.
UNC has a five-star McDonald’s All-American and potential one-and-done talent in 6-6 wing Nassir Little. He’s the kind of talent that the Tar Heels had been unable to land in recent years amid uncertainty from the long-running and now-resolved NCAA academic case, but his athleticism could be a difference maker for the Tar Heels.
WHO’S THE BIG?
North Carolina couldn’t find a reliable producer inside last year alongside Maye from its freshman big men. Garrison Brooks and Sterling Manley had positive moments, but never enough to stay on the court for long stretches. Williams has long preferred to have two post men in his offense to rebound, get easy scores inside and get an opponent in foul trouble. But last year’s struggles had the Tar Heels leaning heavily on a small-ball lineup . If they can’t find more reliable play, they deal with the same issues again.
Cameron Johnson could see a benefit from offseason hip surgery . The Pittsburgh graduate transfer averaged 12.4 points in his first year with the Tar Heels, but said he was battling issues and pain that limited his range of movement. “I hope to just do more,” Johnson said.
Watch the 3-pointers, at both ends. UNC has reliable outside shooters in returnees Maye, Johnson and Williams if the Tar Heels want to play small ball. But they have to get better at defending the outside shot; UNC ranked last in the ACC by allowing opponents to shoot 38 percent from behind the arc last year while also making 9.6 3s per game.
Follow Aaron Beard on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/aaronbeardap