When first-year Tony Bradley decided to enter the NBA Draft in May, he left the North Carolina men's basketball team with a gaping hole in its frontcourt.
And, though head coach Roy Williams may not like it, UNC will have to depend on a new crop of first-years to fill the roles previously held by Bradley and now-departed seniors Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks.
With Luke Maye as the sole returning forward from the rotation on last season’s national championship team, the Tar Heels will be forced to turn to first-years Garrison Brooks, Brandon Huffman and Sterling Manley to patrol the paint this season.
At his preseason press conference, Williams emphasized the importance of rebounding and solid interior play. But he expressed major concerns over the inexperience his Tar Heels face in that department.
“That’s the scary part — what’s gonna happen up front,” he said. “I still believe the single most important factor — win or lose — is rebounding.”
Rebounding was a key to UNC’s success last season as the Tar Heels led the nation in both total rebounding rate and offensive rebounding percentage. However, none of last year’s top four rebounders — Hicks, Meeks, Bradley, and Justin Jackson — are returning to Chapel Hill this season. Those four players alone accounted for roughly 55 percent of the Tar Heels’ rebounds in 2016-17.
Most likely to fill this vacancy in the paint is Brooks. The four-star recruit from Lafayette, Ala., decommitted from Mississippi State in March before committing to UNC late in the recruiting process.
Brooks started in the Tar Heels’ first scrimmage against Barton College, tallying 13 points and nine rebounds in 19 minutes of play. ESPN national recruiting director Paul Biancardi said he thinks Brooks is the most refined and prepared of UNC’s three first-years.
“I think he can score off the block,” he said. “I think he may be the best of the three with his back to the basket.”
A more raw talent, Huffman should help shore up the Tar Heels' interior defense. The Alaska native moved to North Carolina to play his senior season at Raleigh’s Word of God Christian Academy in order to gain more exposure and committed to UNC in September of his senior year.
Huffman is still fairly unproven, and Williams expects inconsistency this season, especially if Huffman is forced to play away from the rim. But he's also flashed potential with stat lines like six points, seven rebounds and a game-high five blocks against Barton College.
“Brandon Huffman’s going to break a backboard,” Williams said. “One of the most powerful dunkers I’ve ever had, and he’s a quick jumper to get that off. But outside of three feet, it’s a little more of a question mark.”
The final first-year in the mix, Manley, will probably receive the least playing time, though he should still see meaningful action. The three-star recruit from Pickerington, Ohio, impressed in the Barton scrimmage, racking up eight points and seven rebounds in only eight minutes of play.
After bursting onto the national stage with his Elite Eight heroics against Kentucky, Luke Maye enters his junior season as the only forward with any collegiate experience. As the fourth forward in the Tar Heels’ rotation last season, the Huntersville native hauled in 15 rebounds against a top ten Florida State team that featured two seven-footers and future NBA lottery pick Jonathan Isaac. He was also named the South Region’s Most Outstanding Player in the NCAA Tournament.
Maye knows that the departures from last year mean he will be needed to step into an expanded role in his junior season.
“We have some great scorers on the perimeter,” he said, “but we still need that inside presence that we lost three big men that were really key for us last year inside.”
Plenty will change between the Tar Heels’ opening game against Northern Iowa on Friday and March, but expect the frontcourt to be a work in progress this season.
Considering their talent at the guard position, the Tar Heels may also roll out a smaller lineup occasionally – a clear departure from previous seasons’ dependence on forwards.
Williams isn’t ready to anoint any of his first-years as the next Meeks or Brice Johnson just yet, but he knows it’s a long season and expects to see improvement as the year goes on.
“If I had to play for my life (right now),” he said, “I may not play any of them — play really small. But that’s the reason you get to practice.”
“Somebody’s gotta come through and I have no idea who it’s going to be.”