The development of UNC’s group of young bigs – namely sophomores Garrison Brooks and Sterling Manley – will dictate UNC’s style of play for a second consecutive season. Should they blossom into the players they can be, the Tar Heels could possess a lethal combination of outside shooting, athleticism and physicality in the paint, forming a pick-your-poison proposition for opponents. But if Williams is once again forced to deploy a smaller lineup, UNC could be vulnerable in the same way it was last year.
The season opener against Wofford was promising enough — at least for Brooks.
Back in the starting lineup for the first time since Jan. 6 of last season — he started in UNC’s first 16 games before Williams move to a smaller starting five — Brooks scored a career-high 20 points, easily eclipsing his previous best of 14.
In some ways, he was the center of attention on the offense for UNC. Only Maye scored more (24 points), and Brooks recorded seven more 2-point field goal attempts (15) than any other Tar Heel. The majority of his looks came close to the basket, and there were four slam dunks, notably an alley-oop from Seventh Woods.
Brooks’ efficient performance kept UNC on track offensively on a night where it wasn’t hitting as many outside shots as it's capable of, at least in the first half.
In games where UNC shoots the ball well from the outside from start to finish — the Tar Heels still connected on over 40 percent of 3-pointers against Wofford — Brooks could have even more room to maneuver inside, and his presence could mean even more open shots from deep for his teammates.
Tar Heel fans are just as curious to see if Manley can also improve upon a first-year campaign that, like Brooks’, provided a mixture of promise and frustration.
At 6-foot-11 and 235 pounds, Manley fits the bill as a true No. 5. As a first-year, he provided size, rebounded well — per KenPom.com, his defensive rebounding rate (23.8 percent) was the highest among UNC’s regulars — and was pretty efficient with his shot selection, making 56.6 percent of his attempts from the field.
Conditioning and consistency proved to be hindrances, however.
It was evident that Manley struggled at times to get up and down the court, which is a necessity in a Williams offense. Manley only played more than 20 minutes in a game once last season, and he logged just 49 minutes in UNC’s final eight contests.
Against Wofford, Manley played eight minutes, was held scoreless and missed two free throws.
“Sterling is in better condition, but still not where I want him to be,” Williams said during the preseason.
Also back is sophomore Brandon Huffman, who at 6-foot-10 and 250 pounds could provide some depth off the bench. For now, he’s best known for mean-mugging after big plays by his teammates. Walk-on Walker Miller rounds out the group and played 20 games last season.
UNC has a bevy of playmakers at guard, perhaps none better than Cameron Johnson. Finding at least one individual to complement Maye inside could be the difference-maker this season, Johnson believes.
“I think a big difference is the freshman bigs have grown,” he said. “We lose Joel and Theo, which is obviously a big difference – they’re big time game changers for us. But I think we have people who can step up into these roles.”
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