CHARLOTTE — One thing was clear after North Carolina men's basketball head coach Roy Williams spoke at the 2019 ACC Operation Basketball media day Tuesday: the coming season is going to be a challenge, coming with some big question marks along the way.
To start, there is a plethora of holes from last season to fill.
North Carolina will not be returning three of its most experienced players — Cameron Johnson, Kenny Williams and Luke Maye — from last year's squad that reached the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA tournament.
Williams took a play out of former Louisville men's basketball head coach Rick Pitino's playbook when asked how UNC plans to fill that leadership role.
"This would be where I would invoke the Rick Pitino quote," he said. "I don’t see Cam, Luke or Kenny coming in the door, so somebody better do it."
Along with the experience and leadership that those aforementioned Tar Heels brought to the table, came talent. The trio made up three of North Carolina's five highest scorers from last season, with the others being Coby White and Nassir Little. They are both also gone.
Heading into 2019-20, UNC will need significant contributions from a combination of first-years and graduate transfers to put points on the board. Williams says replicating last year's offensive success will be a challenge.
"I don’t think there’s any doubt that they aren’t gonna be able to do that," Williams said. "Just look at the stats: three guys scoring in double figures. Cam was number one in the ACC in three-point shooting, and I don’t see that guy out there on our practice floor. Kenny was the best defensive player we had and Luke Maye. You don’t have to be a nuclear physicist to see that those (new) guys aren’t those three guys.”
You also do not need to be a nuclear physicist, or even an athletic trainer, to know that the Tar Heels are banged up this season.
Williams specifically named first-year Jeremiah Francis, junior Sterling Manley and first-year Anthony Harris as the three players that will not be healthy enough to play by the start of the regular season. He added that sophomore Leaky Black has only participated in about 30 percent of practices so far.
"We’re trying to make sure he’s taking his time because it was a very serious ankle injury," Williams said. "He missed 16 or 18 games, so it was really, really serious. We’re just trying to go slowly and have him for the long term."
Through the team's first eight practices, it has even been difficult to simply field enough players to run a full scrimmage.
"It's been a hard preseason," Williams said. "We've had eight practices, and the most we've had is 11 guys that have been able to do the whole practice. We've got all of the aches and pains and some very serious injuries that we're trying to get over."
But, at the end of the day, Williams noted traits in almost every player on this year's roster that can help UNC overcome all of these obstacles. To name a few, Cole Anthony has been "a guy that wins almost every sprint," Black is "better defensively than anybody else" on the team and Armando Bacot's improved fitness will allow him to "block some shots around the basket that we haven’t been able to block recently."
All things considered, Williams is ready to take on the challenges of this season with the players he has around him, maybe even having some fun along the way.
"It’s a good group," Williams said. "They get on me for dancing, I get on them for missing shots. I think that it’s a group that I’ve really enjoyed."
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