When head coach Roy Williams was asked what made graduate transfers Christian Keeling and Justin Pierce good fits for his team at UNC basketball’s annual media day on Wednesday, his answer was short.
“Need,” Williams chuckled. “We needed some more guys.”
The response was all the explanation needed. After the Tar Heels lost their top five scorers from a season ago, they had to patch up holes in their rotation, most notably in the backcourt.
North Carolina’s 2019 recruiting class—headlined by five-star guard Cole Anthony and five-star center Armando Bacot—helped soften the blow felt from the departure of one-and-dones Coby White and Nassir Little.
But veteran leadership lost in graduated players Luke Maye, Kenny Williams and Cameron Johnson, also a graduate transfer, was harder to replace. That’s why Roy Williams dipped into the graduate transfer market for only the third time in his 17 years as UNC’s head coach.
The previous two players—Johnson (2017-19) and Justin Knox (2010-11)—came from Power 5 schools, but this year’s duo will make the jump from the mid-major level. Keeling spent three seasons at Charleston Southern of the Big South Conference; Pierce played for three years at William & Mary of the Colonial Athletic Association.
Despite a jump in competition, Keeling says the two are up for the challenge.
“We know what to expect," he said. "We know how the ups and downs of a season can go. We help the younger guys or the less-experienced guys.”
A 6-foot-3 guard, Keeling averaged 18.7 points, 6.9 rebounds and 2.8 assists last year, earning first-team All-Big South honors in the process.
While Keeling's rebounding average is superb for a player his size, Williams said he'll have to find a way to translate the skill to the ACC against bigger, more athletic players. Keeling, for his part, said his ability to crash the glass is based on effort more than anything else.
“Coaches always tell me, ‘You don’t have to have skill to rebound and defend,’” he said. “It’s just effort. I knew I had to help my team out, so I tried to do it in all ways possible.”
Pierce is also a versatile player. Last year, the 6-foot-7 wing played the three and four, positions where he thinks he’ll primarily be used this season. He averaged 14.9 points, 8.9 rebounds and 4.1 assists last year for the Tribe.
Williams called Pierce a “sneaky kind of rebounder” who “goes in and gets his hands on a lot of balls.” The head coach said rebounding is the most important thing Pierce can add to the team.
It doesn’t matter to Pierce what his primary role is, as long as he’s able to contribute to the Tar Heels’ success.
“I’m just gonna do whatever it takes to help the team win,” Pierce said. “Coach Williams doesn’t promise anything in terms of playing time, so I’m just gonna do whatever I can in the next month to show what I can do.”
There’s certainly more to the transition from a mid-major program to UNC than just what is seen on the court. And though the season hasn’t yet begun, North Carolina’s oldest newcomers are already starting to adjust to their new homes.
"Just adapting to the new system, adapting to the new culture—I think just the whole transition is kinda new,” Keeling said. “But I’m getting the hang of it now.”
To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.