The rise of perimeter play has dominated the college basketball landscape in recent years. As teams are focusing more on floor spacing and shooting threes at a high volume, rosters have become dominated by guard play and quicker, smaller players.
While the Tar Heels have adapted to these changes, this year’s team will likely rely on the throwback approach of turning dominant inside play into wins. With four highly touted big men on the roster, head coach Roy Williams will have the luxury of managing a deep frontcourt rotation, a common denominator in each of his three championship teams.
Here is a look at how these pieces might come together to help the Tar Heels bounce back from a disappointing 2020 campaign.
Last season, a myriad of injuries forced Williams to field an inconsistent lineup in the back court. On the flip side, the starters in the post remained mostly intact, with Garrison Brooks and Armando Bacot starting nearly every game for the Tar Heels.
Entering his junior season, Brooks was expected to be a complimentary piece to the Tar Heels’ puzzle. Instead, he became one of the best players in the ACC, averaging 16.8 points and 8.5 rebounds en route to winning the conference’s Most Improved Player Award.
While Brooks found most of his success working in the painted area, a noticeable improvement was his confidence in facing up and knocking down jumpers from mid-range. By opening up his offensive arsenal and getting more comfortable shooting from the high-post area, he helped the team become much more effective in its half-court offense as the season wore on.
Despite the team’s 14-19 record, when Brooks was playing at his best, he gave the Tar Heels a chance to win each time they stepped onto the floor. Expected to be the leader of a young roster this season, this jump in production shows that he is capable of taking on the senior leadership role that has become important in the one-and-done dominated modern college game.
As six first-year players are expected to compete for minutes, any type of collegiate experience is valuable. This is where Armando Bacot enters the fold.
Bacot's first season in Chapel Hill had some ups and downs, but at times, he showcased his ability to be a high-level player. In what turned out to be one of the team's most impressive wins, Bacot scored 23 points while grabbing 12 rebounds and blocking six shots against Oregon.
Although he struggled with consistently producing in UNC’s offensive sets, Bacot thrived as an old-school big that blocked shots and rebounded at a high clip. With a deep rotation entering this season, Bacot will have the ability to play more to his strengths and bring energy to the lineup when called upon.
With both incoming bigs being named McDonald’s All-Americans, analyzing the potential of first-years Day’Ron Sharpe and Walker Kessler is intriguing.
Sharpe — who finished his high school career ranked No. 14 in the 247Sports Composite rankings — transferred to prep school powerhouse Montverde Academy for his senior year, where he helped the Eagles to a 25-0 record and a No. 1 national finish.
Sharpe, a 6-foot-10 center, was able to dominate high school competition with his large frame and impressive skill set. As his opponents are surely going to get bigger and stronger at the collegiate level, his high motor will help him carry over this success. His 247Sports evaluation describing him as an “elite offensive rebounder who never gives up, and also plays with reckless abandon.”
Out of all of the big men on the roster, Kessler’s game is likely the most well-suited for the modern era. As a 7-footer, Kessler not only disrupts offenses with his shot-blocking, but also stretches defenses to the three-point line with his outside shooting ability. With slashing guards Caleb Love and R.J. Davis joining the Tar Heels, defenses will be forced to respect Kessler’s perimeter shooting, opening up driving lanes for UNC's guards to attack the basket more frequently.
Barring anything unforeseen, a healthy North Carolina squad will have two high-level big men on the floor for all 40 minutes of the game. As questions remain about the rest of the lineup, the Tar Heels could look to build from the inside out.
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