Updated: Nov 27, 2020
A staple of Carolina Basketball, especially under Roy Williams is having a front-court that is both very deep, and versatile. In an age where the game is being embraced with smaller lineups, the Tar Heels have had success winning games by dominating the interior. Well that was before last season to be clear. Everyone knows the headaches and heartbreaks the team experienced last season, that caused Roy Williams to call his team not gifted, and drop multiple slurs in post game pressers. Despite going 14-19 a season ago, expectations are high once again, not only in Chapel Hill, but around the country as well. The Tar Heels were ranked #16 in the preseason AP poll, not too bad for a program coming off a historically bad season.
The big reason as to why Carolina is expected to return to form as a ACC and national contender, is the plethora of talent in their front-court which didn’t exist last season. While Garrison Brooks had an individual breakout season, his counterparts didn’t carry their fair share of the load. Justin Pierce graduated after transferring in from William-Mary, and reserve Brandon Huffman left for Jacksonville State. That means the only front-court players to return with playing experience are Leaky Black, sophomore Armando Bacot, and Walker Miller. To answer the questions about the lack of the depth up front, the staff brought in Day’Ron Sharpe and Walker Kessler, both sought after recruits in the last recruiting cycle. Both appear ready to contribute right away, but we saw last season with Bacot, that it doesn’t always translate at the college level right away. Add in the return of Sterling Manley from injury, and this quite possibly be the deepest front-court Roy Williams has ever had at Carolina. Nonetheless, the Tar Heels appear to be more talented and deeper up front than a year ago, if so Carolina figures to be a tough team to beat come March. Here is what to expect, and how every member of the front-court can contribute this season:
Garrison Brooks (16.8 PPG, 8.5 TRB, 54% FG in 2019):
You couldn’t ask for more from Garrison Brooks last season, as the injuries piled up he continued to keep Carolina competitive in league play. Heading into this season, you hope he won’t have to carry the load every night, even though he’s more than capable of doing so. Brooks without a doubt will be the team’s first option on offense, and he’s been the leader on the defensive end since arriving as a freshman, It’s hard to say where he needs to improve his play, but if you want to be picky, he can be a more consistent foul shooter. Last season, Brooks shot a pedestrian 64% from the foul line. With the physicality he plays with, he’s going to visit the charity stripe quite a bit, if he can improve his number, he’ll become an even bigger force to be reckoned with.
Armando Bacot (9.6 PPG, 8.3 TRB, 47% FG in 2019): It was hard to leave discouraged about Bacot’s debut season in Chapel Hill after racking the second most double-doubles as a rookie, but that was the feeling after the season concluded. Bacot struggled with consistency once he went up against ACC caliber bigs. A lot of the issues with his consistency was that Bacot didn’t know how to handle the physicality other players played with. He spent the off-season putting on the muscle necessary to go to battle with some of the country’s best big men. Hopefully the additional muscle will help Armando finish more often around the rim through contact, which is where he needs to improve the most entering this season. In addition to finishing at the rim, Bacot needs to show he has a mid-range jump shot that defenders need to respect. If he can show the ability to step out and hit a 16 footer, it’ll only open the floor up for his teammates. Like Brooks, he also can improve his foul shooting, as he was only a 64% shooter a season ago. While he won’t be the first option when on the floor, there will be times that Roy Williams will allow the offense to run through him, as long as he displays the ability to carry the scoring load for segments in the game.
Leaky Black (6.5 PPG, 5.0 TRB, 2.6 AST, 36% FG in 2019):
I’ve been on record this off-season saying that Leaky Black is the biggest key to how much success this team experiences this season. His ability to affect the game in many ways can’t be understated, yet he hasn’t played to his caliber in his first two seasons in Chapel Hill. A lot of it has to do with the injuries that have plagued him since he arrived on campus. He also hasn’t had any confidence in his offensive game, which affects the way he plays on the other end of the court. Black spent a lot of time in the gym this offseason working with assistant Hubert Davis, as he’s trying to become a more reliable scorer for this team. Black appears ready to be a big time player, and drew a lot of praise from his teammates at the team’s media day. Leaky needs to improve his shooting numbers drastically, as he only shot 36% from the field, and 70% from the foul line. He was an abysmal 25% shooter from behind the three point line, which is his biggest area of needed improvement. If his offensive game elevates to the level he’s capable of playing at, it’ll make it easier for him to be a defensive stopper, which the team will need come ACC play.
Walker Miller (0.5 PPG, 0.6 TRB, 40% FG in 2019):
I listed Walker before the incoming freshmen and Sterling Manley, only because he saw the floor last season. Miller has a role on this team, one that he knows, and one that doesn’t put a lot of pressure on him to be a big time contributor. With that in mind, he saw the floor enough last season, so that when he is on the court, you feel comfortable that he knows what to do, and he won’t hurt you while playing.
Day’Ron Sharpe: There is a lot of expectation for Sharpe entering what very well could be his only season as a Tar Heel. The good news is that he appears ready to contribute right away. A report came out of the program that he’s already the second best player on the team. That’s very high praise for a freshman, especially in a pandemic ridden offseason. Sharpe is a physical specimen that will make a name for himself out-muscling smaller opponents. When he is on the floor, expect the basketball to go into the painted area, and allow Sharpe to finish around the rim. He has a relentless motor that should make him a difference maker as a rebounder, and he shouldn’t be a liability on the defensive end.
Kessler is your modern day big man, meaning he can step and knock out down long range shots. Many people compare him to a Luke Maye type of player, as when he’s on the floor it should help Carolina’s spacing. But unlike Maye, he has the size to hold his own on the interior. While he is slighter in frame than Sharpe for instance, he has the length to be a rim protector, and should help control the backboards for the Tar Heels. Another difference from Kessler than Sharpe, is that he should be a multiyear player for Roy Williams, despite his game being more ready for the current landscape of the NBA.
For Sterling the fact that he’s back on the court, and is going to be able to play is a great story in itself. Carolina knew upon recruiting Manley the issues he had with his knees, and that it would be a factor upon arriving on campus. That proved to be true as he missed all of last season recovering from a knee injury that caused him to miss the last half of the 2018-19 season. Now after nearly a year and a half without putting on that North Carolina uniform, Manley is ready to be a contributor once more. Whatever he can contribute will be an added bonus, as you expect Williams to be careful with how much he plays, as he works himself back into playing shape.
The 2020-21 Carolina Basketball season is officially right around the corner, and in the year of 2020 that is something we all need to be thankful for. Make sure to stay tuned to the Heel Tough Blog, for the backcourt preview, and all news around not only Carolina Basketball, but Tar Heel football and baseball as well.