Greg: Pillars of UNC Basketball

Greg: Pillars of UNC Basketball

As Halloween and time change quickly approach, Roy Williams’ peak golf season comes to its conclusion, which coincides quite well with the start of the 2022-23 basketball season. The retired three-time national championship head coach will likely return to his courtside seat for No. 1 North Carolina’s home opener against UNCW on Nov. 7 with a keen eye on the makeup of Hubert Davis’ starting five and its similarities to great Tar Heel teams in the past.

Despite disagreement from many in and around Chapel Hill 19 months ago, Williams declared that the game had passed him by. His preference for playing two traditional bigs together was teetering on antiquity, the crapnet had blossomed into various social media platforms crucial for recruiting presence, and the arrival of both the transfer portal and name, image and likeness were enough to convince him that it was time you withdraw. The vast opportunities for Roy-ism vernacular in the time of NIL notwithstanding, it’s difficult to argue that change, while difficult, was necessary for the health of the program.

That’s not to suggest everything changed when Davis took over in April 2021. As preseason ACC Player of the Year Armando Bacot put it last summer, the switch from Williams to Davis was more akin to an iPhone update than a renovation. This is nowhere more evident than in the construction of the Tar Heels’ starting lineup, originally recruited in Roy’s image but adapted to Davis’ playability.

In a sport that has increasingly become position-less, Williams’ best teams were constructed around three key spots that served as lynchpins to his schematic intentions. In refashioning what Dean Smith taught him during his time as assistant coach in Chapel Hill, Williams realized when he arrived at Kansas that he would need a saavy point guard to run his up-tempo offense and an elite big man to both score at the rim and control the boards to steal additional possessions while also pushing pace. There also needed to be a defensive spark on the court to frustrate the opponent’s best perimeter player while collecting floor burns in inspiring their teammates to match their intensity.

What followed was a lineup trend that Williams would replicate throughout his 33 years as head coach. Kansas toppled North Carolina in the 1991 Final Four with Adonis Jordan running point, Alonzo Jamison doing the dirty work and Mark Randall earning All-American honors down low. Six years later, Williams’ best team in Lawrence was led by Jacque Vaughn at the point and All-American Raef LaFrentz in the post while Jerod Haase outhustled and defended anybody the Jayhawk opponents offered up.

His UNC teams carried on that tradition. Raymond Felton introduced Williams’ chaotic tempo to the Tar Heel fan base, Sean May was the best player in the NCAA Tournament both at the rim and on the glass, and Jackie Manuel’s length and athletic ability turned him into a suffocating defensive cloak. Just ask JJ Redick. The result was a national title in 2005.

RJ Davis (Photo: Jim Hawkins/Inside Carolina)

The next collection of elite Tar Heel teams came in 2007-08 and 2008-09 with Ty Lawson, a roadrunner in a running back’s frame, pushing the offensive tempo and Tyler Hansbrough earning national player of the year honors in 2008. Marcus Ginyard had been the glue guy and the defensive stopper through his first three years, although an injury in 2009 forced Danny Green into the lineup with a different style of defensive capabilities.

There have been tweaks along the way, to be sure. The 2012 team boasted Kendall Marshall at point guard and Tyler Zeller in the post while forward John Henson took over defensive reconnaissance. Marcus Paige handed off point guard duties to Joel Berry in 2016 to take on more scoring responsibilities while locking down opponents on the perimeter to complement Brice Johnson on the interior. And during the 2017 national title run, it was Berry in full command at the point with Theo Pinson emerging as equal parts facilitator and defender on the wing to provide balance to the post duo of Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks.

This current crop of Tar Heels, picked No. 1 in both the national and conference preseason polls, is classic Roy Williams with Hubert Davis’ fresh updates. RJ Davis stepped into his own as UNC’s starting point guard late last season, logging 96% of the minutes at the position in the NCAA Tournament run. He’s New York tough with a grittiness that rivals Berry and a shot-making ability that is underrated. Bacot needs no introduction after tying David Robinson’s 36-year-old record for double-doubles in a season (31) in 2021-22.

And then there’s Leaky Black, who Williams once envisioned as a point guard but has transformed under Davis’ tutelage into arguably the best defender in the country and one of the best in program history.

That triumvirate’s consist contributions in traditional Carolina basketball roles elevated Davis’ program into position to make its title game charge last April. Their established foundation allowed Caleb Love and Brady Manek to focus on providing enough firepower to get the Tar Heels within 20 minutes of a seventh NCAA championship.

Love will be a critical part of the 2022-23 journey as he often serves as the team’s late-game offense, and newcomer Pete Nance will attempt to offset Manek’s departure with his unique skill set in the post, although the core of this Carolina squad resides in the resilient strength of Davis, Black and Bacot.

It’s likely everything Williams envisioned when he began recruiting this group of players seven long years ago.

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