Busting Brackets

UNC Basketball: 2021-22 season preview and outlook for Tar Heels

CHAPEL HILL, NC - JANUARY 11: Ramses, the mascot for the North Carolina Tar Heels, cheers before a game against the Clemson Tigers on January 11, 2020 at the Dean Smith Center in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Clemson won 76-79 in overtime. (Photo by Peyton Williams/UNC/Getty Images)
CHAPEL HILL, NC - JANUARY 11: Ramses, the mascot for the North Carolina Tar Heels, cheers before a game against the Clemson Tigers on January 11, 2020 at the Dean Smith Center in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Clemson won 76-79 in overtime. (Photo by Peyton Williams/UNC/Getty Images) /
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UNC Basketball Caleb Love North Carolina Tar Heels Armando Bacot (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)
UNC Basketball Caleb Love North Carolina Tar Heels Armando Bacot (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images) /

Projected starting lineup

Point Guard: Caleb Love, So.

Caleb Love has an almost uncanny ability to poke holes in the defense, creating scoring opportunities for both himself and others. It might sound abstract, but Love moves better than almost any guard in the nation—like physically. He glides up and down the court, always seemingly a step ahead of the defense.

Love was selected to the preseason All-ACC Second Team and was one of eight players who received votes for preseason Player of the Year in the conference. These predictions are almost entirely predicated on Love’s ability to clean up two main issues from his freshman season: Turnovers and efficiency.

As a point guard who excels at finding openings, Love’s usage rating was naturally high last season at 25.0%. This resulted in a very high turnover percentage (TO%) of 24.6%, ranking him 91st out of 93 qualifying players in the ACC, per KenPom.com. If Love can find an on/off switch for his tempo, that number could drop significantly this season.

Despite being able to get his own shot virtually whenever he wanted (which is almost invaluable at the college level by the way), Love failed to convert on those opportunities most of the time. A true shooting percentage (TS%) of 41.7% once again put him 91st out of 93 players in the ACC with at least 40% minutes played last season. Love took 128 threes last season, the ninth most in the ACC. He converted on just 26.6%—58th in the league among players with two-or-more attempts per game.

Although a limited sample size, Love shot 60.0% from the field and committed no turnovers in UNC’s scrimmage at Late Night with Hubert. Although we have no official stats from the team’s most recent scrimmage vs Florida, the general word around the program is that Love’s efficiency as a whole has greatly increased this offseason. If that is the case, Love will almost certainly put together an All-ACC campaign in 2021-22.

Guard: RJ Davis, So.

To put it quite simply, RJ Davis’ struggles in his freshman season were almost identical to Love’s. Although a TS% of 47.5 and a 3P% of 32.3 put him slightly above Love in terms of efficiency, they still have him towards the bottom of the ACC as a whole. As for the turnover issues, RJ Davis finished with a TO% of 22.1, good enough for 78th out of 93 in the ACC last season.

RJ Davis is four inches shorter than Love but will fill a sort of combo guard role, as he tends to have more of a score-first mindset. Last season, given his inefficiency as a scorer, that saw him with a minutes decrease, playing 25+ minutes in seven of the first eight games but failing to reach that mark in a single one of the team’s final 21 games. The increased spacing was evident in the team’s scrimmage at Late Night with Hubert, which led to RJ Davis connecting on three fairly deep three-pointers.

An underrated aspect of Hubert Davis’ intentions to create spacing with shooting is the effect it will have on guard play, not just the freedom it will give Bacot to work in the paint. Increased spacing will give a slightly undersized guard like RJ Davis more room to create his own shot on the perimeter, but also a less-crowded lane, giving him a much higher chance of finishing on a drive.

Guard: Kerwin Walton, So.

UNC’s outside shooting woes in 2020-21 were almost painful. Kerwin Walton’s emergence as a 42.0% three-point shooter was the lone bright spot.

North Carolina had the No. 2 recruiting class in the nation last season, per 247Sports, highlighted by Love, Day’Ron Sharpe, Walker Kessler, RJ Davis, and Puff Johnson. Walton was the sixth recruit in that class, ranking over 60 spots lower than the next lowest commit, per the 247Sports Composite. Despite the rankings, his role on UNC ended up being as valuable as any—a welcome surprise in Chapel Hill.

Walton played less than 20 minutes in each of the team’s first eight games in 2020-21. He played 20+ in all but one of the remaining games. His ability to space the floor on a team loaded with big men was quite literally irreplaceable, given that he was the only player on UNC who could be considered a consistent deep threat.

Forward: Brady Manek, Sr+.

Not only does Brady Manek address the issue of the departures of Brooks, Sharpe, and Kessler, his game also fits perfectly into Hubert Davis’ intended style of play. The Oklahoma super-senior transfer averaged double-digit points and at least five boards in each of the last four seasons—a proven impact player at an NCAA Tournament-level program.

Most importantly, Manek was a 37.5% three-point shooter on over five attempts per game in 2020-21. Offensively, he is the perfect stretch-forward to have in UNC’s new system, stretching the defense to allow Bacot free roam in the paint.

Manek also has plenty of experience as a post-player though, with a deadly turnaround jumper, the ability to turn and finish over either shoulder, and also a skilled faceup game. He is also a capable and willing rebounder, which essentially caps him off as a guy who can score from all three levels.

Perhaps the reason Manek is such a perfect fit in most modern systems is that he can space the floor offensively, rebound on both ends, but also guard the paint effectively on defense. Manek might not be the most towering presence at 6-9, but he has ranked in the top 15 in the Big 12 in block percentage each of the last three seasons. UNC will remain versatile on offense while locking down the paint defensively.

Oklahoma is one of the premier college basketball programs in the country, but Manek’s exposure in Chapel Hill this season should vault him to the very front of many fans’ radars.

Center: Armando Bacot, Jr.

Let’s keep this one simple: Armando Bacot is the best returning big man in the ACC.

Even on a team loaded with big men, Bacot stood out as the best, leading the team in scoring and rebounding, despite being only fourth in minutes.

Expect another significant leap this season, largely due to Hubert Davis’ modernized offense. Last season, Bacot was often crowded in the post by another center standing two feet away as well as swarming help defense from the top due to UNC’s lack of outside shooting. This season, the plan is for neither of those to be an issue, allowing Bacot 1-on-1 looks in the post pretty much every time down the court.

Bacot is the leading returning offensive rebounder in the ACC, both by his per game average as well as percentage. His offensive post-game has significantly improved over the last two seasons, but his presence as an offensive rebounder will always be his specialty.

With increased minutes and usage, as well as a system catered towards his production, I am expecting a near 20 points, 10 rebound season from Bacot in 2021-22—All-American type numbers on a top 15 team, potentially pushing Paolo Banchero for ACC Player of the Year.