Tar Heels head into hoop opener with ‘big’ questions

Coach Roy Williams said he has no idea what to expect from his four freshman big men as UNC begins the 2017-18 season against Northern Iowa

Brandon Huffman is one of four freshmen battling for playing time at the post positions for the Tar Heels (Bob Donnan/USA TODAY Sports)

CHAPEL HILL — North Carolina will open the college basketball season without point guard and senior leader Joel Berry. But that’s the least of coach Roy Williams’ worries as his Tar Heels begin defense of the national championship they won in Phoenix last April.

Backups Seventh Woods and Jalek Felton figure to be capable enough to handle the playmaking chores until Berry returns, probably within the next 2-3 weeks. If all else fails, Williams can always turn to veteran wing Theo Pinson to hold down the fort.

There is no such Plan B in the low post, however, where UNC is counting on four freshman big men — three on scholarship and one preferred walk-on — to fill the void left by the graduation of Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks, and the early departure of Tony Bradley.

It’s a prospect that has Williams openly concerned as the Tar Heels head into tonight’s opener against Northern Iowa at Smith Center.

“I don’t know which one, but somebody is going to have to be a player,” Williams said earlier in the preseason of Garrison Brooks, Sterling Manley, Brandon Huffman and Walker Miller. “We have four big guys. If you take the best characteristics out of each one of them and put them into one player … you still wouldn’t have a player. But you know what? They are my players so we’ve got to figure out how to get it done.”

Williams is kidding, of course. Or at least somewhat.

Each of his four young big men are a work in progress and will experience their share of ups and downs, especially early in the season. But the Hall of Fame coach acknowledged that each has his share of strengths on which they can build — and hopefully contribute.

Huffman, at 6-10, 250 pounds, is a quick jumper who can score around the basket, but who needs to work on his shooting range and court presence. Manley is 6-11, 240 with a long reach that makes him an effective shot blocker, but who needs to get in better shape.

Miller, the preferred walk-on whose half brother Wes played for the Tar Heels and is now the coach at UNC Greensboro, is what Williams described as a 6-10, 220-pound “plodder” whose potential as still a long way from being realized.

Brooks, a 6-9, 215-pounder who originally committed to Mississippi State, is the smallest and thinnest member of the group. But he’s also the most well-rounded. And based on his 13-point, nine-rebound performance in just 19 minutes of UNC’s exhibition victory against Division II Barton recently, he’s the most likely to be in the starting lineup against Northern Iowa tonight.

“I feel like he has adjusted well,” Berry, who resumed dribbling and shooting with his broken right hand earlier this week, said of Brooks. “He has a good IQ for the game. He has caught on to the plays very well. He does what coach loves and that is demand the ball whenever he has the advantage down low in the post.”

While Williams agreed that Brooks “doesn’t make mistakes the rest of them make” and has “grasped things we’re trying to do more quickly,” it’s clear that coach isn’t entirely comfortable with any of the four freshmen on the floor.

“I have no idea what I’m expecting,” he said. “We look really good walking through the frickin’ airport, (but) if I had to play for my life, I may not play any of them. I might play really small.”

While there will be times Williams does follow through on that statement by playing a small lineup featuring wings Luke Maye and Cameron Johnson at the two post positions, it’s doubtful he’ll stray too far from the traditional alignment for too long.

It’s just not in his DNA.

“Y’all know how we’re going to play,” senior wing Theo Pinson said. “We’re going to play with two bigs. And if that’s not working, we’ll go to something else.”

Regardless of who is on the floor, Williams wants rebounding to be a top priority. That means everyone on the court, including the guards, are going to have to be ready to crash the boards — especially on the offensive end, where the Tar Heels led the nation on the boards last season.

“I still believe that the single most important factor for whether we win or lose is rebounding,” Williams said. “We preach it all the time.

“Isaiah is not here. Tony is not here. Kennedy is not here. None of those guys are coming back. So the guys that are playing are going to have to do an even better job of boxing out on the defense board and getting to the offensive boards for us to really have a good team.”