Tar Heels need to balance youth, veterans

If North Carolina’s newcomers and its returning players can mesh, Roy Williams could have a special team in 2018-19

Freshman Nassir Little leads an influx of talent to Chapel Hill, but UNC coach Roy Williams will need to mesh his talented newcomers with the Tar Heels’ battle-tested veterans. (Gerry Broome / AP Photo)

The North Carolina basketball team, with the addition of top recruits Nassir Little, Coby White and Leaky Black, has more than enough talent to make another serious run at a championship this season.

But talent, even in abundance, can only take a team so far. Especially when that team is built around a group of upperclassmen that has already earned rings.

Because of the makeup of this year’s Tar Heels, with three returning senior starters, chemistry figures to be just as important as ability in determining how successful coach Roy Williams’ team ultimately becomes.

So far, everybody is getting along. Then again, until Tuesday’s regular season opener at Wofford, they still hadn’t played any games that mattered.

“I don’t think we’ve butted heads, senior to freshmen, as I’ve seen can happen in the past,” senior forward Cameron Johnson said. “Those guys have been very receptive to everything we’ve had to say, and we’ve done a good job of trying to help them along.

“They’re very talented and they can contribute. The sooner we get on the same page with them and everybody in between, the better off we’re going to be.”

That’s not always as easy as it sounds.

For every team that finds just the right blend of old talent and new, as Duke’s 2015 national champions did, there’s a cautionary tale such as UNC’s 1994 squad.

That year, the Tar Heels bolstered a lineup dominated by returning national champions Eric Montross, Derrick Phelps, Brian Reese and Kevin Salvadori with a star-studded freshman class of Jerry Stackhouse, Rasheed Wallace and Jeff McInnis.

The two groups didn’t get along and quickly splintered into factions that helped lead to an early NCAA tournament exit.

Williams is well aware of how damaging a generation gap in his locker room can be, which is why he’s taken steps to bring the two groups closer together, including an exhibition trip and bonding experience to the Bahamas this summer.

“My first two years, the biggest thing those teams had was our chemistry and our wanting to be around each other,” senior guard Kenny Williams said. “That translates onto the court and how we play. You can already feel that with this team, just how much we enjoy each other and how much we like being around each other.”

The team-first attitudes of veterans Williams, Johnson and All-American forward Luke Maye is a big reason why Roy Williams doesn’t seem concerned about any potential issues involving his team’s chemistry.

Maye led UNC with 24 points and seven rebounds against Wofford. Johnson hit five 3-pointers on his way to 17 points while Williams earned praise from his coach for his defensive effort on Terriers’ star Fletcher Magee.

“I think both groups have done a great job of meshing,” Roy Williams said. “I think that Coby, Nassir and Leaky have gotten the respect from the older guys and it’s made the older guys want to do it, and I think the older guys have put their arms around them and tried to teach them, and it’s been received very well from the freshmen. So far, unless there’s something I don’t know that’s going on, it’s been a very smooth transition.”

That doesn’t mean there won’t be bumps in the road as the returners adjust to new roles and the incoming freshmen get used to the college game against a difficult nonconference schedule that begins with two true road games and includes dates against Stanford, Texas, Michigan, Kentucky and Gonzaga.

In the long run, though, the addition of White’s speed and athleticism at point guard, Little’s scoring ability on the wing and Black’s versatility off the bench promise to make the Tar Heels a much better, more offensively potent team than they were a year ago.

The Tar Heels got off to a promising start Tuesday 78-67 win against the Terriers a team that beat them a year ago in Chapel Hill.

“I think we’ve got chances of having a very good team, a very good team,” Roy Williams said. “To do that, though, everybody’s got to play at a high level and consistently do it every day to build the right kinds of habits.

“We’ve got a chance. But we’ve got to have a lot of things fall our way for those kind of big-time things to happen.”

Among the things that have to break right is the development of sophomore big men Garrison Brooks — who contributed 20 points and five rebounds Tuesday — and Sterling Manley. They are two players whose improvement as rim protectors and rebounders would allow Williams to use a more traditional lineup and could go a long way toward helping UNC make a deep run into March.

Provided that everyone both old and new is still on the same page by then.

“Personal stuff aside, their goal is to win and win the national championship,” Johnson said of his young teammates. “That also drives Kenny, Luke and I. To come together for a common goal is very good in taking those first steps toward a good team chemistry.”