The COVID-19 pandemic forced an early end to the college basketball season for many teams, but North Carolina was not one of them.
In the last ACC game played last season, while Tom Hanks and Rudy Goebert were testing positive and the NBA was shutting down, UNC was losing to Syracuse in the ACC Tournament. The loss ended the Tar Heels’ season. At 14-19, the first losing season in Roy Williams’ career, there would be no postseason berth.
By the time that first the ACC Tournament and then the NCAAs were canceled, the Tar Heels were already cleaning out their lockers.
“It was not a fun year for us,” Williams said. “Not a normal year for North Carolina.”
The Tar Heels suffered injuries, struggled to score and suffered their first home loss to Clemson, as well as a nightmare march of near misses and close calls that never seemed to go their way.
“Six games we lost where the other team had the last shot,” Williams said. “They made all six. Three games we lose because we don’t box out. Nobody in the history of college basketball emphasizes boxing out more than I do.”
That’s why, early in preseason practice when a few of the returning UNC players failed to box out on back-to-back possessions, Williams stopped play and rained fire.
“You’re darn right I went absolutely stone-cold dead crazy,” he said. “They’d better expect that until they change their behavior.”
Obviously, the players suffered through the losing season last year and still bear the scars from all the heartbreaks and defeats.
“I’m really, ‘Frankly, my dear … I don’t care,’” Williams said, censoring the famous movie line. “We’re the ones that screwed it up.”
Needless to say, one losing season was enough for Williams.
That doesn’t mean he’s had lowlights from the season on a continuous loop, though.
“It’s not like I’m saying, ‘OK, everybody get on the end line and remember last year,’” he said. “Or, ‘Everybody shoot one free throw and remember last year. Everybody go to the bathroom, and let’s remember last year.’ That’s not what it is.”
Instead, it’s pushing players to fix what went wrong last year.
“I’m hungry,” he said. “I did not enjoy that. It was not something that was fun.”
The good news for Williams and the returning Tar Heels is that the team has gotten an infusion of talent, with six blue chip freshmen joining a core of returning players. This year’s UNC team should be deeper in the frontcourt and have far more scoring options.
Things start inside, where ACC preseason Player of the Year Garrison Brooks returns for his senior year, joined by returning sophomore Armando Bacot. The Tar Heels also added five-star centers Day’Ron Sharpe and Walker Kessler.
“We’ve got good competition down there for the first time in a few years,” Williams said.
At the wing, Leaky Black returns and is healthy for the first time since he arrived at Carolina.
“A healthy Leaky Black makes us a better basketball team,” Williams said. He’ll be backed up by a freshman with a familiar name in Puff Johnson, younger brother of former Tar Heel shooter Cameron Johnson.
In the backcourt, things have undergone extensive renovation. Senior Andrew Platek is back, but the bulk of the minutes will go to freshmen, with three newcomers joining the team. Caleb Love is expected to start at point guard from day one.
“He’s a scoring point guard,” Williams said. “A big-time scorer, an attacker. He also knows when to pass, but on the scale of Ty Lawson to Kendall Marshall, I’d say he’s more aggressive scoring the ball.”
Love will likely be backed up by another freshman in RJ Davis, who will also play alongside Love as a shooting guard.
“RJ has old-school values,” Williams said. “He’s always penetrating, always probing, trying to see what’s happening. He’s a little undersized to play the two, but he’ll play the two some this year. He has a really good feel for how to play the game at the pace I want to play. He has good natural instincts. He’ll play a heck of a lot more.”
Four-star shooting guard Kerwin Walton rounds out the half-dozen freshmen. With the most newcomers on the roster since the 2017-18 season, Williams predicts that we may see an all-freshman lineup on the floor during games at times this year, although the learning curve is steeper than in many years.
“We’ve got to go a little slower,” he said. “Push ’em, push ’em, push ’em, then put your arm around ’em.”
Of course, the benefit of the freshmen is that they didn’t go through last season.
“I can’t yell at a freshman for making the same mistake and not boxing out,” Williams said, “because he wasn’t here last year.”
Williams was, though, and he won’t soon forget what it was like.
“I’m motivated, because I did not enjoy it,” he said.