It’s been 229 days since North Carolina was upset by Texas A&M in the NCAA tournament’s second round. As the Tar Heels start the regular season on Tuesday at Wofford, what the team has learned and how it has rebuilt since last March will begin to show.
How much better will graduate guard Cam Johnson be now that he’s healthy? How will coach Roy Williams deal with his big men? Can the Tar Heels defend the 3? Is freshman forward Nassir Little -- a potential one-and-done -- really that good? Can junior Seventh Woods outshine freshman Coby White to be the starting point guard?
Here’s a look at those questions as UNC heads into its only exhibition game Friday night against Mount Olive.
1. If Cam Johnson is finally healthy, how good can he be?
Johnson dealt with a number of injuries last season. He had surgery to repair a torn meniscus, which caused him to miss the first 11 games of the 2017-18 season. He also dealt with a minor back injury late in the year.
In the offseason, he had an arthroscopic hip procedure to fix an injury he said has been bothering him since he was in high school. The hip injury affected his lateral movement. He couldn’t spread his feet as wide as he wanted to, and after each practice, his hip would ache and he would feel stiff.
But even with those injuries, Johnson averaged 12.4 points per game and 4.7 rebounds for the Tar Heels last year.
Now, he no longer feels those aches and pains, and says he’s able to move more freely.
“I didn’t anticipate having surgeries like this before college,” Johnson said, “but I’m very happy with where my body is right now, and I feel like this is probably the best I’ve felt in forever.”
With the nagging pains behind him, Johnson has the potential to have a big year.
2. Defending the 3
The Tar Heels were among the worst teams in the country last season in defending the 3. Opponents shot 38 percent from behind the arc, ranking 316th out of 351 Division I teams in the country.
Texas A&M was 10-for-24 from behind the 3-point line in its 86-65 upset win over UNC in the NCAA tournament’s Round of 32 this past March.
As the game of basketball becomes increasingly reliant on 3-pointers and players that can stretch the floor, UNC’s perimeter defense has to be better. UNC senior Kenny Williams will lead that perimeter group.
The 6-4, 185-pound wing was UNC’s best defender last season.
“And I think he’s even better this year than he was last year,” Roy Williams said. “I’ve been using him as an example for the other guys.”
3. Who will start at point guard?
The battle for the starting point guard position is between junior Seventh Woods and freshman Coby White. Coach Williams said on Oct. 9 that he hadn’t yet made a decision and is waiting for one of them to stand apart from the other.
Woods has struggled at UNC. Last season he averaged seven minutes, 1.1 points and one assist per game.
But Williams said Woods is healthy for the first time since high school, and expects him to improve. Woods, who is 6-2, 185 pounds, looked good in UNC’s scrimmage at Late Night with Roy. He outplayed White, who did not have any points.
Woods said he is being more vocal on the floor and has felt more comfortable in the point guard role.
“Confidence is up,” Woods said. “I’ve been shooting the ball way better, finishing around the basket way better. Those are two things I worked on so much this summer. So I feel like if it transfers to the game, I’ll be in good shape.”
White was a five-star recruit and McDonald’s All-American coming out of high school at Greenfield School in Wilson. The 6-5, 185-pound freshman can score. He finished his high school career as the state’s all-time leader in career points at 3,573.
White and UNC’s other freshmen won’t be made available to talk to the media until after they play their first game.
Williams will likely experiment with different lineups on Friday against Mount Olive. The better player will likely start in the season-opener on Tuesday at Wofford.
Last month, Williams said he hadn’t made a decision yet on who will start at point guard this season. He was waiting for either point guard to standout. It appeared at that time that neither had.
4. How good is Nassir Little?
Little, the freshman, quickly rose through the recruiting rankings near the end of his senior season at Orlando Christian Prep, climbing to No. 3 by the year’s end after he won MVP awards in both the the McDonald’s All-American game and the Jordan Brand Classic.
He averaged 26 points and 5.5 rebounds in the two games.
Little, a 6-6, 220-pound forward, is lauded for his athleticism, and the expectations for him among his teammates are high. He’s expected to be a “one-and-done” player and projected by some NBA mock drafts to go in the top three of the 2019 NBA draft.
Friday’s game against Mount Olive will be the first opportunity to see Little in college competition. It’s also an opportunity for him to prove just how good he is.
5. Will big men make Williams comfortable?
Big men have historically been a big part of coach Williams’ offenses, especially in seasons when the Tar Heels have won national titles. In 2005, Sean May (6-9, 266 pounds), was arguably UNC’s best player. In 2009, the Tar Heels had Tyler Hansbrough, who was 6-9, 250 pounds. In UNC’s 2017 win over Gonzaga Williams relied on a combination of 6-10, 260-pound Kennedy Meeks, 6-9, 235-pound Isaiah Hicks and 6-10, 235-pound Tony Bradley.
Last season, Williams was forced to go small, with 6-8, 240 pound junior Luke Maye, normally a power forward, playing center. As a result, UNC struggled throughout the season defending the rim.
UNC returns all of its big men — Sterling Manley (6-11, 235), Garrison Brooks (6-9, 230), Walker Miller (6-10, 230) and Brandon Huffman (6-10, 250) — from last year’s team. But the center still remains a concern — and likely the biggest concern — for Williams. He said all of the big men have improved, but he needs them to work harder.
“Somebody needs to step up and say, ‘Hey, I can do this,’ and not only say it but do it, prove it to us out on the court,” Williams said. “If one of those guys steps up and proves it to us on the court, I will be more comfortable.”
Mount Olive at UNC
Tip off: 7:30 p.m., Friday
Site: Dean Smith Center, Chapel Hill
TV: ACC Network Extra