Tar Heels blend experience, high-end talent

Christian Keeling, who tranferred from Charleston Southern to join North Carolina, will be expected to provide secondary scoring for the Tar Heels. (Gerry Broome / AP Photo)

CHAPEL HILL — Roy Williams is as old-school as a coach can get when it comes to the makeup of his basketball team.

He prefers upperclassmen to freshmen, homegrown talent to transfers and a traditional inside-out alignment over the increasingly popular positionless approach.

And yet, as much success as he’s achieved by adhering to those tried-and-true values — including three national championships — Williams is enough of a realist to know that sometimes you have to change with the times.

His current roster is the prime example.

While the core is comprised of five upperclassmen that have been in the program their entire careers, the Hall of Fame coach has taken a detour onto some nontraditional avenues in an effort to restock a roster that lost its top five scorers to graduation and early entry into the NBA Draft.

Among the six newcomers he’s brought in for 2019-20, likely four of them — two potential one-and-done freshmen and a pair of graduate transfers — won’t wear Carolina blue for more than a single season.

“I still like being able to coach kids for quite a while,” Williams said at a media availability this summer. “I’ve got a wonderful situation because some kids come here and like to stay around, and at the same time, I try to recruit those (one-and-done) guys. I just didn’t get many of them.”

While Williams did swing and miss on a lot of top prospects during the four-year period in which his program was being investigated — and subsequently cleared — by the NCAA, his luck with them has changed considerably over the past three years.

First there was Tony Bradley, who became UNC’s first freshman in nearly a decade to leave after one season in 2017. Last year, the Tar Heels had two one-and-dones in point guard Coby White and wing Nassir Little.

Anticipating White’s departure, Williams went out and got yet another five-star playmaker destined to be an early first round pick next spring in Cole Anthony. He also added highly regarded big man Armando Bacot, who is likely to join Anthony in the 2020 draft if he lives up to his advance billing.

“I’d love to have one or two of those guys on every team because you like to have talent,” Williams says. “And talent helps you win.”

But so does experience, and since only one of UNC’s returning players — junior forward Garrison Brooks — has performed more than a supporting role in his college career, Williams has sought outside help to ensure a veteran presence on the floor.

Both graduate transfers — Justin Pierce from William & Mary and Christian Keeling from Charleston Southern — figure to play prominent roles for the Tar Heels. Keeling, in particular, could be key early because of an injury to projected starter Brandon Robinson in last week’s exhibition win against Winston-Salem State.

It was just such a situation that convinced UNC’s old coach to try new things — just in case.

“We needed some more guys,” Williams said last month at the Tar Heels’ preseason media day. “I think that we needed more people on the perimeter. Christian gives you a little bit of scoring, he’s got a tremendous flair and a very gregarious personality.

“Justin played for Tony Shaver at William & Mary, and they were making a coaching change and he was looking for some other place. I think his quality he has that will be more beneficial right now to us than anything is his rebounding. He’s a sneaky kind of rebounder that goes in and gets his hands on a lot of balls, but it was a tremendous need for a couple more players on the perimeter.”

As much as Williams has changed with the times, there are certain conventions from which he will never stray. Among them is his reliance on a dominant point guard, the latest of which is Anthony — a dynamic playmaker and scorer who stood out in the Tar Heels’ two preseason contests.

“Cole is one of the best players in the country already and he hasn’t even played a game,” teammate Brooks said. “I think that is a lot to say and I believe in him. He is a really talented guy, a really hard worker.”

Williams also hasn’t altered his preference for playing a traditional lineup with two big men on the court at the same time and an offense designed to run through the low post in an effort to get easy baskets and put the opposition into foul trouble.

He wasn’t able to do that last year because of injury and a lack of experience. With Brooks’ steady development and the addition of Bacot, at least one thing about the Tar Heels will look familiar this season.