An impressive victory in last Friday’s season opener against Northern Iowa showed that the ninth-ranked UNC men’s basketball team has enough talent to be mentioned among the top teams in America.

What the young, inexperienced Tar Heels–who have been without injured senior point guard Joel Berry for nearly a month–will need time to define, however, is a true identity.

This will provide an interesting backdrop Wednesday night at the Dean Smith Center, when UNC hosts Bucknell–a team that returned all five starters from last year’s NCAA Tournament squad.

Losing three starters and a pair of key bench contributors from last year’s national championship team has forced Tar Heel head coach Roy Williams into finding new roles for nearly every member on his team.

Head coach Roy Williams is still tinkering with his lineups as the Tar Heels search for an identity early in the season. (Todd Melet)

With Berry sidelined, freshman Jalek Felton and sophomore Seventh Woods have had to share the spotlight of the lead guard position.

Berry is set to return from his broken hand, possibly as soon as Wednesday. However, he’s missed valuable preseason practice time and may take a little while to get back up to speed.

Luke Maye looked like an All-American against Northern Iowa after posting 26 points and 10 rebounds, a performance that earned him Co-ACC Player of the Week honors. But the fact remains that it was just Maye’s second career start. It’s impossible to project if he’ll be able to maintain that same level of play as the competition level rises.

Williams even started a pair of freshmen in the season opener–Felton and forward Garrison Brooks–for the first time since trotting out Brandan Wright and Wayne Ellington for the 2007 opener.

He also continues to motivate his freshmen big men by claiming that taking the best quality from each of them and combining them into one man wouldn’t give the Tar Heels a serviceable player.

Theo Pinson and Kenny Williams remain the best defensive options on the wing for UNC. Offensively, they each dished out a team-high five assists last Friday but combined to shoot 4-for-14 from the floor–a number skewed just a bit by Pinson’s 1-for-6 performance from behind the three-point line.

Junior forward Luke Maye will be important for UNC against Bucknell star Zach Thomas on Wednesday. (Todd Melet)

Although Bucknell dropped its first two games of the season–a one-point loss to Monmouth followed by a 28-point beatdown at the hands of Arkansas–it has enough experience to potentially force the Tar Heels into a tough game.

As UNC searches for its identity and Williams continues tinkering with his different lineup combinations, Bucknell head coach Nathan Davis knows exactly what his team is–for better or for worse.

Led by senior Zach Thomas, a 6-foot-7 forward with a similar inside-outside skill set to the one Maye has, the Bison were unanimously picked to win the Patriot League again this season.

Thomas is currently averaging 27.5 points and 13 rebounds per game and should provide a stiff test for the relatively inexperienced Tar Heel frontcourt.

Defending shots from the perimeter–which has often been a struggle for UNC in recent years–will also be key. Bucknell has shot 40 percent from beyond the arc thus far, while making an average of 12 threes a game.

The game against Bucknell is also technically considered part of the PK80 Tournament, serving as a tune-up of sorts for the Tar Heels.

UNC is scheduled to travel to Portland during the week of Thanksgiving for the other three games in the PK80 event, which was created to celebrate the 80th birthday of Nike founder Phil Knight.

This will also be the first time the Tar Heels and Bucknell have ever played one another. Tip-off at the Dean Dome Wednesday night is set for 8 p.m.


Cover Photo via Todd Melet