A new season kicks off for the ninth-ranked UNC men’s basketball team on Friday night at the Dean E. Smith Center, with head coach Roy Williams and the Tar Heels scheduled to take on the Northern Iowa Panthers at 7 p.m.

Last season brought results on each end of the spectrum for these two teams, as UNC took home the NCAA championship while Northern Iowa finished below .500 at 14-16.

The Tar Heels also crushed the Panthers 85-42 in a December matchup at the Dean Dome behind 18 points from now-departed Kennedy Meeks.

This season brings plenty of questions, however, as the Tar Heels must replace three starters–and injured point guard Joel Berry–in the early portion of the new campaign.

With that in mind, here’s three keys to watch for on Friday when UNC welcomes Northern Iowa to Chapel Hill.

1. Who Gets to Start?

At his press conference on Thursday, Williams told media members: “Completely honest, I’m not sure what I’m going to do,” I got mad at everybody yesterday. I got mad at Joel [Berry] and he wasn’t even practicing. So I really am not sure what I’m going to do. I’ve got to make the decision before gametime tomorrow.”

How UNC decides to try and replace injured point guard Joel Berry will be a major key to watch in Friday’s opener vs. Northern Iowa. (Todd Melet)

Although Williams would later go on to say that junior forward Luke Maye is in line to get a start in the frontcourt, he made no other guarantees.

He also said there’s a good chance that freshman big man Garrison Brooks will start alongside Maye, noting that Brooks has made far fewer mistakes in practice than the Tar Heels’ other three freshman forwards.

Senior Theo Pinson and graduate transfer Cam Johnson are the most likely candidates to start at the wing, with both players–who stand 6-foot-6 and 6-foot-7, respectively–possessing the ability to slide into the frontcourt should Williams decide to go small.

Unless Williams decides to go with 6-foot-5 junior Kenny Williams–a tenacious defender who has seen limited live action since returning from offseason knee surgery–or lanky sophomore Brandon Robinson, Pinson and Johnson are safe bets to start on Friday.

The most important decision the coach will have to make, though, revolves around replacing Joel Berry–who broke his hand while punching an unsuspecting door after losing a video game to Pinson.

2. Woods or Felton?

In UNC’s 81-70 exhibition game against Barton, it was sophomore Seventh Woods who was given the start in Berry’s place.

He finished with four points and two assists in his 19 minutes on just 2-for-6 shooting–failing to separate himself in any way.

Sophomore Seventh Woods started at point guard in place of Joel Berry during UNC’s exhibition win over Barton. (Todd Melet)

Freshman Jalek Felton–the nephew of former UNC star Raymond Felton–came to campus with plenty of hype and a name to match, but has yet to prove to Williams that he has the work ethic and defensive chops to crack the starting lineup.

Felton scored five points against Barton in 21 minutes off the bench, while posting a similar 2-for-6 mark from the field. On the bright side, though, his seven assists were a team-high and he turned the ball over just once.

While the best guess is that only one of them will start against Northern Iowa, it’s also just as likely that they’ll each get their fair share of minutes.

“They know that Joel’s a huge part of our team and they know that somebody will have to step up,” Kenny Williams said on Thursday about the two young guards. “I think personally that they’ll have to do a great job of getting our defense going, because a lot of the time that’s who it starts with — the point guard.”

3. Big or Small?

Although Roy Williams has always been known for having dominant big men who grab rebounds at an alarming rate, this year’s Tar Heel team doesn’t have that same luxury right now.

Maye is the team’s only returning player in the frontcourt, and his 6-foot-8-inch frame–paired with his perimeter-oriented skill set–doesn’t exactly fit the blueprint for the traditional UNC lineup.

Theo Pinson has proven capable of playing all five positions, giving the Tar Heels plenty of lineup flexibility should they need it. (Todd Melet)

There’s plenty of size to go around among the four freshman bigs, but with none of them came to Chapel Hill as an ESPN Top 100 recruit.

Williams joked at UNC’s media day that if he took the best quality from each of them and put them into one player–he still wouldn’t have a player ready to contribute. In addition, the coach also took time to say that with their size they make the team look “really freakin’ good walking through an airport.”

Should the freshmen struggle to adapt to the college game, UNC could be forced to alter its traditional strategy and resort to more “small-ball” lineups that feature Maye as the center and either Pinson or Johnson at the other forward position.




Cover Photo via Todd Melet