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How’s Cam Johnson? Has Roy Williams’ ‘fire’ changed? 5 things to know about UNC basketball.

See highlights of the Tar Heels’ basketball practice, Oct. 9, 2018

Watch seniors Luke Maye and Kenny Williams, freshmen Rechon 'Leaky' Black, Coby White and Nassir Little in action during the Tar Heels' open practice.
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Watch seniors Luke Maye and Kenny Williams, freshmen Rechon 'Leaky' Black, Coby White and Nassir Little in action during the Tar Heels' open practice.

North Carolina’s basketball team will feature a lot experience and some new talent, and its basketball coach Roy Williams appears excited.

But he also needs some players to step up and ‘be the man.’ He hasn’t quite found that yet in UNC’s first few practices of the season, particularly at point guard and the big man position, outside of senior forward Luke Maye.

It’s still early though, as the regular season won’t begin for another month.

Here are five things we already know.

1. Roy Williams may go small ball lineup again

Historically, UNC’s best teams have featured two big men. UNC runs its offense through the post first. But last season, the Tar Heels’ bigs were not up to par. Coach Williams was forced to use a small ball lineup with Luke Maye, who would prefer to play the four, playing the five. Theo Pinson, who was naturally a wing or guard, had to play four at times.

And that was difficult. UNC, which was a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament, lost in the Round of 32 to Texas A&M last year.

Williams said his big men have improved this season, but they are not at the point of where he would like them to be.

“Sterling (Manley) and Garrison (Brooks) and Walker (Miller) have all had their moments, but I’d really like somebody to step up and say I’m the best and show it every day,” he said.

If none of them step up, Williams will likely have to adjust and use a small ball lineup again.

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Sophomore forward Sterling Manley said he realizes that the bigs must be better this year in order for the team to reach its potential.

“In Roy Williams’ system, it doesn’t matter what type of guards you have. You can have Steph or Kyrie or whatever after a point,” he said, “but if you don’t have a good inside presence with how our system runs, it’s going to struggle. There’s always going to be night where the 3’s not falling, or the shots not falling, or whatever it may be.

“If you can always have that inside presence vice versa, it opens up the game for the outside.”

North Carolina senior Kenny Williams and the News & Observer's Jonathan Alexander sit for an interview over a friendly game of NBA 2K during a visit to the Tar Heels' lounge at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill, N.C.

2. Williams has not made a decision on who will start at point guard

Williams said earlier this week that he likes what he’s seen from both of his point guards, freshman Coby White and junior Seventh Woods, through the first seven practices and its preseason trip to the Bahamas.

But he still doesn’t know who he will start. He also doesn’t feel pressured to make a decision yet.

“At the point guard, Seventh has been there,” Williams said. “First game in Nassau (Bahamas) he played well, and second game he didn’t play. Coby was outstanding. We’ve given (Rechon) Leaky (Black) some opportunities there as well, but even there I’d still say the same thing. I like it when a guy really steps up and says ‘you got to play me more than you play anybody else.’”

Apparently that hasn’t happened yet.



3. Cam Johnson feeling healthy

In April, Johnson had arthroscopic hip surgery to fix a problem he said has bothered him since high school. He said he’s never really played without the pain. But since the surgery he’s felt better.

“I’ve been playing for about a month now and I feel pretty good, and that ‘day-to-day ache’ isn’t as bad,” Johnson said. “And getting through practice is a lot better. So I feel like I’m in a much better place to build especially on skill sets and movement and playing in the system.”

Williams has noticed it too.

He looks like he’s moving more freely. He looks like he doesn’t have as much pain,” Williams said. “Doesn’t look as stiff.”

4. Williams still has that fire

Williams was asked Tuesday whether the “fire in his belly” had changed since he started 30 years ago. Williams seemed to take exception to the question.

But Williams, who is now entering his 31st year as a head coach, said the fire remains.

“If you don’t believe me ask the kids how they felt after Saturday morning’s practice,” Williams, 68, said. “I told them the next 48 hours is going to be the greatest 48 hours they’ve had because they weren’t going to see me for that time period. And they agreed.”

Williams said the players are fun to be around. They recently voted on who they thought would win between the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox in the playoffs. Williams is a Yankees fan.

“I love what I’m doing,” Williams said. “I love trying to get all you guys to move in the same direction in one team. That’s what I’ve tried to do my whole life and it’s what I’m trying to do with this team.”

North Carolina basketball coach Roy Williams tells reporters he has never had anyone ask him for money while recruiting a player in his 30 years of coaching and that the majority of kids, families and coaches do it the "right way."

5. Luke Maye looking to be more aggressive inside

Despite a breakout season last year, Maye is not satisfied. He said this offseason he’s worked on his inside game and getting stronger.

Maye, a 6-8, 240-pound forward, was third-team All-American by the Associated Press, first-team All-ACC and the conference’s Most Improved Player last year. He averaged 16.9 points per game and 10.1 rebounds.

He’s considered by some experts, including NCAA.com’s Andy Katz, to be one of the best returning players in the country. But he wants to get better.

UNC senior Luke Maye talks about the Tar Heel freshman during media day at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill on Tuesday, Oct. 9, 2018.

“Growing my game and expanding my game has really been important to me,” Maye said. “I think it’s been a great summer for me and really coming this year with a lot of guys back and a lot of new guys, I think it gives us a new dynamic, that really opens us up for a lot of potential this year.”

UNC basketball coach Roy Williams is asked if he feels that coaching at "blue blood schools" like Kansas and North Carolina has shielded him from potentially illegal recruiting practices outlined in the FBI investigation of college sports.

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Alexander, 919-829-4822; @jonmalexander
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