The North Carolina Tar Heels enter the season with a lot of question marks after losing several key players, but voters had enough confidence to rank them No. 11 in the preseason AP poll. They begin the journey against the Gardner-Webb Runnin' Bulldogs on Friday night.
It's going to take some time before the Tar Heels solidify their identity. Harrison Barnes, Tyler Zeller, John Henson and Kendall Marshall are all gone, meaning other players will need to step up to fill those four significant roles in the rotation.
Luckily for UNC, it starts the season with four straight winnable games before a marquee matchup with No. 1 Indiana later in the month. The team's first opponent, the Runnin' Bulldogs, finished 6-12 in Big South play last season.
What will be the result of the opener?
Let's take a lot at all the key information for the opening night battle followed by a game preview and prediction.
Where: Dean Smith Center in Chapel Hill, N.C.
When: Friday, Nov. 9 at 7 p.m. ET
Listen: WGWG 88.3 FM (Gardner-Webb) or WCHL 1360 AM (North Carolina)
Betting Line: TBA
What's at Stake?
For North Carolina, these early season non-conference games are more about finding the right way to utilize talented freshman like Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson, who will need to play key roles in order for the Tar Heels to succeed once ACC play starts.
On paper, they have a good mix of reliable upperclassmen and fresh faces with upside, so Roy Williams will spend the next couple months making sure his team is ready for when the games begin to take on a higher level of importance. It's a process.
Gardner-Webb actually has more on the line for the opener because it's one of the team's few chances to make an impact on the national stage. If the Runnin' Bulldogs are able to pull off the massive upset, or even keep it close, it will be a major success.
What They're Saying
North Carolina forward James Michael McAdoo is expecting the Tar Heels to get overlooked because people will only see how much talent they lost and not what still remains, reports Andrew Carter of the Charlotte Observer.
"Hopefully they’ll be smart and realize that we’re still North Carolina, and we’re still competitive," McAdoo said. "But just going off human nature, they probably will [overlook us] knowing that we lost so much."
Gardner-Webb Player to Watch: Tashan Newsome
Newsome does it all for the Runnin' Bulldogs. Not only did he lead the team in scoring last season at just over 12 points per game, but the 6'3'' guard also led Gardner-Webb in rebounding, a rare feat for a perimeter player.
If there's anybody on the roster that's going to spark an upset bid, it's Newsome. What he lacks in natural talent is made up for by his relentless effort, which is proven every game when he goes down amongst the giants to grab boards.
North Carolina must put its defensive focus on slowing him down early to ensure Newsome doesn't get hot from the field. If the Tar Heels can control him then they should be able to cruise to victory, but that's clearly easier said than done.
North Carolina Player to Watch: Reggie Bullock
Several UNC players will need to elevate their games this season to help replace the lost production, but none have a bigger burden than Bullock. The junior swingman will play a much more vital role in the offense, especially early in the campaign.
He made solid progress from his first to second year, especially in terms of efficiency from the field. He raised his overall field-goal percentage by over 60 points and his three-point shooting jumped nearly 90 points. He must keep those numbers high while taking more shots.
If he can establish himself as a go-to scorer early in the season, the season outlook for the Tar Heels will immediately become more promising. Until that happens, there will continue to be a lot of questions asked about which players will step up.
Where will UNC finish the season ranked?
Key Matchup: Gardner-Webb defense vs. UNC size
Gardner-Webb only has one player above 6'8'', center Mike Byron, and he averaged less than 19 minutes per game last season. North Carolina has four players taller than that mark, and it's going to be a distinct advantage in the opener.
It's a common theme fans will see a lot during non-conference play when perennial powerhouse teams take on mid-major opponents. There just aren't enough talented post players to go around, and most of them migrate to the top schools.
The Tar Heels have to take advantage of their size early by controlling the paint. If they are settling for a lot of jumpers in the first half instead of attacking the rim, Gardner-Webb will benefit. If they are aggressive, the rout will be on.
North Carolina 84, Gardner-Webb 58