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No. 9 North Carolina: The Luke Maye Show rolls on for another season

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Beginning in September and running up until November 6th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2018-2019 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Every day at Noon ET, we will be releasing an in-depth preview of one member of our Preseason Top 25.

Today we dive into No. 9 North Carolina.


North Carolina has been the most successful program this side of Villanova over the course of the last five years because they bucked the trend, whether that was the plan or not.

In an era where the other bluebloods have chased one-and-done talent and rebuilt their roster each and every offseason, the Tar Heels reached the 2016 national title game and won the 2017 national title on the backs of veterans.

Marcus Paige, Justin Jackson, Joel Berry II, Kennedy Meeks, Brice Johnson, Isaiah Hicks, Theo Pinson. Roy Williams went from being a Hall of Famer to one of the very best to ever do it thanks to players that stuck around for three or four years.

Now that might not have been by design.

The scandal that enveloped the UNC athletic department for years took some of the luster off of the program. Concerns about whether or not the program would be eligible for the NCAA tournament played a role in why a handful of those one-and-done prospects — namely, Brandon Ingram — ended up elsewhere.

This season is different.

For the first time in years, the Tar Heels will be relying quite heavily on a pair of highly-touted freshmen to carry them.

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NORTH CAROLINA WILL BE GOOD BECAUSE …

When Luke Maye committed to North Carolina in the fall of 2014, no one in the country thought much of it. Here was a three-star recruit, an in-state kid and the son of a former Tar Heel quarterback, committing to program that he had loved his entire life. The most notable thing about his decision to enroll at UNC was that he was, for a long time, the only member in Roy Williams 2015 recruiting class thanks to the academic scandal that was still hanging over the program at the time.

For forward three years, and Luke Maye had turned a memorable buzzer-beater during a national title run into an all-american season.

And now, he will enter the 2018-19 season as the best returning player in all of college basketball.

If you predicted that would happen, please buy me a Powerball ticket and predict the winning numbers.

In all seriousness, Maye is a terrific talent and almost the antithesis of a Roy Williams big man. For years and years, Williams was one of the last coaches to embrace the small-ball movement, but as his roster dictated it, he made the change last season and bought in. UNC’s best lineup a season ago featured Maye — a 6-foot-9 forward who is at his best as a shooter or when he has the chance to face-up — at the five with Cameron Johnson — a 6-foot-8 shooter that is officially listed as a guard — at the four. Johnson, along with fellow senior Kenny Williams, will join with Maye to provide Ole’ Roy with plenty of shooting and plenty of veteran leadership.

And, unlike past seasons, that group will be joined by a pair of five-star freshmen in Nassir Little and Coby White.

Little is the name to know here. He’s a consensus top three player in the class and, depending on how R.J. Barrett performs cross-town at Duke, he could end up being the No. 1 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft. He’s a perfect fit alongside Maye and Johnson, as he is more toolsy and, at 6-foot-6 and 220 pounds with a 7-foot-1 wingspan, known more for what he can do defensively. White is the bigger question mark, but we’ll get into that in a bit.

The Tar Heels have a really nice blend of role-playing veterans and talented freshmen to go alongside their all-american senior.

They are also going to be coached by Roy Williams, who is definitively one of the best to ever do it.

Nassir Little (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
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BUT NORTH CAROLINA IS GOING TO STRUGGLE BECAUSE …

I may be in the minority here, but I actually think that losing Theo Pinson is going to hurt North Carolina more than losing Joel Berry II.

That’s not meant as a shot at Berry, either. He was terrific. He was the MOP when the Tar Heels cut down the nets in 2017. He played in two national title games. His resume speaks for itself.

What he did for this North Carolina team, however, can more easily be replaced than what Pinson did. Berry may have played the point for the Tar Heels last season and he may have been the ‘one’ in Roy Williams’ secondary break, but for all intents and purposes, Pinson was the playmaker on that Tar Heel team the last two years. He’s the guy that made things have in the halfcourt, helping to break down a set defense. He’s the guy that led the program in assists. He was their most important player for long stretches, and while the Tar Heels bring in guys that can score, they don’t have someone that can do the things that Pinson did.

But that doesn’t mean that UNC won’t miss Berry, who provided the kind of leadership every team in the country needs. That’s not necessarily something that can be coached into you. You either have it or you don’t, and Berry had it.

And all of this becomes more relevant when you realize that UNC will likely end up starting a freshman at the point this season …

THE X-FACTOR

… and that brings me to Coby White.

First things first: Roy Williams, more than anything, is known for being a coach that wants to play two bigs as much as possible. He’s also known as a coach that prioritizes playing in transition, that runs a lethal secondary break and that attacks the glass with abandon.

The other thing that Williams’ best teams have been known for has been point guard play.

Ray Felton was the starter with the Tar Heels won the 2005 national title. Ty Lawson ran the show when North Carolina cut down the nets in 2009. The 2017 title saw UNC led by Joel Berry II, who isn’t going to have the NBA career of the other two but who was an all-american in his own right. In 2012, the year where the Tar Heels were the one team that could have kept John Calipari from getting his national title with Kentucky, North Carolina had Kendall Marshall at the point.

Marshall was a pure point guard in every sense of the word, but he’s also something of the outlier in this group.

Coby White (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Berry was more of a natural scorer than he was a playmaker, as Pinson was the guy that North Carolina ran their offense through last season. Felton and Lawson both put up big assist numbers in their time in college — both were clearly more than capable as playmakers — and while they weren’t exactly score-first, they certainly were scoring point guards. Having a player that can go coast-to-coast, having a lead guard that can get him 20 points on any given night, that’s what Williams’ best teams have had. It’s part of what makes his offense work.

And that’s where Coby White comes into play.

A low-end five-star prospect, White is a 6-foot-5 combo-guard that scored a state-record 3,573 points while in high school, a downright ludicrous number that should tell you all you need to know about his reputation as a bucket-getter. It also provides the clear contextual concerns for this UNC team: Not only is White looking at stepping into the ACC as a starting point guard as a freshman, he’s potentially doing so as a score-first combo on a team where he will be surrounded by plenty of shooting and a roster full of veterans, particularly UNC’s all-american big man, Luke Maye.

It’s almost counter-intuitive to say this, but the freshman that could end up being a top two pick in the 2019 NBA Draft — Nassir Little — is less important to North Carolina’s success this season than the freshman that profiles as their next three- or four-year starting point guard.

How quickly will White adjust to playing at the one in the ACC? Can he score at that level? Can he also be more than just a scorer at that level?

The answers to those questions could end up being the difference between the Tar Heels competing for the ACC title and making a run at a Final Four and finishing the year as something closer to a No. 6 seed.

2018-19 OUTLOOK

The Tar Heels should be fine.

They are old, they are talented and they have at least one all-american on a roster that is going to be coached by a Hall of Famer.

That’s enough to win a lot of basketball games.

That said, given the question marks we do have about their point guard situation, I think the ceiling on this team is a little bit limited. In a one-off competition like the NCAA tournament, anyone can win, I just find it difficult to believe that the Tar Heels are going to have the horses to make a run at getting back to the Final Week of the season.

THE REST OF THE TOP 25

No. 10 Auburn
No. 11 Kansas State
No. 12 Virginia Tech
No. 13 Michigan State
No. 14 Florida State
No. 15 TCU
No. 16 UCLA
No. 17 West Virginia
No. 18 Oregon
No. 19 Syracuse
No. 20 LSU
No. 21 Mississippi State
No. 22 Clemson
No. 23 Michigan
No. 24 N.C. State
No. 25 Marquette

Louisville challenges NCAA over recruiting allegations

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Louisville has refuted NCAA allegations against its men’s basketball program in the wake of a federal corruption scandal, requesting that the highest-level violation be reclassified.

The university also is challenging that former coach Rick Pitino failed to promote an atmosphere of compliance in his program.

Louisville filed a 104-page response last week to the Notice Of Allegations sent to the school in May. The document stated that college sports’ governing body seeks to ignore wire fraud convictions against several people involved in the scheme – including a former Adidas executive – by suggesting they were representing its athletic interests. Louisville’s contract with the apparel maker was a standard sponsorship agreement rather than a promotional deal, the response added.

“This argument is as novel as it is wrong,” the school wrote in its response. “Even if an institution has some responsibility for the conduct of its suppliers, that responsibility plainly does not extend to acts of fraud perpetrated against the institution itself.”

Louisville also seeks to have several second-tier violations reclassified even lower. The NCAA has until Nov. 15 to respond with the school responding 15 days after before a decision is made whether the case will proceed through the traditional Committee on Infractions or Independent Accountability Review Process (IARP).

The NCAA’s Notice of Allegations states that Louisville committed a Level I violation, considered the most severe, with an improper recruiting offer and extra benefits along with several lesser violations. Those lesser violations also include Pitino failing to promote an atmosphere of compliance.

The NCAA notice completed a two-year investigation following a federal corruption probe of college basketball announced in September 2017. Louisville acknowledged its involvement in the federal investigation related to the recruitment of former player Brian Bowen II. Pitino, who’s now coaching Iona, was not named in the federal complaint and has consistently denied authorizing or having knowledge of a payment to a recruit’s family.

Louisville has previously indicated it would accept responsibility for violations it committed but would contest allegations it believed were not supported by facts. The school also noted corrective measures taken in the scandal’s immediate aftermath, such as suspending and then firing Pitino and athletic director Tom Jurich.

Louisville also dismissed the NCAA’s contention that former Adidas executive James Gatto and amateur league director Merl Code represented the school while funneling illegal payments to recruits at several schools.

“The enforcement staff’s remaining allegations lack factual support and overread the relevant Bylaws,” the response stated, “and rest on the erroneous contention that the conspirators were representatives of the University’s athletics interests.

“For these reasons and others set forth, the panel should reject the enforcement staff’s dramatically overbroad theory, and classify this case as involving a Level II-Mitigated violation.”

Bubbles brewing with season on horizon

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INDIANAPOLIS — With the coronavirus pandemic already forcing changes for college basketball, a bubble may be brewing in Indianapolis.

Indiana Sports Corp. released a 16-page proposal Friday that calls for turning the city convention center’s exhibition halls and meeting rooms into basketball courts and locker rooms. There would be expansive safety measures and daily COVID-19 testing.

The all-inclusive price starts at $90,000 per team and would cover 20 hotel rooms per traveling party, testing, daily food vouchers ranging from $30-$50 and the cost of game officials. Sports Corp. President Ryan Vaughn said the price depends on what offerings teams or leagues choose.

“The interest has been high,” Vaughn said. “I think as conferences figure out what conference and non-conference schedules are going to look like, we’re we’re a very good option for folks. I would tell you we’ve had conversations with the power six conferences, mid-majors, it’s really kind of all over the Division I spectrum.”

Small wonder: The NCAA this week announced teams could start ramping up workouts Monday, with preseason practices set to begin Oct. 14. Season openers, however, were pushed back to Nov. 25 amid wide-ranging uncertainty about campus safety and team travel in the pandemic.

There is already scrambling going on and some of the marquee early-season tournaments have already been impacted.

The Maui Invitational will be moved from Hawaii to Asheville, North Carolina, with dates still to be determined and organizers clear that everyone involved “will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.” The Batttle 4 Atlantis has been canceled. The Cancun Challenge will be held in Melbourne, Florida, not Mexico.

More changes almost certainly will be coming, including what to do with the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.

“I think we’re past the guesswork on whether we play 20 conference games or more than that,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said Friday. “We’re trying to get everybody set like in terms of MTEs (multi-team events), figuring out when to play the ACC-Big Ten challenge.”

Painter, who was part of the NCAA committee that recommended how to start the season, noted part of the uncertainty stems from differing protocols imposed by campus, city and state officials.

In Indianapolis, Vaughn believes the convention center, nearby hotels, restaurants and downtown businesses, many within walking distance of the venue, could safely accommodate up to 24 teams. The 745,000-square foot facility would feature six basketball courts and two competition courts.

Anyone entering the convention center would undergo saliva-based rapid response testing, which would be sent to a third-party lab for results. Others venues could be added, too, potentially with more fans, if the case numbers decline.

If there is a taker, the event also could serve as a dry run for the 2021 Final Four, also slated for Indy.

“It’s not going to hurt,” Vaughn said. “I can tell you all the planning we’re doing right now is the same for a Final Four that’s been scheduled here for any other year. But it would be nice to have this experience under our belt to see if it can be done.”

Maui Invitational moving to North Carolina during pandemic

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ASHEVILLE, N.C. — The Maui Invitational is moving to the mainland during the coronavirus pandemic.

One of the premier preseason tournaments on the college basketball schedule, the Maui Invitational will be played at the Harrah’s Cherokee Center in downtown Asheville, North Carolina.

Dates for the tournament announced Friday have yet to be finalized. The NCAA announced Wednesday that the college basketball season will begin Nov. 25.

This year’s Maui Invitational field includes Alabama, Davidson, Indiana, North Carolina, Providence, Stanford, Texas and UNLV.

All teams, staff, officials, and personnel will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.

Burton eligible at Texas Tech after 2 seasons at Wichita State

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LUBBOCK, Texas — Junior guard Jamarius Burton has been granted a waiver from the NCAA that makes him eligible to play this season for Texas Tech after starting 52 games the past two seasons for Wichita State.

Texas Tech coach Chris Beard announced the waiver Thursday, which came five months after Burton signed with the Big 12 team.

Burton has two seasons of eligibility remaining, as well as a redshirt season he could utilize. He averaged 10.3 points and 3.4 assists per game as a sophomore at Wichita State, where he played 67 games overall.

Burton is from Charlotte. He helped lead Independence High School to a 31-1 record and the North Carolina Class 4A state championship as a senior there.

NCAA season set to open day before Thanksgiving

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The NCAA men’s and women’s basketball season will begin on Nov. 25, the day before Thanksgiving.

The Division I Council voted Wednesday to push the start date back from the originally scheduled Nov. 10 as one of several precautions against the spread of coronavirus.

The later start date coincides with the decision most schools made to send students home from Thanksgiving until January out of concern about a potential late-fall and early-winter flareup of COVID-19. Closed campuses could serve as a quasi bubble for players and provide a window for non-conference games.

The maximum number of regular-season games has been reduced from 31 to 27. The minimum number of games for consideration for the NCAA Tournament was cut from 25 to 13.

Teams can start preseason practices Oct. 14 but will be allowed to work out 12 hours per week beginning Monday.

No scrimmages against other teams or exhibitions are allowed.

In other action, the council voted to extend the recruiting dead period for all sports through Dec. 31. In-person recruiting is not allowed during a dead period, though phone calls and other correspondence are allowed.

The men’s and women’s basketball oversight committees had jointly recommended a start date of Nov. 21, which would have allowed for games to be played on the weekend before Thanksgiving. The council opted not to do that to avoid a conflict with regular-season football games.

The council is scheduled to meet again Oct. 13-14 and could delay the start date and change other pieces of the basketball framework if circumstances surrounding the virus warrant.