North Carolina has been defined by many things in the Roy Williams era: the fast break, offensive rebounding, a non-use of timeouts and, most importantly, winning.
A dominating frontcourt, though, may be the most central of its identities.
Tar Heel forwards under Williams have included the likes of Sean May, Tyler Hansbrough, Tyler Zeller and John Henson.
Two years ago, All-American big man Brice Johnson led North Carolina to the NCAA championship game before becoming a first-round NBA draft pick in the process.
Last year, senior forwards Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks were the key cogs in the nation’s best rebounding team.
North Carolina’s strength has long been tied to its height. Coming into this season, though, the defending national champions faced plenty of questions about its frontcourt.
The Tar Heel forwards included folk hero Luke Maye —a stretch-4 who had come off the bench his entire career— and a slew of unheralded freshmen: Garrison Brooks, Sterling Manley, Brandon Huffman and Walker Miller. As coach Roy Williams put it, North Carolina’s frontcourt situation could only be described as “scary.”
But in the Tar Heels' season-opening win over Northern Iowa a week after Halloween, North Carolina’s forwards were striking fear into the Panthers’ defense, not their coach. Luke Maye was the story of the night, as the junior led all scorers in a career-high 26 points while adding 10 rebounds in only 28 minutes. Quietly behind him, though, was Garrison Brooks, who started in his first career game.
Brooks posted a 14-point, 6-rebound performance that included a perfect 4-4 effort from the free-throw line. Not bad for what was supposed to be the weak link.
“Garrison is playing more minutes because he’s making fewer mistakes (than the other young bigs),” Williams said. “He’s boxing out more, he’s running the floor more. I think he’s a good basketball player.”
Senior forward Theo Pinson, whose passing (5 assists, 0 turnovers), contrasted his scoring (3 points on 1-6 shooting) emphasized Brooks’ learning mentality. “He’s coachable, Pinson said. “You tell him something one time, and he does it immediately.”
Brooks, who matched Harrison Barnes for the most points scored in a Tar Heel freshman debut, has only one goal in mind.
“Win,” he said.
As for his personal goals?
“I’d rather keep that to myself.”
Brooks, Williams and Pinson identified coachability, growth and a limit on mistakes as the reasons for Brooks’ strong debut. But fellow rookie Jalek Felton said it was something else
“Those are my roommates,” Felton said of Brooks and Sterling Manley, who scored nine. “So in my room, you have no choice but to be a great player when you’re out here. 5412, which is our room number, we played really good tonight.”
If the Tar Heels want to continue their hot start without Joel Berry II and Cameron Johnson, who both sat out for the opener due to injury, they’re going to need their freshmen to step up.
And Brooks, and the rest of room 5412, will have to lead the way.
Photo by Gabi Palacio