New-look North Carolina opens title defense
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- North Carolina's team has different components, but the Tar Heels have the same goal as a season ago, when they won the national championship.
The season begins for No. 9 North Carolina on Friday night at home against Northern Iowa.
"We have so many new guys, different kind of feel around the locker room," junior forward Luke Maye said. "But we all have the same goals in mind, and we all want to do it again."
This is the 55th season in 70 years that the Tar Heels have had a top 10 ranking for at least one week.
They'll begin this season without senior guard Joel Berry, whose broken hand suffered a few weeks ago means he'll sit out for at least a couple of games. He was the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player last spring.
The Tar Heels are trying to turn the situation into a positive.
"You never know, it definitely can help the young guys come off and get those big-time minutes and have to produce," senior swingman Theo Pinson said, "because we don't have Joel Berry to throw right back in there to save the day."
Sophomore Seventh Woods, freshman Jalek Felton and Pinson could fill in minutes at point guard until Berry returns to the court.
Prior to Berry's injury, coach Roy Williams had been mostly concerned about the front line. Gone are the top four rebounders from last season.
"So some new guys are going to have to step up," said Williams, whose team has been in the top 10 at the end of the season in nine of his 14 seasons in charge of the Tar Heels.
The leading candidates to play in the post are freshmen Garrison Brooks (6-foot-9), Sterling Manley (6-11) and Brandon Huffman (6-10).
Pinson, Maye and Kenny Williams, who was injured last winter and missed the postseason, provide experience. Plus, the Tar Heels added sharp-shooting wing Cameron Johnson, a graduate transfer from Pittsburgh.
With back-to-back 33-7 records and appearances in the national championship game each time, the Tar Heels have good reasons to set more high standards.
Northern Iowa is coming off a 14-16 season. Coach Ben Jacobson said this game is a good measuring stick.
"We're going to play as good as teams as we can," Jacobson said. "Whether we play them in the opener or two weeks in or a month in, we're going to play the best teams that we can. I think it's a great way to start."
This is the third season in a row that the teams are meeting. The three-game series began in 2015 to serve as a homecoming for North Carolina guard Marcus Paige, who is from Iowa and was a senior. But he didn't play in that game because of the injury and the Panthers pulled off a home upset.
Last year, the Tar Heels rolled to an 85-42 victory at the Smith Center. Jacobson said it shouldn't be so intimidating for the Northern Iowa players this time.
"That part of it will be different. At least it's the second time around for those guys and that helps," he said. "You're just a little bit more comfortable and you've got more confidence."
After this, the Panthers have three home games prior to a three-game slate in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament.
Updated November 8, 2017