UNC mailbag: How much longer will Sterling Manley be out? What’s UNC’s best lineup?

Roy Williams following win over Virginia Tech: ‘I like five guys in double figures’

Williams addresses the media following the Tar Heels win over Virginia Tech on Monday, January 21, 2019 at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill, N.C.
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Williams addresses the media following the Tar Heels win over Virginia Tech on Monday, January 21, 2019 at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill, N.C.

North Carolina has won three consecutive games since that bad loss to Louisville.

In the Tar Heels’ last two games, they shot better than 45 percent from 3-point range, and 50 percent from the floor overall. Also, freshman Nassir Little is starting to heat up. He had a career-high 23 points against Virginia Tech.

We are more than halfway through the regular season, with 12 games left before the ACC tournament begins in Charlotte.

And the toughest part of the Tar Heels’ schedule hasn’t begun yet. Among the teams the Tar Heels still have to play are Duke at home and on the road, Clemson and Louisville on the road, and Virginia, Florida State, N.C. State and Syracuse at home.

So you have questions, and I’m here to answer them. On to your questions.

@NoahAforeffort asks: Two unrelated questions. 1) what do the players think of Roy in Jordan’s? 2) Brooks was tweeting back at his twitter critics (last) weekend, was his energy level and game a response to the “haters”?

@jonmalexander says: To answer your first question, the players seemed to like their coach in sneakers. UNC coach Roy Williams wore the Off-White Air Jordan 1’s last Monday, when UNC played Virginia Tech. He wore the sneakers instead of dress shoes for the Coaches versus Cancer program.

The program is a collaboration between the American Cancer Society and the National Association of Basketball Coaches that encourages teams and their local communities to make a difference in the fight against cancer.

Freshman wing Nassir Little said Williams “came out there swagged out.” Freshman guard Coby White said Williams “upgraded his swag a little bit.”

As for your second question about Garrison Brooks, for those who don’t know, a Twitter user tweeted that Brooks was “weak” and “should be better by now.”

Brooks jokingly responded, “My fault Coach didn’t know you was on Twitter.”

Brooks said he tries to not pay attention to his Twitter mentions, but last weekend he did. He used the negative comment as fuel.

Brooks finished last Monday’s game against Virginia Tech with 12 points and five rebounds in 29 minutes. He made five of his first six shots and was responsible for six of the Tar Heels’ first 13 points.

@AlxWrghtTwtr asks: Prognosis for a Sterling Manley’s return and how long do you think it will take for him to get back into playing shape and make a positive impact?

@jonmalexander says: The official diagnosis for Sterling Manley’s injury is a “sore knee” and he has missed the last seven games. It’s unclear how long Manley will be out. Williams says he does not know. He said the injury is day-to-day and that he’s waiting for doctors to clear Manley.

“We’re waiting to get to a point where it feels better,” Williams said of Manley’s knee last week. “He has not practiced yet, and I’m just waiting till they say he can practice.”

As of Friday morning, Manley had not practiced yet, a UNC spokesperson said.

Manley likely won’t play on Tuesday against Georgia Tech, but based on what Williams has said, it does not appear to be an injury that will keep him out for the entire season.

Manley, a 6-11, 240-pound sophomore, is averaging 4.4 points and 4.3 rebounds per game. He gives the Tar Heels much needed size. The Tar Heels seemed to struggle with Louisville’s length two weeks ago and Steven Enoch, a 6-10, 260-pound forward, had 17 points, 11 rebounds and a block.

Both 6-9, 230-pound forward Garrison Brooks, and 6-8, 240-pound forward Luke Maye, whose minutes have increased with Manley out, had among their worst performances of the season against the Cardinals. Maye had nine points and 11 rebounds, and was 3-for-14 from the floor, while Brooks had five points and no rebounds.

Since then, Brooks is averaging 6.7 points per game, and 6.7 rebounds and Maye is averaging 14 points and eight rebounds.

@Indepe18 asks: What do you think is unc’s most effective lineup overall and how do they match up against (Duke)?

@jonmalexander says:

For the majority of the season, the most effective lineup has been Brooks, Maye, Cam Johnson, Kenny Williams and Coby White. Those players have been most consistent and Roy Williams likes that lineup best. It has two big men, which historically has been how Williams’ team are constructed.

But if freshman Nassir Little continues to perform as well as he has over his last three games, it could be Maye-Little-Johnson-Williams-White. Those are the Tar Heels’ best scorers.

However, it also leaves them vulnerable against teams with length. Defending the rim becomes a problem. The tallest player in that lineup is Johnson, who is a 6-9, 210-pound wing.

It also depends on the type of personnel the opponent uses. Some teams have used a small-ball lineup against the Tar Heels, while others have had two big men, and three guards.

Last Monday night’s best lineup was Brooks-Little-Black-Johnson-White. Those players helped UNC go on a 20-2 run in the last five minutes of the first half, which helped give the Tar Heels a sizable lead over the Hokies.

Defending, Duke’s small lineup has been difficult for most teams. There are not many teams that can defend Zion Williamson, who plays the four position, has the size and strength of a big man, and the speed of a guard. He draws multiple defenders when he drives, which leaves their 3-point shooters open.

I’m not sure the Tar Heels have much of an answer for him. Little or Brooks will likely draw that assignment when the teams play.

UNC’s best defense may be to try to get Williamson into foul trouble, or playing some zone. Georgia Tech played zone against Duke on Saturday and held the Blue Devils to a season-low 66 points in Durham. Syracuse, which runs a zone defense, beat Duke 95-91 in overtime in Durham.

But if the Tar Heels can hit their 3’s, they’ve proven to be difficult to beat, too, like they were against then-No. 10 Virginia Tech last Monday, and then-No. 4 Gonzaga on Dec. 15. The Tar Heels scored 103 points against each team and shot better than 50 percent from the floor.

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Jonathan M. Alexander has been covering the North Carolina Tar Heels since May 2018. He previously covered Duke basketball and recruiting in the ACC. He is an alumnus of N.C. Central University.
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