Roy Williams acknowledges UNC’s unusual use of transfers as a ‘need,’ not a priority

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — North Carolina heads into the 2019-20 season with typical expectations for a Roy Williams team: compete for an ACC title and advance to the Final Four. How Williams plans to accomplish these goals, though, is unlike anything we’ve seen from him before.

Enter Christian Keeling and Justin Pierce, a pair of mid-major grad transfers who will have a significant impact on whether the Tar Heels live up to their lofty preseason projections. 

Keeling averaged 18.7 points and 6.9 rebounds per game and shot 38.0 percent from 3-point range last season with Charleston Southern. The 6-4 guard figures to have a major offensive role as he pairs up with ACC preseason freshman of the year Cole Anthony in the backcourt.

Pierce arrived at Chapel Hill via William & Mary after tallying 14.9 points, 8.9 rebounds and 4.1 assists per game last season. At 6-7, he has big shoes to fill at the wing after the pro departure of forward Nassir Little.

Transfers have become a growing aspect of roster construction in college basketball in recent years. Williams’ resistance to this movement, however, should raise questions with Keeling and Pierce both slotted into major roles. Though they were two of the most sought-after transfers this spring, Williams says their additions are simply to fill out the roster instead of a forthcoming trend. 

“We will always address (transfers) as a need, but not initially, because I don’t want that,” Williams said Wednesday at the ACC’s Operation Basketball media day.

North Carolina was forced to restructure its roster in the offseason after losing its top five scorers from one of the nation’s best offenses. According to ESPN’s list of the top transfers for the 2019-20 season, Pierce (fourth overall) and Keeling (sixth) should help.

Despite both players being notable names on transfer lists, the change of scenery for the newest Tar Heels is eye-opening. Keeling and Pierce were both unranked Class of 2016 recruits who had limited scholarship offers out of high school. Keeling wrapped his Charleston Southern career last season in a CIT loss against Hampton, while Pierce’s William & Mary team was bounced in the CAA Tournament quarterfinals against Delaware.

Both players will now see high-leverage minutes inside the 21,750-capacity Dean Smith Center against the likes of Duke, Virginia, Notre Dame and Ohio State. Don’t forget that these two will also appear in the ACC Tournament and, almost certainly, the NCAA Tournament come March.

Even with five-star recruits Cole Anthony and Armando Bacot on the roster, the mid-major grad transfers could wind up as the two most important Tar Heels. It’s unusual territory for a North Carolina program that usually leans on veteran all-league talents and star-studded recruits. 

“I had four transfers at Kansas, two of them were fantastic, and I think we’ve had Justin Knox, Cam Johnson and (Keeling and Pierce),” Williams said. “I think those are the only four we’ve had at Carolina … and those have all been pretty good. But I do it out of need. I’d much rather have a freshman kid because it’s just more fun.”

Cameron Johnson, who led the Tar Heels last season in scoring, played 73 games with ACC foe Pittsburgh before transferring to North Carolina in 2017. That was a rare move then, and it’s even stranger now to see Williams dip into the transfer basket again.

Williams isn’t alone in his reluctance toward bringing in transfers. Michigan State’s Tom Izzo spoke with ESPN last month about his personal thoughts on how the transfer movement is impacting his program and the overall scope of college basketball. 

“I hate getting kids on a transfer, and I’m still not a fan of it,” Izzo told ESPN. “With all the freedom of transfers and playing right away, it could get ugly.”

Though Izzo is overtly opposed to the idea of transfers, he, too, has used them as a resource. Michigan State picked up a key asset in the offseason when Marquette transfer Joey Hauser announced he had committed to the Spartans.

Some coaches are far more dedicated to the transfer market than Williams and Izzo. Arkansas’ Eric Musselman had an all-transfer starting lineup last season at Nevada and Iowa State’s Steve Prohm has reeled in 11 transfers since 2016. April’s Final Four featured a number of former transfers, including Texas Tech’s Matt Mooney and Tariq Owens, Virginia’s Braxton Key and Auburn’s Samir Doughty. 

“It’s part of the game now and it doesn’t mean I have to like it,” Williams said about the ongoing trend of transfers in college basketball.

“Until Seventh Woods transferred, we were the only team in the country that hadn’t had a transfer in eight years. The (team ranked second) hadn’t had a transfer in three years. I’m very proud of that fact. If you’re proud of it one way, you shouldn’t be that interested in going the other direction.”

Whether Williams continues to avoid transfers or use them as a last-ditch roster patchwork remains to be seen. But if Keeling and Pierce play like all-leaguers and guide North Carolina deep in the NCAA Tournament, the incentive is there for Williams to continue the recent trend.

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