Roy Williams spent the summer recovering from surgery after having his right knee replaced. The operation capped a season filled with physical pain and swings of emotion for North Carolina’s Hall of Fame coach. The Tar Heels won their first ACC Tournament title since 2008 and reached the Final Four for the first time since 2009, but they finished one victory shy of their goal in a heartbreaking 77–74 loss to Villanova in the NCAA championship game.
Senior stalwarts Brice Johnson and Marcus Paige departed as NBA Draft picks, but UNC returns the rest of its top eight players from a year ago and welcomes another talented recruiting class. Although the Tar Heels and their coach might not be as good as new in the aftermath of their respective replacements, they have the potential to deliver an entertaining encore performance.
All ACC predictions and a full preview of each team in the conference can be found in the Athlon Sports 2016-17 Preview Magazine, available in our online store and on newsstands everywhere.
At a Glance
HEAD COACH: Roy Williams
2015-16 RECORD (ACC): 33–7 (14–4)
2015-16 POSTSEASON: NCAA: Lost to Villanova 77–74 in the championship game
2016-17 PREDICTION: Second in the ACC
F Brice Johnson (17.0 ppg, 10.4 rpg)
G Marcus Paige (12.6 ppg, 3.8 apg)
Kennedy Meeks returns for his senior year after a disappointing season plagued by injury and inconsistency. Meeks impressively has slimmed down each year after arriving on campus overweight, but his performance has not improved as much as his physique. Opponents attack him relentlessly on defense with pick-and-roll action, and he lacks the explosiveness needed to prevent his own shot from getting blocked inside. Still, with nice hands, an improving mid-range shot and a knack for offensive rebounding, he is a useful big man.
Meeks will be joined by fellow senior Isaiah Hicks, who finally has a clear path to significant playing time. Hicks consistently provided scoring punch and energy off the bench during the last two years, but he must find a way to stay on the court for a larger role. Hicks averaged a foul every 5.98 minutes played last season; his teammates averaged a foul every 12.19 minutes played.
With Meeks and Hicks entering their final season, highly touted freshman Tony Bradley is the heir apparent to Johnson inside. Bradley figures to open the season as the team’s third post player, but he has big-time scoring ability and will have every opportunity to earn significant playing time. Sophomore Luke Maye, more of a perimeter threat than UNC’s other big men, carved out a small role for himself last season in a more crowded frontcourt. He lacks elite size and athleticism but will continue to get minutes as a player who positions himself correctly on both ends of the floor.
Paige’s leadership and clutch playmaking will be missed, but the Tar Heels have depth at guard. Joel Berry II is back at the point after taking over primary ball-handling duties from Paige last season. Berry finished second on the team in scoring, maintained an assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.4-to-1, and shot team-leading percentages from 3-point range (.382) and the free throw line (.867). He will be backed up by senior Nate Britt, who has savvy and experience.
The wild card at both guard spots is freshman Seventh Woods. He has freakish athleticism that could enable him to develop into a defensive stopper.
On the wing, Justin Jackson returns for his junior season after deciding against entering the NBA Draft. Jackson has an effective floater and excels at getting easy baskets in transition, but he has struggled on other shots through two seasons. His shooting percentages dipped slightly across the board last season, and he enters 2016-17 having made just 29.7 percent of his career 3-point attempts. Theo Pinson also has struggled with his jump shot, but he became valuable as a defensive dynamo last season. Pinson saw significant time at power forward in UNC’s small lineups a year ago, and that trend should continue.
Kenny Williams and freshman Brandon Robinson will get minutes on the wing.
Tony Bradley is an adept low-post scorer with good hands who should thrive while running the court in UNC’s fast-paced attack. Seventh Woods can play either guard spot and has incredible athleticism that could make him a solid defender immediately. Brandon Robinson has 3-point range, an area of need for the Tar Heels. Shea Rush is a preferred walk-on wing whose father, JaRon, was a standout player at UCLA.
After losing Johnson and Paige, the Tar Heels won’t start the season as anyone’s favorite to win the NCAA championship. However, an upper-tier finish in the stacked ACC and a return to the Final Four could be within reach. The lack of obvious star power is an issue, but having six upperclassmen with significant experience provides continuity that many other national contenders lack. UNC needs Berry to carry over the consistency he established a year ago and Jackson to emerge as a more efficient scorer. If those things happen and Bradley is ready to be a force in his first college season, the Tar Heels could be poised for another extended postseason run.