North Carolina earned its redemption last season, following up a heartbreaking defeat in the 2016 NCAA championship game with Roy Williams’ third national title in the last 13 years. UNC has lost significant talent, including first-round NBA Draft picks Justin Jackson and Tony Bradley as well as starting big men Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks. But with lead guard Joel Berry II back for his senior year, the Tar Heels aren’t quite as gutted as they were after they cut down the nets in 2005 and '09.
At a Glance
HEAD COACH: Roy Williams
2016-17 RECORD (ACC): 33–7 (14–4)
2016-17 POSTSEASON: NCAA: Beat Gonzaga 71–65 in the championship game
F Tony Bradley (7.1 ppg, 5.1 rpg)
G Nate Britt (4.5 ppg, 2.4 apg)
F Isaiah Hicks (11.8 ppg, 5.5 rpg)
F Justin Jackson (18.3 ppg, 4.7 rpg)
F Kennedy Meeks (12.5 ppg, 9.5 rpg)
UNC led the nation in rebound margin and offensive rebound percentage a year ago, hammering opponents on the interior. The paint is where the question marks are in 2017-18. Only one big man on the roster, junior Luke Maye, has college game experience. Maye, a developing stretch-4 who was the hero in UNC’s NCAA Tournament win over Kentucky, made 40.0 percent of his 3-point tries a year ago and has a knack for rebounding despite limited athleticism. He’ll be joined up front by three freshmen who have plenty to prove. Garrison Brooks is regarded as a solid rebounder and floor runner, making him an ideal fit. Brandon Huffman and Sterling Manley need to develop offensively, but Huffman’s strength and Manley’s length figure to be assets.
Athlon Sports' College Basketball magazine provides full team previews, schedules, conference predictions, national rankings, as well as complete 2017-18 NCAA basketball coverage. Click here to buy your copy today or visit your local newsstand!
The keys could be two players who are wings by trade but who likely will play both forward spots: Theo Pinson and Cameron Johnson. Pinson is a point forward who can initiate offense, defend multiple positions and provide hustle plays. The 6'8" Johnson is a graduate transfer from Pittsburgh who arrives with two years of eligibility remaining. He is an accomplished 3-point shooter (.417 last season) who knows the rigors of the ACC.
Berry, who battled through ankle injuries during the postseason to become the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player, provides toughness, leadership and scoring. He has made just over 38 percent of his 3-point attempts in each of the last two seasons and can play on or off the ball, giving Williams options with his rotation. Unfortunately, the team announced on Oct. 24 that Berry broke a bone in his right hand and will likely miss the start of the regular season.
Berry's injury puts even more pressure on stud athlete Seventh Woods, who returns after serving as the backup point guard last season. While Woods must continue to develop his shot, he showed defensive prowess and will get plenty of chances to show he's ready to be an impact player. The potential for three point guards on the floor at once exists with freshman Jalek Felton’s arrival. Felton, a nephew of former UNC star Raymond Felton, is a gifted passer who has scoring ability.
The Heels hope they have a pair of emerging wings in Kenny Williams and Brandon Robinson. Williams became a fixture in the starting lineup with his 3-and-D ability before he was lost for the season in February with a torn meniscus in his right knee. He had a second surgery on the knee in July but is expected to return at full speed in time for preseason practice. Robinson will have a chance to contribute perimeter shooting off the bench along with freshman Andrew Platek.
With talent on the perimeter and so many unproven players in the post, the Tar Heels figure to be more guard-oriented than usual. Small lineups should be more common, but whether that leads to a big increase in 3-point attempts or a decline in rebounding effectiveness remains to be seen. If UNC’s key players stay healthy (something already in question following the Berry injury) and the team can get some solid minutes from the freshman bigs, the Tar Heels should be in the mix near the top of the ACC standings.