As North Carolina watched a sixth national championship slip through its fingers at the buzzer against Villanova, the pain was amplified because of everything the program had invested in this particular run. Marcus Paige was the point guard UNC groomed as a starter from the first game of his freshman year to his last game as a senior. Brice Johnson was Roy Williams’ personal pet project, a big man that took four long years to blossom into one of the best players in America.
Paige and Johnson are now gone, but Carolina remains in a unique position to thrive because of the values of the program. While blue-blood contemporaries like Duke and Kentucky rely on another influx of stud freshmen, UNC has veteran replacements lined up. The commitment to four-year players is what sets North Carolina apart, and it should pay major dividends again this season.
Junior point guard Joel Berry II now has the keys to the offense after a breakout sophomore year that frequently moved Paige off the ball. Berry was the Tar Heels’ second-leading scorer, joint-top assist man, and best three-point shooter last season. He isn’t an overly impressive athlete at 6’, 195 pounds, but his game is as reliable as it gets at the college level. This should be one of the best point guards in the ACC.
Isaiah Hicks is Johnson’s replacement on the front line after a highly unusual path to this point. A McDonald’s All-American out of high school, Hicks bided his time on the bench for three years behind a veteran front court waiting for this opportunity. He was a wrecking ball as a reserve last season, establishing himself as a relentless offensive rebounder while shooting 61.4 percent on two-pointers.
The other names in the starting lineup will be familiar for college basketball fans: Justin Jackson remains entrenched on the wing as a dependable scorer and Kennedy Meeks is again a starter in the front court as a nightly double-double threat. Unfortunately, Theo Pinson won’t be around. The junior wing will possibly miss the season after breaking his foot, which robs UNC of its best perimeter defender and arguably its best pure athlete. Naturally, UNC has a veteran ready to take his starting spot in 6’1 senior Nate Britt.
Pinson’s injury puts a serious dent in the Tar Heels’ chances to make a return run to the Final Four, but this is still a team with proven players up and down the lineup. So what if North Carolina’s roster isn’t as glamorous as that of other top-five teams? At this point, there’s no discounting UNC’s dependability.
C Kennedy Meeks, senior
PF Isaiah Hicks, senior
SF Justin Jackson, junior
SG Nate Britt, senior
PG Joel Berry II, junior
Key reserves: C Tony Bradley (freshman), G Seventh Woods (freshman), G Kenny Williams (sophomore), SF Brandon Robinson (freshman), F Luke Maye (sophomore)
How North Carolina can go far: A balanced lineup full of experienced players
The Tar Heels finished No. 1 in offensive efficiency last season for the third time under Roy Williams (Williams’ UNC teams have also finished No. 2 twice). Johnson deserved a lot of credit for that, finishing No. 23 in individual offensive rating and No. 1 in KenPom’s Player of the Year rankings by the end of UNC’s tournament run.
Obviously, it’s difficult to replace one of the country’s truly elite players, but Williams’ track record of offensive production should give the Heels confidence coming into the new year. You can always count on a Williams team to push the pace and put up points in bunches, and this team should be no different.
The Tar Heels have two major things going for them: balance and continuity. Last season, every starter averaged at least 9.2 points per game. With so many critical cogs returning this season, that offensive equilibrium shouldn’t change.
UNC has a solid recruiting class to augment its veteran talent even without one-and-dones. Tony Bradley is a 6’10, 240-pound big man who should be the first front-court player off the bench. He was a McDonald’s All-American and ESPN’s No. 17 recruit in the class of 2016. UNC is hoping he can provide mobile post scoring and solid interior defense from day one.
Fellow freshman Seventh Woods should also be in the rotation. If that name already sounds familiar, it’s because he’s a mixtape legend. A 2013 video titled “Seventh Woods Is The BEST 14 Year Old In The Country!” has nearly 15 million views:
Woods has sustained knee and wrist injuries since rising to notoriety, but he will still add top athleticism and perimeter defense to the UNC back court. Wing Brandon Robinson is Carolina’s third top-100 recruit, and he could see more playing time because of Pinson’s injury.
Sophomores Luke Maye and Kenny Williams could also break into the rotation because they provide one thing UNC typically lacks: shooting. While not as highly touted on the recruiting trail as the rest of their teammates, Maye and Williams could provide big value by spacing the floor.
How the Tar Heels can go home early: A lack of size and athleticism on the perimeter without Pinson
Pinson’s injury hurts because it turns what should have been a strength into a weakness. Berry and Britt are both 6’1 or shorter and neither is a great athlete. Pinson is a great athlete, and that combined with his size (6’6) helped make him a standout defensive player. Bigger and faster back courts could give the Tar Heels trouble, especially if Woods needs some time to adjust to the college game.
Another issue is that the starting lineup really lacks shooting. UNC is playing two traditional post players during a time when teams at every level are shying away from that. Jackson is a quality scorer, but he only shot 29 percent on threes last year. Britt shot 32 percent from deep.
North Carolina isn’t sneaking up on anyone — opposing ACC teams are all very familiar with the scouting report for this roster, but the Heels are still going to be damn tough to stop. UNC will again play with pace, dominate the glass, and put together lineups with no glaring weak spot. There are more exciting rosters inside the top 10, but few teams will be this reliable.