Season Preview: North Carolina
Last Season: 33-7, National Champions
Key Losses: Justin Jackson, Kennedy Meeks, Tony Bradley
Key Additions: Jalek Felton, Garrison Brooks, Brandon Huffman, Cam Johnson
UNC got their revenge last year on the final Monday night of the season after falling to Villanova on Kris Jenkins’ game-winner two years prior. That was the Tar Heels’ sixth national title, and Roy Williams’ third at Chapel Hill. Led by junior duo Justin Jackson and Joel Berry to go with another deep group of interior players, UNC may not have had their most talented championship team, but they won close games, especially in March. Luke Maye’s game-winner against Kentucky in the Sweet 16 got all the headlines, but the Heels also escaped for narrow victories over upset-minded Arkansas in the third round, and Oregon in the Final Four.
However, the partying on Franklin Street is over and all eyes are on this year’s UNC team in Chapel Hill. In previous seasons following a national title, Roy Williams’ teams have struggled to say the least. In 2010, following UNC’s most recent championship, the Tar Heels went just 21-17 and did not participate in postseason basketball. In 2006, the Heels went 25-8, but were eliminated in the second round of the NCAA Tournament against George Mason.
That being said, this year’s group will be by far the most talented one Coach Williams has had following a national championship. Leading scorer Justin Jackson is gone, along with senior center Kennedy Meeks, but Joel Berry has returned for his senior season. The somewhat surprising loss of Tony Bradley to the NBA Draft leaves the Heels a bit inexperienced along the frontline, with Luke Maye likely stepping in to start at the power forward spot, and a freshman, Garrison Brooks or Brandon Huffman, replacing Meeks at center. But, with Berry playing alongside Pittsburgh transfer Cam Johnson and Theo Pinson, as well as the likes of Seventh Woods and incoming freshman Jalek Felton providing a spark off the bench, the Heels may have the deepest backcourt in the ACC.
In 2017-18, UNC will go as Joel Berry goes. Berry has upped his scoring average every year since arriving at Chapel Hill, and now becomes the go-to scorer this season. He is the first player since Bill Walton in 1972-73 to score 20+ points in back to back national title games, so Berry has shown the college basketball world what he’s capable of. However, inconsistency has plagued Berry for the past two years, most notably against Villanova in the title game two years ago. He scored 20 points in the first half, and helped put the Heels up by 5 at the break. Then, Berry went scoreless in the second half, and watched Nova come back and stun UNC. Next season, if Berry can be a consistent scorer, UNC can make another deep tournament run, but it will take much more than that if the Heels are to repeat as champions. An appearance in the Elite Eight is a more reasonable tournament run, at least considering how the Heels look right now.
Projected Starting Lineup
PG: Joel Berry
SG: Cam Johnson
SF: Theo Pinson
PF: Luke Maye
C: Garrison Brooks