NCAA basketball hasn’t had a men’s program repeat as national champion since Florida in 2007. What chance does North Carolina have of winning it all again next April? Oddsmakers like the Heels better than I do.
North Carolina's basketball team couldn’t quite pull off the “treble” last season. The Heels did win the ACC’s regular-season title but were upset in the conference tournament semifinals by bitter rival Duke. No matter, the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee gave Roy Williams’ club the No. 1 seed in the South Region.
The Heels nearly lost in the second round to No. 8 Arkansas, won a thrilling Elite Eight game over No. 2 Kentucky, edged Oregon in the Final Four and beat Gonzaga 71-65 in the national title game. Justin Jackson delivered the go-ahead 3-point play with 1:40 left. That was not a pretty performance for UNC, shooting 4-for-27 from 3-point range against the Zags and 26-for-73 overall, but it was an especially sweet title after losing on a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to Villanova in the 2016 final.
It was the third championship for Williams, putting him one ahead of his mentor, Dean Smith. The only coaches with more are John Wooden (10), Mike Krzyzewski (five) and Adolph Rupp (four).
Big Losses To NBA
UNC is always going to be a national title contender as long as Williams is around because it’s one of the marquee programs in the country and high school All-Americans want to play where guys like Michael Jordan, James Worthy, Vince Carter and scores of other future NBA stars did (Harrison Barnes is probably the best current Tar Heel in the NBA).
However, Williams has big shoes to fill entering 2017-18. The coach knew he was losing seniors Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Hicks and Nate Britt, but junior Justin Jackson, the ACC Player of the Year, and five-star freshman center Tony Bradley also declared for the NBA Draft. Jackson wasn’t a huge surprise as his stock wasn’t going to get any higher after averaging a team-high 18.3 points to go with 4.7 rebounds and 2.8 assists last year.
Bradley was projected as a Top-10 pick in 2018 if he came back but instead was the first North Carolina player to leave for the NBA after his freshman season since Brandan Wright in 2007. Bradley didn’t start a game for UNC as a freshman, averaging 14.6 minutes, 7.1 points and 5.1 rebounds. But the NBA drafts on potential and Bradley was chosen No. 28 overall by the Lakers and then traded to Utah.
Thus the Heels have lost their top five four scorers. The only one back is point guard Joel Berry, who averaged 14.7 points as a junior. He was named the Final Four Most Outstanding Player despite playing both games on bad ankles. Berry will be the leader of next year’s team alongside Theo Pinson and Luke Maye, who hit that memorable game-winning shot against Kentucky in the NCAA Tournament.
Williams adds one key transfer in former Pittsburgh guard Cameron Johnson. He graduated in three seasons at Pitt and thus is eligible to play immediately. Johnson averaged 11.9 points, 4.5 rebounds and 2.3 assists last year. Carolina also welcomes back sophomore guard Kenny Williams. He averaged 23.7 minutes and 6.2 points in 2016-17, missing the final 14 games due to a serious knee injury.
The backcourt looks loaded, but the frontcourt could be a weakness. A big reason the Heels were so good last year was they led the nation in rebounding. Meeks, Hicks, Bradley and Jackson were the top rebounders.
North Carolina has Top 20 recruiting class, which sounds OK but it ranks behind conference foes Duke, Louisville, Florida State, Miami and even Virginia Tech by some services. The class is led by four-star prospects Jake Felton, nephew of former Tar Heel Raymond Felton, and Garrison Brooks. At 6-foot-9, Brooks might be forced to start from Day 1.
5Dimes college basketball odds lists the Heels at +1400 to win the 2018 national championship in San Antonio. If Bradley had returned, I’d say maybe. Duke and Louisville look better on paper in the ACC.
This still could be an Elite Eight team, though. UNC opens its title defense on Nov. 10 against Northern Iowa. The Panthers finished the 2016-17 season at 14-16, missing out on the NCAA Tournament.
Article by Matthew Jordan