There’s a reason that no NCAA champion has repeated since Florida’s second title in 2007. But there is a reason to believe that North Carolina has a chance, despite the long odds to come out on top.
The Tar Heels face significant challenges those Gators — who returned every starter — didn’t face. How will they replace the rebounding punch from departed big men Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Hicks and Tony Bradley? Can they compensate for the versatility lost when ACC player of the year Justin Jackson headed to the NBA?
Coach Roy Williams might not like some of the answers if at least some of his freshman big men — Garrison Brooks or Sterling Manley — doesn’t mature and improve quickly.
Here are five bold predictions for the 2017-2018 season.
1Berry will leave UNC with his jersey retired if…
If the Tar Heels earn another No. 1 NCAA tournament seed, that honor is more than likely since Joel Berry will be a big reason for it. As the NCAA tournament MOP, he already will have his jersey honored in the Smith Center rafters. But he’ll need to win at least one national-player-of-the-year honor to get it retired. With frontcourt losses putting more pressure on the backcourt, he’ll need to be even more of a leader.
He’s always the ultra-competitive driving force who goes all-out and pushes his teammates to do the same. We’ve seen how difficult it is for UNC when he’s injured. National observers will notice the difference for Carolina when he returns from his right-hand injury.
2Maye will go from bit player to key player
Until two huge games and one big shot at the South Regional in Memphis, Luke Maye was a guy who came off UNC’s bench for a few good minutes. This year — without Meeks, Hicks and Bradley — he’ll start, and UNC will depend on his ability to be a stretch-five or a stretch-four who rebounds, scores and is scrappy.
He’ll lead Carolina in scoring some nights but will be one of its key players every night.
3With better defense, Felton’s minutes will soar
Freshman point guard Jalek Felton has all the talent in the world, and his play-making skills were on display in scrimmages and an exhibition game. But if he doesn’t improve on defense, that won’t necessarily translate into more playing time after Berry returns. With better defense, expect him to play more and more, pushing Berry to the two spot.
There still is a steep learning curve for a Carolina point guard on the offensive end that he must navigate, though.
4Williams will play more small ball this season
Williams is one of the few remaining coaches who prefers two big men on the court at all times. Despite that preference, the lack of experience and depth up front will lead him to play small a little each game and — depending on the matchup — a lot in some games. Kenny Williams, graduate transfer Cameron Johnson, Theo Pinson and Maye started the final scrimmage at the Disaster Relief Jamboree.
It won’t be out of necessity as much as it was in 2012 or 2013 with Reggie Bullock, P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald. The challenge, of course, will be getting enough rebounds to make it work.
5Johnson will be the X factor
Johnson takes over for Jackson at a wing spot but is a much different player. Cameron Johnson isn’t as physical and doesn’t have the same driving ability. Rather than being able to create his own shot, his niche is a dangerous catch-and-shoot perimeter guy.
If he can be consistent from the perimeter, add to his offensive repertoire and play tough defense, his value will rise rapidly because his shot alone gives UNC a shot at repeating.
Y’all, it sure is going to be a fun season!
If some or all of the positive scenarios laid out above do happen, the Tar Heels have a decent shot at becoming the first team to make three consecutive Final Fours since UCLA did it from 2006–08. But that UCLA team netted no titles during that run. Whatever happens these next few month’s, it sure will be fun to watch.
So what are some of your predictions for the Carolina Tar Heels heading into 2017-2018? Please be sure to hit us up on Twitter @919BlogNC or visit our Facebook page at FB.com/919Blog and let us know! We would love to hear from ya.
This post was created in collaboration with 919 Blog contributor R.L. Bynum for exclusive digital publication on 919Blog.com