And then, at last, it was college basketball season again. When last we saw it, North Carolina was beginning to celebrate its sixth NCAA championship in the final moments of a victory against Gonzaga. The buzzer sounded. The confetti fell (eventually). The Tar Heels cut down the nets.
That was a Monday in early April, the final night of the NCAA tournament. Now it’s early-ish November. UNC begins the season against Northern Iowa on Friday at the Smith Center. These are the questions whose answers will come to define the Tar Heels during the next four (or five) months:
1. After winning the 2017 national championship, what’s the inspirational force this season?
As it turned out, the 2016 national championship game represented a good-news, bad-news sort of scenario for the Tar Heels. First the bad, which is obvious enough: They were on the other side of one of the great endings in NCAA tournament history, and that meant they walked off the court amid heartbreak, and soul-crushing despair, after losing at the buzzer against Villanova.
It was the kind of defeat that can haunt dreams for a lifetime. But now the good: That loss provided the ultimate motivational fuel and, indeed, the Tar Heels last season drove themselves with the single idea of returning to the national championship game and, this time, finishing the job. Which is exactly what they did.
So what now? After completing that story arc of redemption, what’s left?
That’s one of the most interesting questions facing UNC, and especially its veteran nucleus of Joel Berry, Theo Pinson and Luke Maye. Those three, especially, have been there, done that. They’ve been to two consecutive national championship games. They all played instrumental roles along the way last season. And now they’re tasked with leading UNC to wherever it goes next.
When you accomplish a long-held goal, when you realize a lifelong dream, what comes after? That’s the question Berry and others will have to answer in the coming months.
2. How do the Tar Heels replicate the team chemistry that has been so important the past two seasons?
You see it all the time in college basketball: Teams with enviable talent that, for whatever reason, just never quite come together. Last season, that description applied to Duke, which didn’t survive the first weekend of the NCAA tournament. It applied, too, to N.C. State, which labored through an abysmal season despite the presence of Dennis Smith Jr., arguably the most talented player in the ACC.
Then there’s been UNC. The Tar Heels haven’t been the most talented team the past two seasons. They’ve not been home to any of the celebrated one-and-dones who receive the most national attention. But they’ve had the kind of chemistry, both on the court and off, that can turn a mediocre collection of talent into a good team, and a good collection of talent into a great one.
Doesn’t that describe the Tar Heels the past two seasons? Good talent, but great, national-championship-caliber teams – ones that were tight-knit, and filled with players who understood and embraced their roles. No one these past two years was off doing his own thing. No one was playing outside of the team concept.
In college basketball, that can be a rare dynamic, and it’s one of the reasons why UNC has had such rare success these past couple of years: Because everyone has bought in. Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson helped create that culture during their time at UNC, and Berry and Pinson carried it over last season and will attempt to do so this season.
But still, there are a lot of newcomers. Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Hicks and Nate Britt – all steadying forces as seniors last season – are gone. So is Justin Jackson, who earned ACC Player of the Year honors while playing his role exactly the way coach Roy Williams needed him to. So how do the new pieces mesh with the old? What’s the chemistry going to be like? It’s another important question.
3. What happens on the inside?
In terms of X’s and O’s, on-the-court developments, this is the most important question facing the Tar Heels: How do they transition from an experienced, dependable duo in Meeks and Hicks to a trio of freshman, none of whom were all that highly regarded coming out of high school. This is the question, more than any other, that is causing Williams the most stress (if he’s feeling any of that these days).
Neither Meeks nor Hicks were cut from the same mold as some of UNC’s other best big men under Williams – guys like Sean May and Tyler Hansbrough and Tyler Zeller. But Meeks and Hicks, at their best, were very good players, and both played important roles in the Final Four in April, what with Meeks’ monster performance in the semifinal and Hicks’ critical shot late against Gonzaga.
And now they’re gone and UNC has no experience on the inside unless you count Maye, who isn’t really a traditional post player, anyway. Clearly, the Tar Heels are going to be reliant on the freshmen trio of Garrison Brooks, Brandon Huffman and Sterling Manley. Brooks will start, by all preseason indications, with Huffman and Manley coming off the bench.
Basketball, at all levels, has become more of a free-flowing, perimeter-oriented game, but Williams isn’t going to change what he does. He’s going to emphasize going into the post. He’s going to value back-to-the-basket big guys. He’s going to want to do what his best teams have always done, which is to say that he’s going to want to work the ball inside.
Brooks is farther along than Huffman or Manley, but Brooks can’t carry the burden by himself. He’s going to need some help. Will Maye take on a more post-oriented role? How soon can Huffman and Manley become regular, reliable contributors? What happens on the inside is going to be the most interesting on-court development to follow at UNC this season.