Key Departures: Justin Jackson, Tony Bradley Jr., Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Hicks, Nate Britt II
Projected Starting Lineup:
PG: Joel Berry II (Sr.)
SG: Kenny Williams III (Jr.)
SF: Theo Pinson (Sr.)
PF: Luke Maye (Jr.)
C: Garrison Brooks (Fr.)
Key Reserve Players:
SG/PG: Seventh Woods (So.), SG: Jalek Felton (Fr.), SG: Brandon Robinson (So.), C: Brandon Huffman (Fr.), SG: Cam Johnson (GS.), SG: Andrew Platek (Fr.), C: Sterling Manley (Fr.)
The defending NCAA champions are just outside of my top ten. The Tar Heels lose the 2017 ACC Player of the Year in Justin Jackson (also a first-team All-American), and they lose their dominant size. The identity of last year’s team was rebounding. Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Hicks, and Tony Bradley owned the boards last year, especially on the offensive glass. There were hopes that Bradley might return for his sophomore year in Chapel Hill, but he elected to stay in the draft, and was taken late in the first round. I really thought that if Bradley returned to college, he would have been a potential lottery pick. He would arguably be the best big man in the ACC, UNC would probably be ranked in my top five, and the Tar Heels would contend for a second consecutive title. He would be a walking double-double guy. Bradley played less than 15 minutes per game during his freshman year, but averaged seven points and five rebounds per game. His numbers per 40 minutes were absurd. He was efficient while on the floor, and showed flashes of greatness on both ends of the court. Bradley still has some rawness, and I really think another year in college would have helped fine-tune his overall game. However, with Bradley off to the NBA, Garrison Brooks and Brandon Huffman step up to the plate at the center position. They will be asked to contribute right away. Both four-star recruits come in fairly raw, especially offensively. Sterling Manley, a three-star, may also see some minutes at center as well. The good thing for Roy Williams is that he has a few guys to share the minutes at the five. Also, he has veterans in the starting lineup to help the freshmen bigs.
Joel Berry returns as the floor general for UNC, and the senior guard has all the leadership experience you could ever want. As a junior, Berry was a leader for the redemption team last year, hitting big shots all season long. Berry is a great teammate and competitor, leaving it all on the floor last year, despite dealing with ankle issues. The pattern continues here with another seasoned veteran point guard to keep your eyes on in 2017-2018. Hopefully Kenny Williams returns fully healthy this year after missing the last 14 games a season ago. Williams dealt with a knee injury and did have surgery. He will need to continue to improve his 3-point shooting consistency in order to be an effective 3&D player for UNC.
Theo Pinson is another Tar Heel who has dealt with injury, and has struggled to stay healthy throughout his UNC career. Pinson, the former five-star recruit and McDonald’s All-American, has yet to be the player that I expected (Part of this could be due to health). Pinson has been an inconsistent scorer and shooter, but does give a lot of energy on the defensive end. He can also make plays for his teammates. With Justin Jackson no longer on the team, perhaps more opportunities will open up for Pinson, as he closes out his career in Chapel Hill. Luke Maye, the hero from last year’s tournament game against Kentucky, will have a huge role on this team. Many people didn’t know of Maye before that shot. He is actually a very good player, who has improved his shooting and stretch four ability. He hustles, understands his role, and just knows how to play. Now a junior, Maye will be a very important piece for Roy Williams.
I think Seventh Woods will take on a Nate Britt type of a role off the bench, and will be playing a lot of minutes at the point guard position. Brandon Robinson and Jalek Felton will also be two important guards coming off the bench. They will need to bring their offensive scoring, especially their perimeter shooting. Robinson did not see too much time during his freshman year, but his minutes will go up for his sophomore season. Felton is a five-star recruit, who is just wired to score. He can pass/distribute the ball too. Andrew Platek, the four-star shooting guard coming in, will bring his perimeter game off the bench as well. UNC also adds grad transfer Cam Johnson to the mix. Johnson adds outside shooting and size to their deep guard rotation, and will fit nicely in Chapel Hill.
Last year’s UNC Championship victory reminded me of the Spurs winning the NBA Finals in 2014. UNC had a heartbreaking loss to Villanova in 2016, and the Spurs dealt with a harsh defeat in the NBA Finals to the Heat in 2013. To me, both teams were destined to come back and win the following year, and that is exactly what they did. UNC still has some of their core pieces, but they lose some really important pieces. Rebounding will be the biggest question, and filling the void of Justin Jackson will also be a key factor. I don’t have them in the top ten, but have them just outside in the eleventh spot.