By Kyle Caron
#8 North Carolina Tarheels
Last Year: 33-7 (14-4 ACC) National Champions
The North Carolina Tar Heels are one of the most dominant programs in the history of college basketball. Since 1946, the Heels have reached the Final Four twenty times and been crowned champions six. Ever since Hall of Fame coach Roy Williams took over the program in 2003, they have won three championships in 2005, 2009, and most recently 2017. Last year ended with UNC getting their shot at redemption after a heartbreaking Championship loss to Villanova in the 2016 final. With the talent on this season’s roster, it is not out of the question for the Heels to return to the Final Four for the third year in a row; a feat which has not been accomplished since Kentucky in the 1990’s.
Being in the ACC, UNC will once again have one of the strongest and toughest schedules in the nation. However, their first real test will come early early in the season during the PK80 tournament in Portland, Oregon. Fourteen of the country’s most elite programs (and two Portland teams) will battle it out in this bracket style tournament sponsored by Nike to commemorate Phil Knight. Though the Heels only play host Portland in the first round, some of their potential match-ups en route to the trophy include Oklahoma, Arkansas, UConn, Oregon, and Michigan State.
Once ACC play arrives, the stakes will only get higher. Last year, the ACC sent nine teams to the NCAA tournament. The next highest was a tie between the Big East and the B1G with seven each, and five of the AP Top 25 teams top twenty-five in this year’s preseason poll. The challenge is there, especially with in-state rival Duke coming in at #1 in the poll. The real question is whether or not this Tar Heel team live up to expectations?
Justin Jackson is arguably the biggest loss to this year’s roster, after choosing to forego his senior year to enter the NBA Draft. The 6’8″ forward was the most offensively productive member of the championship team, averaging 18.3 PPG and 4.7 RPG. Jackson was named ACC Player of the Year and his departure has left a large gap in the lineup. The loss of Center Tony Bradley to the draft was a tough hit as well. Opting to leave after just his freshman year, Bradley was one of the best freshman big men in the country. While his early departure was a surprise to some, his absence will no doubt hurt the Heels even more around the rim.
Kennedy Meeks leaving further expanded the void that the UNC front court became. Meeks led the team with both 9.5 RPG and 1.2 BPG. On top of that, he was the third most productive offensive player averaging 12.5 PPG. Even though he spent a memorable four years in Chapel Hill, it was his time to go and he will be dearly missed.
No doubt the highest touted recruit joining UNC this year is 6’3″ shooting guard Jalek Felton. While Felton has a strong perimeter shot, he really shines when he is attacking the defense and making plays. His flexibility as a SG and playmaker allows coach Roy to use him in a variety of scenarios and possibly even run him at PG sometimes.
Filling some of the space left by the aforementioned front court departures is Brandon Huffman. This 6’10”, 250lb big man has shot up the rankings over the last two years. He is still unpolished, but he has natural athleticism and size that should allow him to thrive in the paint. Since his junior season, Huffman has become much more disciplined on the defensive end and could prove to be a huge asset to this otherwise small team.
Garrison Brooks is another strong power forward who will likely start if needed. A four-star recruit out of Alabama, Brooks committed to UNC after de-committing from Mississippi State earlier this year. He is the most polished and college ready big man of the newcomers and will provide some versatility down low.
The Tar Heels are in good shape, but there are just too many questions surrounding them to place them higher. The key player in this team is returning senior PG Joel Berry II. He led this team to the championship last year with the second most PPG and APG behind Justin Jackson and Theo Pinson respectively. So while the backcourt looks impressive, the front court looks young and unpolished aside from junior forward Luke Maye, best known for securing UNC’s place in the Final Four over Kentucky.
As is the case with most teams that lose so much talent, how this Tar Heel’s squad will fare in their conference gauntlet is up for debate. The pieces are there but much of the experience is not; Justin Jackson and Theo Pinson have to step up and show some leadership. The young guys must mature quickly to prove they belong on a Roy Williams’ coached team. Their ceiling is high and the floor is low, but only time will tell where the North Carolina Tar Heels finish in 2018.
Think they should be higher? Lower? Let’s hear it, comment below!