Kris Jenkins. It’s been 201 days since the 2016 NCAA Men’s Basketball National Championship game, and some Tar Heel fans might need 201 more for the sting of that name to wear off. It was one of those “where were you when it happened” moments, but in the worst way. But here’s the thing about sports: there is always next year. For some fans, that phrase is a last ditch effort to muster up hope after a terrible year. As Carolina fans, we can say that genuinely in hopes of a 2016-2017 campaign that is characterized by redemption. Here’s what Carolina Basketball needs to do to return to the Final Four.
At the top of every great team is a leader that produces. Last year, Brice Johnson was that guy. He was Carolina’s leading scorer, accounting for more than 20 percent of field goals made. That included a staggering 23 double doubles, while shooting 61.4 percent from the floor. Without Brice this season, Carolina needs that go-to guy. Unfortunately, it’s probably not going to be Kennedy Meeks. More on that later. The good news is that now-senior Isaiah Hicks also shot 61.4 percent last season, rightfully earning Sixth Man of the Year in the ACC.
Hicks relied on his remarkably high explosiveness relative to his size for most of his points. If he continues to use his power around the rim, and is able to combine it with a quality mid-range game, he will be un-guardable. The Heels will look to him for consistent points this year in Brice Johnson’s absence. I think Roy might take your advice Jay…
Kennedy Meeks struggled at points last season. A bruised bone in his knee kept him out of seven games, which probably played a role in his underwhelming season. Expectations were high for Meeks who continued to lose weight and look the part of an elite player. However, coming off an 11.4 point per game season in 2014-2015, he dropped to 9.2 this past year. To give you some perspective, even with his injury, Meeks played in only four fewer games.
Roy and the coaching staff probably would have liked to see a little more production in the way of points. With Hicks being the “go-to guy” inside this season, it opens the door for a healthier and more confident Kennedy Meeks to be a key role player and vocal leader.
Scoring Inside and Out
In order for this Carolina team to make a deep run in March, they have to be able to pound the ball down low for some easy buckets when the outside shot isn’t falling. On the other hand, some elevated perimeter shooting from Joel Berry and Marcus Paige late last season gave the Heels a huge boost. I expect Berry to build on last season, and step in to that shooting point guard role.
Then there’s Justin Jackson. After his freshman campaign, a lot of that off-season’s chatter consisted off Jackson developing his three point shooting which we saw in glimpses that previous season. This past year showed little growth, posting just a 29.2 percentage from deep. Justin Jackson needs to sink a few more threes this season, expanding on his impressive mid-range game.
During last years regular season, 305 Division I schools shot a better percentage from downtown than Carolina. Roy Williams being the old and wise man that he is, recruited guys like sophomore Kenny Williams and freshman Seventh Woods. The heels will need both of them to contribute off the bench this season. Speaking of Kenny Williams…
That three continued a huge run when they needed it badly against Pittsburgh in the ACC tournament. It was also his first one of the season. More of that in 2017, Kenny. Lots more.
The middle of the 2015-2016 season for the Heels was clouded by lingering questions of their “toughness.” Three loses in five games, including a brutal one-point loss to Duke had people questioning UNC’s ability to close out games and play good defense. As it turns out, the ACC Regular Season Champion, ACC Tournament Champion, East Regional Champion, and NCAA Tournament Finalist Tar Heels did just that.
They accomplished all of those things using their ability to weather the storm when an opponent got hot, and big buckets in late game situations. Execution in these areas can’t necessarily be coached. It is largely a matter of the intangibles, and they only come from confidence and toughness. Carolina’s experienced leaders will need to pass on a tradition of toughness to the young guys if they want to return to the Final Four this April.
Why did Carolina play its first two rounds of the tournament in Raleigh last year? How in the world did Syracuse beat top-seeded, revenge seeking Virginia? How did Marcus Paige make that double clutch three with 4.7 seconds left to tie the championship game at 74? These are the questions we simply don’t have answers for. But they all have something in common: they were all in Carolina’s favor, and helped them inch a little closer to a championship. This upcoming season and post-season, some things that the Heels might not have complete control over will have to go their way. I’ve heard it said, “I would rather be lucky than good.” For UNC to avenge their championship loss this season, they need to be both.
Move over Kris. It’s a new year, and UNC Men’s Basketball is locked and loaded with experienced veterans and young talent. With a little outside shooting, toughness, and luck, Carolina will be back in the Final Four this April.