Coach Roy Williams and the 2015-16 North Carolina Tar Heels ended their season in the most dramatic, and disappointing, manner in April. Carolina got hot at the right time last year, winning their 18th ACC Tournament Championship and finishing as the National Runner-Up. Over the nine games in the ACC and NCAA Tournaments, the Heels received key contributions from a variety of players, all while playing excellent team ball.
Only twice over those nine games did the team shoot less than 50 percent from the floor (Florida Gulf Coast and Villanova), have more turnovers (Syracuse and Villanova), or were out-rebounded (Virginia and Florida Gulf Coast). These team metrics are important to measuring success in 2016-17, yet individual questions remain, especially with the departures of Brice Johnson and Marcus Paige. Here are five keys for UNC basketball to reach their 20th Final Four next year in Phoenix.
1. Take Care of the Basketball
Last year, the Tar Heels did a good job taking care of the basketball. The team averaged 10.8 turnovers per game last year, ranking 27th in the country, but more impressively, this turnover average was the best of the Roy Williams era. Undeniably, having two great ball handlers in the backcourt helped keep turnovers low, but Carolina fans expect this to continue to improve under unquestioned floor general Joel Berry II in his junior season.
However, the key to turnovers and ball control will be in the hands of the other starters and supporting cast. In the front court, returning starter Kennedy Meeks and expected starter Isaiah Hicks had high turnovers-per-40-minutes averages last year at 2.7 and 2.6. In the front court, Theo Pinson, a potential starter, was tied with Hicks in turnovers-per-40-minutes last year. Pinson and Nate Britt, likely the primary relief for Berry at the point, will both need to reduce their turnover averages to help the Tar Heels maintain success, especially during times of foul trouble or injuries.
2. Rebound at a High Level
It will be difficult to replace Brice Johnson and his rebounding prowess. Johnson snagged 416 total rebounds last year; Meeks and Hicks combined for 381. The reliance on Johnson should not be cause for alarm for Tar Heel fans, but rather a celebration of a terrific individual season.
Coach Williams has always produced excellent rebounding teams. In his 13 years at Carolina, his teams have averaged a staggering 41.5 total rebounds per game. Based on that statistic, the Tar Heels had a below average year at 40.6 total rebounds per game. In the 2016-17 season, Meeks and Hicks must fill the void left by Johnson and can do so through individual improvements. Coach Williams harped on Meeks last season for his lack of jumping for rebounds. Meeks will have to make a conscious effort this season to attack the ball.
Hicks was not a starter last year, yet he still managed to lead the team in personal fouls. He must work on body control this summer, especially when going after defensive rebounds, if he is to contribute at a high and consistent level. Additionally, Tony Bradley should have an opportunity to provide valuable minutes as a freshman. From all accounts, he is the prototypical Roy Williams big man. Considering this is the final year for Meeks and Hicks, Bradley should have plenty of chances to get acclimated to the college game.
3. Hot Start to ACC Play
The Tar Heels started their ACC schedule last year by pushing Clemson’s all-time record in Chapel Hill to 0-58, then tacked on seven more wins until dropping their first conference game at Louisville. This start was critical in Carolina winning its 30th ACC regular season Championship and securing a double-bye in the ACC Tournament. Once again, a good start to conference play will be important to getting the coveted double-bye in the 2017 ACC Tournament at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. This year, the Heels will have home and roads with Duke, NC State, Virginia, and Pitt, with road games at Miami, Georgia Tech, Clemson, Wake Forest, and Boston College. The Tar Heels first three conference games this season are at Georgia Tech, at Clemson, and home against NC State. Winning these games in the first week of conference play will put Carolina on the path towards a top four conference finish.
4. Meaningful Minutes from the Young Guys
Will Kenny Williams compete for a starting spot at the Two? How many minutes will Tony Bradley get in the front court? Does Brandon Robinson or Seventh Woods get into the rotation? With the departures of Meeks and Hicks, and the likely departures of Berry and Justin Jackson for the NBA Draft, the 2017-18 team will need the likes of Williams, Bradley, Robinson, and Woods to get game experience at the college level.
The Heels will be playing in the Maui Invitational, the CBS Sports Classic against Kentucky in Las Vegas, and at Assembly Hall in Bloomington against Indiana in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. These marquee non-conference games, along with the always-grueling conference schedule, are chances for the young guys to understand the pressures of a top college basketball program and better themselves for expanded roles in the coming years.
5. Sustain the Emotion
“The hurt will never go away.” Ol’ Roy got everyone’s waterworks going after his tearful postgame interview after the “Heartbreak in Houston.” Even with the loss, every Carolina fan and every Carolina detractor could tell that Coach Williams was finally having fun again. This year’s group needs to sustain the emotion of last season to have success, and fun, in 2016-17.
These guys have a chance to make a statement against other top programs in the country in the non-conference schedule and can make another run for a conference championship this season. Carolina fans want to see Kennedy pointing to the passer after a turnaround jumper, Isaiah’s scream after a monster dunk, Joel breaking some ankles driving to the hoop, Justin holding his follow through on a swish from behind the arch, and Theo’s contagious smile after hitting the deck going after a loose ball. If Coach Williams and the Tar Heels have some fun this year, we can see another special run from this team.