The announcement that Justin Jackson would return for his junior season was certainly a welcome bit of news for UNC which will enter the 2016-17 season as a likely top ten team and aspirations for a second straight Final Four run. Here is what it all means.
Stability and balance
For the first time since 2011, UNC will not have an underclassmen depart for the NBA. That ends a streak of four straight springs where at least one underclassmen didn't return. In 2012, UNC saw a massive exodus with Harrison Barnes, Kendall Marshall and John Henson leave for the NBA Draft. That attrition(aside from Marshall) was not unexpected and the 2013 team was expected to be a rebuilding year. What followed over the next three years were departures that left UNC missing key pieces. After Reggie Bullock left in 2013 and P.J. Hairston ran afoul of the NCAA over the summer, UNC's 2014 season was riddle with a thin front line and scoring troubles on the perimeter. James Michael McAdoo's departure in 2014 and J.P. Tokoto's departure in 2014 and 2015 respectively left Roy Williams retooling the lineup though in the case of the latter, UNC appears to had adjusted just fine.
After the season ended, losing Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson plus Joel James' spot minutes would be a blow to the team. However if everyone returned, UNC would have six core players with talent and experience with a young group of reserves to fill in the gaps. With four players who could potentially leave for the NBA, the line between maintaining the program at a top ten level and jumping back on the struggle bus was awfully thin. The decisions of Joel Berry and Isaiah Hicks to not even bother with the NBA Draft process gave UNC two key cogs back. The attention turned to Kennedy Meeks and Justin Jackson who did enter the process. Both players did not get the kind of feedback they hoped for and returned in relative short order.
Their return gives UNC a stable and balanced roster. The incoming freshman will need to develop but if the returning players all take significant strides forward much the same way Brice Johnson did last season, UNC could slot right behind Duke and Kentucky as one of the best teams in the country.
Most importantly it means UNC doesn't have to rebuild fully. The underclassmen returning builds a nice bridge which Roy Williams can use to move the program along at the expected level of success rather than struggling as UNC did in 2013 and 2014. And if the NCAA finally finishes up whatever it will do, UNC could be ideally positioned to land some elite recruits to really firm up the footing.
Now we know what the roster will look like, let's see how the lineup might look.
PG: Joel Berry
WG: Theo Pinson
WF: Justin Jackson
PF: Isaiah Hicks
C: Kennedy Meeks
PG: Nate Britt
WG: Kenny Williams
WG/WF: Brandon Robinson
WG: Seventh Woods
C/PF: Tony Bradley
PF: Luke Maye
UNC is likely to start two seniors and three juniors with a senior point guard coming off the bench. After Britt the bench group gets young in a hurry but not devoid of talent. Tony Bradley should be a nice fit into Roy Williams' system to provide some post depth along with Luke Maye. UNC has plenty of wings with Kenny Williams, Seventh Woods and Brandon Robinson.
With Paige gone, the three point shooting question will persist until this group proves otherwise. Joel Berry can provide some of that but UNC will need Jackson to be consistent all season from outside. Having just gone through the draft process, Jackson knows his three point shooting will be key to improving his stock. That also lines up nicely with what UNC will need from him in 2017. The wildcard on the perimeter could be one of Williams, Robinson or Woods stepping up to become a reliable three point shooter. If that happens along with continued improvement from Berry and Jackson finding his March form in November, the offense will get the balance it needs.
The post will be a tad thinner and rely heavily on Isaiah Hicks taking the kind of steps forward Johnson did heading into his senior year. There is little doubt Hicks will be fine offensively. He has the skills to be a solid producer on the offensive end. The issue is his defense. Hicks is foul prone and his defensive rebounding rate is nowhere near what Johnson provided in 2016 when he set a new new mark for Roy Williams big men at UNC. Hicks will need to foul less and rebound more to truly fill the gap left by Johnson. Kennedy Meeks will also need to be a force controlling the boards and stay healthy. Meeks showed flashes that he could be a solid contributor. The only question of consistency both in terms of effort and quality of play.
How does UNC stack up?
The Tar Heels will be experienced and stocked with talent. Teams like Duke and Kentucky will possess more talent overall and occupy the top of the rankings. In the case of the Blue Devils return experienced players like Grayson Allen and Amile Jefferson to mix with the freshman class making them the likely ACC favorite. Villanova returns most of its roster from a title team with the usual suspects like Kansas, Michigan State and Wisconsin in the mix.
Based on what UNC is bringing back and the potential improvements we could see in individual players, the Tar Heels will be right there as a potential #1 or #2 seed in the NCAA Tournament and looking for a trip to Phoenix.