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Is a freshman superstar all that UNC basketball is missing?

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North Carolina hasn’t had a freshman stud since Harrison Barnes. But, even on a loaded squad, Barnes and the Tar Heels couldn’t win a title.

NCAA Men's Final Four Semifinal - Syracuse v North Carolina Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

In recent years, it has been frustrating to see Roy Williams and North Carolina continually miss out on the best high school athletes in the country. Whether it’s home state guys like Brandon Ingram and Harry Giles, or near-can’t-miss prospects like Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Davis, all seem to now be heading towards Lawrence, Lexington and, even worse, Durham. Not Chapel Hill.

For this upcoming season, UNC again has a few exciting prospects who will probably become very good Heels in the next two or three years. Again, no immediate starters ready for the pressure and scrutiny of a high-profile program with massive expectations. There’s the growing sense that Williams’ solid yet not spectacular recruiting has begun to hold North Carolina back from contending for championships every single year. Is the lack of an impact freshman or two really what’s keeping the Tar Heels out of title contention year after year?

If last season is any indication, no the Heels don’t need a one-year wonder to win a title. All four schools that made the Final Four were led by experienced upperclassmen (Villanova, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Syracuse). In particular, with Villanova, North Carolina and Oklahoma, all three featured seniors who had matured and progressed steadily throughout their careers before finally becoming important pieces to the team. Buddy Hield became an unstoppable sensation, while Brice Johnson turned into a dominant force in the paint. And, of course, Villanova won a title due to the experience, leadership, and skill of Kris Jenkins and Ryan Arcidiacono.

Last season certainly was the year of the upperclassmen with other hotly-recruited freshman either floundering on mediocre squads, going through the motions on tournament teams, or completely disappearing from the national spotlight. Ben Simmons put up stellar numbers, but he was constantly criticized for what he wasn’t doing for LSU. Once the Tigers didn’t make March Madness, Simmons basically left the school entirely to start preparing for the NBA. Brandon Ingram played well for Duke for most of the season, but even he wasn’t able to carry a talented team very deep into the tournament. What about other top 10 recruits like Marquette’s Henry Ellenson, Kansas’ Cheick Diallo, and even Kentucky’s Skal Labissiere? None of them could live up to the hype of being an immediate star as a freshman.

Nonetheless, last season might look more and more like an outlier. Before Villanova, both Duke and Kentucky had won titles with young, but extremely talented squads. In what may have been a harbinger for things to come, two years ago, a Blue Devils team led by freshmen such as Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones, and Justise Winslow defeated an experienced Wisconsin team with guys like Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker at the head.

Next season already seems to be reverting back to that model, with both Duke and Kentucky again absolutely loaded with five-star talent. North Carolina will bring back another experienced, veteran-laden team in Joel Berry II, Isaiah Hicks, and Justin Jackson. But the Heels will hurt from the losses of Brice Johnson and Marcus Paige. As of now, no freshmen are prepared to even come close to minimizing those losses, so it’ll be up to the upperclassmen to pick up the slack as much as they can. Would a Harry Giles or a Josh Jackson really mean the difference between a Sweet Sixteen appearance and a Final Four showing for UNC?

The last absolute, unquestioned stud that North Carolina got out of high school was Harrison Barnes. He was even a pre-season first-team All-American, a historic nod that Barnes could never quite live up to. Sure, he had fantastic scoring performances and shocked a lot of people by staying an extra year, but he never reached the lofty expectations set for him. In his sophomore year, along with an experienced team with players like John Henson, Tyler Zeller and Kendall Marshall, the Heels bowed out in the Elite Eight for the second straight year. Injuries played a massive part of that loss, yet Barnes struggled in that final game.

Some of these frustrations most likely have to do with Roy Williams. He’s a great coach loved by nearly all of his players and staff. One of the best aspects of him as a coach is his player development. Ty Lawson, Sean May, Tyler Hansbrough, Brice Johnson, Danny Green, the list goes on and on of all the great talent he slowly molded into impactful players over the course of three or four years in Chapel Hill. So far, there’s no evidence to say he’s that good in working with one-and-done athletes. Moreover, Williams has shown a reluctance to rely on such young players early on. Even a senior like Brice Johnson will quickly get pulled for one freshman mistake.

UNC needs to be able to find more of a balance between the two spectrums. The North Carolina squad that reached the National Championship a few months ago was the product of four years of learning, improvement, and dedication. Who knows if Brandon Ingram was the missing key to that squad, if he would’ve made any difference in the outcome? After all, UNC only lost on a buzzer-beater. Once next season begins, it’ll be easy to wonder how different the Heels would look with Harry Giles pushing and competing with Isaiah Hicks and Kennedy Meeks for starter’s minutes.

The real answers will come after next year when Hicks and Meeks both graduate and potentially Berry II leaves for the NBA. This past season and the upcoming one, as said above, have been a long process of player development. Will Luke Maye and Kenny Williams be ready by then or will it be another two or three year let-down (at least by UNC standards)? The influence of a freshman or two probably won’t sway a title one way or the other, but they certainly do help in keeping things fresh and competitive each year.

In between 2012 and 2016, Tar Heel fans became upset and frustrated with smaller successes and lowered expectations as players matured and got better. The squad in 2013 and 2014 wasn’t all that different from the one that made it to the National Championship, just older, wiser and more skilled. If that sort of lull happens again from 2016 to 2020, it’ll be hard to stomach unless the Heels actually hoist a title in 2020.