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Are these Tar Heels better than last year?

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UNC basketball is close to replicating the heights of last season. With the losses of Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson, just how do these two teams stack up?

Kentucky v North Carolina Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

North Carolina is now in back-to-back Final Fours so, of course, that brings up the question: Which team is better? There are one, hopefully two games, left for the Tar Heels to play. Ultimately, that can solve which of the two veteran-laden contenders UNC has had in the past two years is better. But, seasons and tournaments are different. Is this year’s squad led by Joel Berry II and Justin Jackson really better than last year’s led by Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson?

The losses of senior leaders Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson have certainly hurt, but certainly not as many might’ve expected. Without Johnson manning the paint, Kennedy Meeks seems more comfortable, and Isaiah Hicks has more or less replicated his sixth man production as the starting power forward.

Still, Johnson was an absolute force last year. He averaged 17 points per game and 10.4 rebounds on 61.4 percent shooting. Although Meeks and Hicks have played well, neither comes very close to dominating a game like Johnson did against FSU last year.

What has changed in the absence of Johnson is that, somehow, the Heels have actually gotten deeper in the frontcourt. Yes, even with promoting the country’s best sixth man—Hicks—to the starting lineup, UNC got better with its big men. Meeks and Hicks have both been stellar as starters, but the contributions of Tony Bradley and Luke Maye have been spectacular. Bradley already looks to be a tremendous threat on the offensive end, and we all know about Maye’s breakout in the NCAA Tournament. Even in losing Johnson, the Heels went from three legit studs to four down in the paint.

Now, where the frontcourt and big men trend towards this year’s team, last year’s team seems to have the clear advantage in the backcourt. Berry II has been fantastic this year at times, and there’s probably no other more important player on the roster than him. When he plays poorly, it immediately becomes much harder for Carolina to win.

The change this year has been from Marcus Paige steadying the team to Kenny Williams and Theo Pinson taking over. Williams was a plus defender, but was nonetheless the clear weak link of the starting five. With Pinson in the lineup, it’s an exciting roller coaster. Simply, neither has the steady experience of Paige. Even when Paige was shooting poorly, he positively affected the game in so many other ways. The same can’t always be said for Berry, too.

So, if we give the big men advantage to 2017 and the guard advantage to 2016, that just leaves the small forward: Justin Jackson. Jackson has entirely elevated his game this season, winning ACC Player of the Year and vaulting up into the draft lottery. Had he shot better from three last year, who knows what happens? Jackson is the greatest wing threat Coach Roy Williams has had in a while. He’s sort of the player so many people wanted Harrison Barnes to be, but inconsistencies doomed him. Just having a dynamic wing player who can score in every single way has made a big difference for this year’s Tar Heels.

Finally, digging a little deeper into the team’s overall statistics, it can still be difficult to decide which team is better all around. Last year, UNC went 33-7 overall and 14-4 in the ACC. They won the ACC regular-season title and the tournament over Virginia. Of course, they lost to Villanova in the National Championship game on a last-second shot. Those Heels can easily make the argument they were the best or second-best team last season.

This year’s team has gone an extremely similar 31-7 overall and 14-4 in the ACC. They, too, won the ACC title, although they lost to Duke in the ACC Tournament semifinals. They’ve obviously made it to the Final Four, and how that all finishes out should determine where this team stands in Tar Heel history.

The teams have also been similar in other ways. The 2015-16 team averaged 82.8 points per game (10th nationally), while the 2016-17 team is currently averaging 85 points per game (9th nationally). This year’s team is actually rebounding a little better than last year’s, already having more rebounds with a game or two still left to play. The overall field goal percentages don’t differ by more than a percentage point or so.

It’s clear that Coach Williams and UNC are doing something that a lot of teams around the country are not. The school has had two of the best four teams in back-to-back years. Oklahoma and Syracuse were nowhere to be found this season; the vice versa for South Carolina. Gonzaga and Oregon both played well last season, and we all know what happened to Villanova.

Whatever happens in the coming days, it will always be easy to compare these teams. It’s a fun and natural exercise to do when a team has two legitimately great seasons right next to each other. The Final Four will be the ultimate decider in this case but, regardless, both teams should be congratulated. This just doesn’t happen that much anymore. For the Heels to have both the regular-season consistency, combined with tournament performance, is astounding.

However, to play the game, who wins in your mind?