After having two strong years in a row, UNC will return to the court this fall with rather modest expectations compared to the past couple of years. Following the National Championship, the Heels will be without big time contributors Justin Jackson, Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Hicks, Nate Britt, and Tony Bradley.
While so many important pieces of last year’s team are off to the NBA, there are valuable newcomers arriving on campus such as 5-star recruit Jalek Felton and former Pitt player Cameron Johnson. The issue at the moment is that nobody knows how incoming big men Garrison Brooks, Sterling Manley, and Brandon Huffman will do in Roy’s system, and with that doubt it is easy to see why nobody would expect UNC to make it back to the Final Four, much less the national championship game. With all of the uncertainty that exists going into this year, should it really be ruled out that UNC can three-peat the Final Four? Here are four reasons why it just may not be as unreachable as one may think.
Reason 1: Roy Williams
Over the past five years, just about every blue blood coach around UNC has received the benefit of the doubt, largely because of their ability to recruit big-time players. Coach Cal has recruited an unreal amount of 5-star players since arriving at Kentucky, Kansas always seems to get enough strong talent to fit Bill Self’s system, and Mike Krzyzewski has constantly found ways to keep winning mixing one-and-done players with his exceptional coaching abilities. So then, what about Roy Williams?
Roy Williams by far and large as a coach has been largely under-estimated his entire career. For some odd reason, whenever anybody lists off the best coaches in the game right now, there has been a hesitance to bring up his name. The reality is everyone needs to stop doubting Roy Williams’ abilities as a coach.
Focusing specifically on the NCAA Tournament alone, the 2000s have been owned by Roy Williams in terms of how deep he has gotten his teams in the tournament. His 7 Final Fours, 10 Elite Eights, and 12 Sweet 16s tops every coach mentioned above. The only argument that can be made is that Coach K has as many championships since 2000, but it also must be remembered that if it weren’t for K*** J****** there is a possibility that Roy would have one more than Coach K (not saying it was guaranteed to happen, but absolutely possible). At this point in his coaching career, it is hard to doubt what Roy Williams is able to do as a coach and what he is able to do is get teams ready for the tournament (Side note: he also hasn’t lost in the round of 64 like some other coaches have).
Reason 2: Recent Final Four History
Another reason why UNC shouldn’t be greatly underestimated in reaching the Final Four again this coming season is that in the past few years, worse teams have gotten to the last weekend with far less. 2011 was the start of some rather surprising teams making it into the Final Four, starting with VCU who made it as an 11 seed. From there we’ve seen Witchita State (9) in 2013, UConn (7) and Kentucky (8) in 2014, Michigan State (7) in 2015, Syracuse (10) in 2016, and South Carolina (7) in 2017.
In recent years the term “March Madness” has definitely fit the bill in terms of which four teams are left standing. There is no telling whether or not UNC will end up as one of these lower seeds or if they will manage to end up a top seed in the tournament. However, if they should end up a lower seed in the tournament there isn’t a great deal of reason to count the season as a wash. Things just might get interesting in March.
Reason 3: ESPN’s Early Top 25
ESPN released their way-too-early Top 25 back in May, and here are the top 10 teams that made the cut:
1.) Arizona Wildcats
2.) Kansas Jayhawks
5.) Duke Blue Devils
8.) Florida Gators
9.) West Virginia Mountaineers
10.) Louisville Cardinals
Looking at the number one team on the list, it is easy to take a “I will believe it when you’re finally able to prove it” approach to Arizona. Arizona head coach Sean Miller has struggled to get his team as deep into the tournament as they have been projected year after year. Same has gone for Kansas, as the Final Four has alluded them since the 2011-12 season. Remove Wichita State for the same reason one would remove Arizona, and you’re looking at UNC being in the top 4.
Does ESPN serve as an accurate indicator of the future? Not necessarily. Do the AP polls even matter throughout the season? Of course not, but if any top 25 prediction is going to be used as a weapon in terms of why UNC wouldn’t make it to the Final Four, the reality is they should be right there in the conversation.
Reason 4: Joel Berry
One of UNC’s most dangerous weapons of the past two seasons is back, and it would not be surprising if he is even better come fall. Final Four MOP Joel Berry II was the heart and soul of the 2016-17 North Carolina Tar Heels, and he will be that much more important in 2017-18 if they hope to get back to the Final Four.
Following the National Championship victory this year, Berry initially decided that he was going to test the waters of the NBA Draft, only to withdrawal his name shortly after. While it may have proven beneficial for him to at least go through the workouts/evaluation process, it may have been for the best given that he is coming off of a season that was laden with ankle injuries.
Had Berry declared for and stayed in the draft, UNC could’ve potentially been in trouble at the point guard position. Sophomore point guard Seventh Woods has yet to gain his footing as a reliable point guard, and incoming freshman Jalek Felton would arrive on campus with the general question mark that comes with any freshman point guard under Roy Williams. If Joel Berry can find a way to stay healthy this coming season, and if one of the other potential point guards can gain their footing, there’s no reason why UNC wouldn’t have a chance of getting deep into the tournament.
There is without a doubt going to be plenty of question marks with this year’s team. We don’t know how the defense will do with so many new players, if the post players will be able to handle everything Roy wants to do, or if shooting will be consistent should Roy Williams go with a more perimeter-first scheme. For as many questions as there are, it shouldn’t squander the possibilities that this year’s team could surprise everyone as well. This will be as fun of a team to watch as it will be frustrating, and it will be interesting to see if all of the pieces will fall into place for UNC.