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Recapping a bizarre year for UNC football and basketball

Next year has to be more stable, right?

NCAA Basketball Tournament - First Round - Charlotte Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Alright, so maybe the basketball team wasn’t subjected to as many unprecedented shenanigans as the football team was. Nevertheless, the 2017-18 season for UNC’s revenue sports was one that was just downright weird. College sports lend themselves to their own brand of unpredictability, depending on what you are referring to (the college football playoffs are anything but unpredictable), but this year was a unique version of it. There were a number of injuries, legal issues, abnormal scheme changes, and a number of games with bizarre results. Thankfully, all of this happened during a time when Chapel Hill was still buzzing after hanging the 7th national championship banner in the Smith Center. Keep this in mind while reading past this point.

Football

Oh UNC football, there is forever some form of the deepest struggle possible within the program. Contrary to popular belief, the University of North Carolina absolutely wants to have a great football program that can keep up with the success of basketball. So then what’s the problem? It doesn’t seem like the football Gods like UNC. How much do they not like them? Let’s put it this way: there’s no other programs out there who had 37 players miss games due to injury.

That’s right, you read that number correctly. 37 players, 34 of which were on scholarship, missed at least one game during the 2017-18 football season. Perhaps even crazier than that is there was a large number of players who didn’t even make it out of the month of October before their seasons ended. As of October 12th, the list looked something like this:

Out for the Season:

  1. Corey Bell Jr., CB
  2. Antwuan Branch, TB
  3. Jesse Cuccia, S
  4. Luke Elder, OL
  5. D.J. Ford, S
  6. Rontavius Groves, WR
  7. Tommy Hatton, OL
  8. Thomas Jackson, WR
  9. Devin Perry, WR
  10. Tyler Powell, DL
  11. Austin Proehl, WR
  12. Jacob Schmidt, TB
  13. Andre Smith, LB
  14. William Sweet, OT
  15. Carl Tucker, TE
  16. Noah Turner, TE

The weird part about what was already a weird situation for UNC was that a lot of the injuries that took place were on the offensive side of the ball. In the last few years, UNC had been blessed with high-powered offenses that had very lackluster defenses behind them. This year, however, what we saw was a defense that was able to keep an impotent offense in just about every game they played, only to ultimately get taken out in the fourth quarter. Chazz Surratt, Brandon Harris, and Nathan Elliott were rotated at the starting quarterback spot throughout the season, which only added an additional layer of problems for the Heels. When it was all said and done, the team limped to a 3-9 record for the season.

The biggest takeaway going into this fall is simple: that number of injuries should not happen again. It was unreal, it was cruel, and it was something that I’m not so sure any other football program has ever had to go through during any time that the game of American football has been a sport. Next year should be a pretty good team with some talented freshmen coming in, so let’s hope the injury bug travels elsewhere and stays away for a while.

The second takeaway going into this next season is that Larry Fedora needs to lock down a starting quarterback and stick with it. Fedora is a coach that loves open competition, which is fine, but letting the competition carry over into the regular season proved to cause a lot of problems. I personally hope that he shows UNC fans mercy and figures out who will be starting in September before, well, September.

Basketball

It goes without saying that the level of bizarre between UNC football and UNC basketball this year were vastly different. Unlike the football team, the basketball team managed to have a pretty good year for a team that just won the national championship the previous season. They finished tied for third in the conference, advanced to the championship game in the ACC tournament, but then were unable to make it out of the first weekend of the NCAA tournament. All and all, it was a good run for a team that could’ve ran into a red-hot Michigan team in the Sweet Sixteen. It’s all about perspective, right?

Still, this year’s team wasn’t spared from weird events. Let’s just get the first one out of the way: Joel Berry II injured his hand after punching a wall following a loss in a video game. This incident put a lot of concern in UNC fans immediately, as Berry was never able to get completely healthy during the NCAA tournament run last year. The team needed Berry healthy, and a lapse in judgment got the best of him. The good news is that he didn’t miss much time at all, and didn’t get hit with the injury bug for the rest of the season. Always punch a pillow, Joel. Always punch a pillow.

Moving onto more serious matters, former UNC player Jalek Felton was suspended during the regular season by the University due to an unknown situation. There are rumors that have been all over message boards, Twitter, and other forms of media, but out of respect to Jalek and his family I do not want to speculate as to what may or may not have happened. What we do know is this: the situation escalated to a point where Felton’s lawyer announced that Felton would not be returning to the university. There is still no word on what Jalek’s future plans are, but his old high school coach makes it sound like he may be transferring to another school. Perhaps more information will release in the coming months.

Finally, the situation in the post. Roy Williams spent the better part of the year playing with what was named by media outlets as the “death lineup”. Garrison Brooks, Sterling Manley, and Brandon Huffman individually had strong attributes when they were on the floor, but ultimately nobody could do enough to insert themselves into the starting lineup. Garrison Brooks started a decent amount of games at the beginning of the year, but the Heels weren’t able to get the production they needed from him to be able to keep him on the floor. This led to the birth of the death lineup, featuring Luke Maye, Cameron Johnson, Kenny Williams, Theo Pinson, and Joel Berry II.

The lineup of four perimeter shooters was a decision more out of necessity than anything for Roy Williams. It was something we typically saw from the team in Durham, but this year roles were reversed. The change in scheme led UNC to a 26-11 record, which is pretty good given all of the tinkering that Roy Williams had to do throughout the course of the season. The team had a chance to make it to the Final Four at their best, but at their worst, games like Michigan State, Wofford, and Texas A&M happened, thus leading to the early ending to the season.

If I had three wishes for next season for both football and basketball, they would be the following:

1.) The injury issues need to be a lot more tame for UNC football. I would say they should go away completely, but for football, that’s not realistic.

2.) I would like the soon-to-be sophomore big men for the basketball team to come back to campus ready to log productive minutes on the floor.

3.) I would like the freshmen for both teams to develop as much as they can, as early as they can. Both teams have some great kids coming in, and they have the tools to make an early impact on campus.

I hope that at least one, if not everything, on my list manages to come true. Both teams have the potential to be a lot of fun to watch next year. To all returning and incoming UNC players: stay smart, stay healthy, and stay hungry.