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UNC Basketball: Don’t underestimate UNC’s returning talent

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The Heels are returning three senior starters and 10 scholarship players.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round-North Carolina vs Lipscomb Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

A lot of space has been given to UNC’s incoming recruits. Nassir Little, Coby White, and Rechon Black have created a pre-season buzz that has been missing from the Tar Heel fanbase for the past few seasons. The NCAA cloud has lifted, back to back Final Fours still provide fresh memories, and there’s hope that “elite” talent will begin flowing back to Chapel Hill.

Great. Good. Got it. That’s out of the way.

Now, let’s shift focus to the returning scholarship players. There are 10 of them, including Shea Rush.

Sliding under the radar this summer? North Carolina’s cupboard wasn’t laid bare with the departure of Theo Pinson and Joel Berry II. Not even close. Next season’s Heels might have more returning talent and experience than 2016-2017 champions who lost Marcus Paige, Brice Johnson and Joel James to graduation. The rest of the ACC should pay attention.

Returning Production

Last season the Heels earned a #2 seed in the NCAA Tournament, reached the ACC Tournament championship, and tied for 3rd in the ACC. Sure, on an average night they could lose to Wofford at home. Yet, on their best night they could beat anybody, as evidenced by having the most “Quadrant 1” wins in the nation.

Those Heels led the country in crashing the glass (1570 total rebounds), were third in offensive rebounding percentage (37.4%), sixth in Offensive Rating (120.3 points per 100 possessions), and ninth in total points scored. Those accomplishments are even more impressive when you consider UNC lost two first-round draft picks, three starters, and four key seniors (because Stilman White will never be forgotten!) from the previous season.

You already knew that.

However, this November, most may not realize the Heels will return 66% of their over overall minutes played, 65% of their scoring and 77% of their rebounding. That isn’t exactly the same returning production as the 2012 team that returned over 94% of their scoring and 93% of their rebounding from the 2011 Elite Eight squad, but it is more than what returned after the 2016 heartbreak (61% and 68%).

Simply put, there is an enviable amount of returning production that’s getting lost in the freshman phenom shuffle. Hell, the Heels are returning an All-American, 1st-team All-ACC double-double machine. Not to mention, they return their top four most efficient three-point shooters, including Kenny Williams who nailed 40% of his attempts. It would be a mistake to overlook the returning talent just because they don’t “look” like the elite incoming talent.

Depth

The most understated aspect of the returning players will be the increased depth. Last season, Luke Maye, Joel Berry, and Kenny Williams averaged over 30 mpg. Theo Pinson and Cameron Johnson averaged 29.7 and 29.3 mpg. Only seven players averaged double-digit minutes — a feat that has only happened three other times in the Roy Williams era. The 2003-2004, 2012-13 and 2013-14 teams also lacked significant depth and were sent home in the second round.

In conference play, it was even more dramatic, with only six players — the starting five and Garrison Brooks — regularly reaching 10 or more minutes on any given night. Memorably against Syracuse and Miami in the ACCT, only the starters saw double-digit minutes. That shouldn’t be the case next season.

This summer and fall, practices are expected to be more advanced than last season when six new freshmen and one graduate transfer had to learn UNC’s system. The lack of knowledge and experience was so painful the Heels had to implement parts of the flex offense in the first months of the season. Note: My middle school team ran the flex offense. In 1998. We only won four games.

With an additional year in the system, if any combination of Brandon Robinson, Seventh Woods, Sterling Manley, Garrison Brooks and/or Andrew Platek make expected and/or necessary improvements, UNC will easily see 8-10 players average double-digit minutes. That’s an important statistic for the Heels.

Under Roy, of the 10 NCAA tournament teams who had at least eight players average double-digit minutes, the Heels have made it to the second weekend nine times. Those nine seasons ended in the Sweet 16 (once), the Elite Eight (thrice), the Final Four (once), and four title game appearances (three championships).

If you are wary of any of those players becoming significantly better, remember in the past three years alone Brice Johnson, Justin Jackson, and Luke Maye have all made “the leap”. There may not be another All-American in waiting, but noticeable improvements shouldn’t be a surprise. Including, if not especially, Andrew Platek.

Flexible lineups

Last summer, the idea of lineup versatility was thought to be a strength. Roy has seemed more open to unconventional lineups in recent years, albeit in small spurts. In 2017 that included using Theo Pinson to guard 7’1” Michael Ojo against Florida State and giving Justin Jackson some burn at the 4. Last summer, Joel Berry openly discussed spending some time at the 2 and the addition of Cam Johnson forced fans to acknowledge that a guard-oriented lineup was going to see significant playing time.

Unfortunately, due to injuries (Woods, Johnson), slow development (Manley, Brooks), and sudden departures (Jalek Felton), much of what took the court was often reactive instead of proactive. Long stretches passed when it looked as though the coaching staff was throwing spaghetti at the wall, hoping something would stick. Sometimes it worked, as it did against Duke (twice). Sometimes it did not. (Texas A&M says hi).

The addition of the freshmen to the plethora of returning players has the potential to make last season’s lineup combinations look, well, like my middle school team running the flex. Juvenile and lacking significant talent.

Senior Starters

The starting lineup has been, and will continue to be, a burning topic of conversation. For what it’s worth, it’s only July. Any conflict is silly, premature and (likely) uninformed. Some may argue that’s what makes sports debate so fun. Fine. Whatever.

That being said, UNC has the possibility of starting three seniors next year. If Kenny Williams, Cam Johnson, and All-American, double-double machine Luke Maye are regular mainstays in the starting lineup, it would be the first time since 1993-94 that UNC started at least three seniors for the majority of the year. Note: I classify Johnson as a senior, or if you prefer, “fourth-year player” since he missed one year at Pittsburgh to injury.

That season, seniors Eric Montross, Brian Reese, Derrick Phelps, and Kevin Salvadori were joined by junior Donald Williams in the starting five. That team lost in the second round to Boston College, though UNC fans will never forget Phelps was knocked out of the game with a concussion. It’s one of the biggest “what if” injuries in UNC history, joining Phil Ford’s elbow, and the wrists of Kenny Smith and Kendall Marshall.

History lessons aside, in a sport that arguably overvalues incoming recruits, experience still wins the majority of tournament games. Williams (58 career starts) and Maye (38 career starts) have already added five banners to the Dean Dome rafters. Johnson adds another 54 career starts to the trio. All three provide quite an advantage over the majority of other college teams. Most importantly, those three players bring three very different skill sets to befuddle opposing defenses.

So, go ahead and drool over the incoming youth movement of Nassir Little, Coby White, and Rechon Black. Just remember they’ll be complementing an already proven roster.