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How UNC Basketball Got Here: Early Departures

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We start our series looking at the state of UNC Basketball by examining all of the early departures in the past three years

NCAA Basketball: Georgia Tech at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

In a lot of ways, it’s amazing to think about the fact that it’s only been three years since the Tar Heels cut down the nets in Glendale after back-to-back national title game appearances. The title was a culmination of hard work, good luck, great coaching, and great recruiting that led to a team that was able to overcome a devastating loss in 2016.

Now, the team has allowed a nearly 100 year old streak to end and memories of the disastrous 8-20 2001-02 season are starting to crop up. How could things turn that quickly? It turns out, there are many factors leading there, despite many who want to just theorize on Twitter or assert that this is a delayed NCAA Penalty. This week, Jake and I will look at the dominoes that ended with Saturday’s loss.

Those dominoes begin with some major players leaving Carolina early. Four were expected to stay longer, and one could have possibly benefited from another year. All five being gone play a major role in why Carolina is at where the are. We’ll go in chronological order of their departure.

2017

NCAA Basketball: Final Four Championship Game-Gonzaga vs North Carolina Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Tony Bradley

We start by looking at the 2017 title team and the decision by Tony Bradley to come off the high of winning it all and declare, along with Justin Jackson, to go into the NBA Draft. Jackson’s departure was completely expected, as he had gone through the process the year before and was going to be a sure-fire first round pick. Bradley, however, was a surprise to a lot of people.

Bradley never started for the Tar Heels as they had both Isaiah Hicks and Kennedy Meeks down low, and he was able to provide valuable minutes spelling the two big men. He averaged less than fifteen minutes a game, and averaged 7.1 points and captured 5.1 rebounds. It was a solid, if unspectacular season, and seemed to put him in line to be the next good to great UNC big man.

However, the exposure generated by the title and how good he looked on the floor drew rave reviews of his potential, and so he decided to go ahead and get paid to play. He’s in his third year after two injury filled season, but he’s gotten paid millions for those three years instead of being a senior at UNC this season.

Bradley’s departure created a void in the middle that has taken UNC a while to recover from. He was supposed to be the experienced center to help bring up the next generation of players, and instead the incoming players had to start from scratch. We’ll get into how injuries have been another domino later in the week, but it isn’t tough to imagine how much better Garrison Brooks, Sterling Manley, and Brandon Huffman could have been had Bradley been against them in practice for even a season. It also affected recruiting in that Roy Williams was expecting to have Bradley back for at least one more season, and not having him forced him into scramble mode for big men.

2018

NCAA Basketball: Boston College at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Jalek Felton

Felton’s linage was tied to one of the top point guards in UNC history, and Jalek was expected to be just as strong. With Nate Britt’s departure, Felton was expected to come in and help Seventh Woods back up senior starter Joel Berry, with the sense that either he or Woods could take over the next year. There had been rumblings that Felton would be a one and done, but Williams had Coby White coming in the next year, so even if he left he felt like he was set.

Felton would average about ten minutes a game through the first 22, and would have a few standout games, even winning our Player of the Game a couple of times. He was proving himself to be a solid backup and appeared to be on his way to, at minimum, taking the keys to lead the Tar Heels in 2019 and allowing Roy Williams to ease Coby White into his role. It would be similar to how Joel Berry and Marcus Paige were able to play on the floor at the same time.

Then at the end of January of 2018, UNC, not the team, suspended Jalek from the school. Due to privacy concerns and the issues involved, there’s never really been an official explanation for what happened, but it led to Felton leaving UNC, playing overseas for a year, and trying to get into the NBA via the draft last year. On the basketball side, it hurt the 2018 Tar Heels as Seventh Woods also was hurt during that time, and Joel Berry had to play without a real backup until Theo Pinson ran point for some parts.

Felton would be a junior right now had he stayed, and his departure pressed Coby White into service immediately, to some extent allowing him to show off what he could do faster. It also led Carolina to a situation they are still digging out of: no depth at point guard.

2019

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Midwest Regional-Auburn vs North Carolina Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Coby White

Who doesn’t love Coby? The all-time scoring champion in the state of North Carolina came to UNC in the fall of 2019 in the position to take over the lead point guard spot thanks to the departure of Felton and the injury to Seventh Woods the previous season. The general public didn’t know what to expect, but it came out at the end of the season that Coby was special enough to the staff that they knew they needed to redouble their efforts to recruit ($) Cole Anthony.

The general public soon saw what the coaches saw.

White won the starting guard start out of the preseason, and would put on multiple electric performances that would excite the fan base. That he had to play the minutes of a guard without a backup only increased his NBA Draft stock to the point where the Chicago Bulls drafted him this past summer.

How does this affect this season? When White was recruited, he wasn’t expected to be a one and done, rather he likely would be able to play on the floor with Jalek Felton and Seventh Woods at the same time and ease into the role. Recruiting plans are made based on that, and that the staff knew he would be gone led them to bring in Cole Anthony. Would they have gotten Cole had Coby stayed? Greg Anthony claims that he and Cole would have actually preferred it, for what that’s worth. Either way, imagining this team with a Coby White at the point right now makes one confident that they would be in a much better state.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Midwest Regional Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Nassir Little

Little’s announcement that he was committing to UNC was huge as it came on the Heels of UNC’s exoneration at the hands of the NCAA, and seemed to announce to the college basketball world that Roy Williams could, in fact, get top players for the one year they were able to play in college. Little came in with a ton of hype, and was easily the more heralded recruit versus Coby White of the 2018 class.

His season got off to a rough start, and he never seemed to be able to find his way in Williams’ system. It’s possible that with Cam Johnson on the floor, he could never find his right fit between a three or a four. There were also times he also seemed to be trying to show off his shooting range for future NBA teams instead of dominating against weaker competition.

That said, the tide started to turn in the NCAA Tournament. He dominated in the second round before getting the flu prior to the Sweet 16 game against Auburn. He left Carolina as expected, and despite falling to Portland has managed to get several starts for the Trail Blazers this season, and has already put up a double-double. It’s hard not to wonder, though, how much better this current team would be if they had someone like Little out on the floor, especially the version of Little that we saw at the end of last season.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Midwest Regional Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Seventh Woods

The final domino in terms of early departures is the You Tube sensation who just couldn’t get it together during his time in Chapel Hill. Woods was part of the class with Tony Bradley back in 2016, and was the third string point guard behind Joel Berry and Nate Britt. His recruitment was a direct result of the situation in 2012 that saw Kendall Marshall hurt during the NCAA Tournament and Roy Williams without any sort of real backup behind him. He had vowed to never be in the situation again.

Jake went over his career back in August, and it’s worth a reread to remind yourself about the failure to meet expectations, yet what he still brought to the team. In terms of this season, it’s hard not to see why Woods left for South Carolina. Between Cole Anthony’s arrival, Leaky Black passing him prior to his injury, and the recruitment of Jeremiah Francis, Woods read the writing on the wall and saw there just wasn’t going to be a place for him in the lineup.

Maybe Woods failed to meet expectations, but how many of us would love to have a senior point guard handle this team while Anthony recovered? It would have eased the demands on Francis, allowed Leaky to play the two or three guard more, and as he showed off against Duke last year, despite his problems he can be enough of a force to at least hold serve.

Four of these five players were recruited with the idea that they’d be playing for the Tar Heels for longer than they did. The fifth, Little, might have benefited from coming back another season considering how far he dropped in the NBA Draft. How different would this team look had each of them stayed longer?

All of that said, defections are something this program has dealt with before. All you have to do is look from 2012-2016 and you’ll find names such as Kendall Marshall, Reggie Bullock, PJ Hairston, and James Michael McAdoo. During that time, Carolina still didn’t miss an NCAA Tournament, continued the Clemson streak, and managed some signature wins. So what makes this year different?

Jake picks this up with part two tomorrow, the recruiting.