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UNC Basketball: Just Breathe

An unprecedented season means an unprecedented offseason.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Wisconsin at North Carolina Mike Dinovo-USA TODAY Sports

With word coming yesterday that Walker Kessler was going to transfer from UNC, all the other mediums that follow Tar Heel Basketball have lit up as folks start to wonder “who’s next?” Twitter comes to life with fans stalking both the players and their parents, the parents sending out not-so-vague tweets indicating what the players may be thinking, and everyone who has any sort of link tries to show off that information while fans frantically try to figure out who or what to believe.

What’s funny is that this is a phenomenon a lot of other programs experience. The other two blue bloods, who missed the NCAA’s this year by the way, both have a talent problem with rocky seasons that could see some heavy player movement. It’s a new feeling for most Carolina fans, as the 2017 championship was built on the backs of multiple four year players, and several of those players stayed for another couple of seasons. It’s only been the last couple of seasons where the roster has been filled with several players who had one year of college before the NBA in their sights, and thus fans now are seeing what other schools have gotten to experience for several years now.

So, before you start to freak out and spend the next few months from now until Late Night with Roy in October huddled on your computer or by your phone looking for every little snippet of information, it might be worth understanding just how bizarre this situation is by spelling it all out. Why on earth are there so many rumblings about players being unhappy, and why a program so known for its lack of player movement is now staring at significant roster turnover.

Let’s just start with the obvious

COVID-19 changed everything

We’ve all had to adjust our lives due to COVID-19 for the past twelve months, so this isn’t meant to evoke sympathy so much as it is to point out that just like you and I, these players have had to adjust their expectations as to what was “normal” for their college experience. When a player commits to UNC, they expect to play in front of a packed house with rabid fans, soak up the atmosphere for as long as they can, try to silence a crowd of rivals, join a fraternity, find a class with favorite teachers, hang out in a dorm or apartment until God knows when shooting the breeze, stroll campus to see people just laying out in the quad, have a meal at Sutton’s all while people essentially look at them in awe.

There is a status in being a basketball player at UNC. Maybe things don’t go the way you want them to, but there’s no feeling like hearing that crowd or forging those connections that you make that one time in your life. This year, that feeling has been replaced by solitary life inside a hotel, remote classes, a practically deserted campus and Franklin Street, everyone wearing masks, nearly empty buildings, and no real easy games because of a condensed schedule. It’s also no experience of playing the summer pickup game with alumni and proving yourself against NBA players as well as getting free insight from them, and all of the other things that deepen your bond to the Carolina Family. A coach can yell at you only so much, but if Vince Carter is out here abusing you on the court and then tells you how you can fix your shot, you’re going to listen.

If you attended UNC, think about how fondly you look back at your time there and how little of it has to do with the classes you attended. No one looks fondly at that 8 AM Psych 10 class, but there’s a wistfulness of being inside the undergrad cramming for that final while the trees bloom in early May. All of those experiences were taken away from these players this year, which not only short-circuited their experience but gave them more time to think about what went right and what went wrong. Rightly or wrongly, each player has that to consider when making their decision, and if you’re a player who is looking to get paid to play basketball and you don’t have that to draw on, how much more likely are you to leave?

As if that wasn’t enough, COVID also has given every single player in college basketball another year of eligibility. Thus, you have tons of players out there with anywhere from one to four years left when they weren’t expecting it, and that may change their calculations about the next step. That and something else that we’ll get to.

The One-and-Done

As mentioned, right as Kentucky and later Duke buckled down and fully embraced creating a team of one-and-done players, the Tar Heels found themselves embroiled in the academic scandal. This meant Coach Williams had to build his roster more on the three to four year style of player, which lead to early NCAA exits while they developed, but eventually blossomed into the team that won it all in 2017. They would be out for several of these high recruits, and yet always seem to miss them.

Nassir Little changed that as soon as it was announced Carolina wouldn’t face any sanctions from the academic issues, and Carolina has been successful in recruiting several players thought to be one-and-done types since then. The problem is that one position where this has happened has been point guard, as Coby White’s early exit led to Cole Anthony, who also only stayed for one year before handing over the keys to Caleb Love and RJ Davis. The most important position at Carolina has required the process to start over anew each season for the past three years, each with a player who either didn’t think they were going to stay for more than a year or ultimately didn’t stay there.

It’s important to remember just how hard playing point guard for UNC is, and the constant churn at that position can explain a lot of the problems the team has seen the last couple of years. Recall that both Marcus Paige and Joel Berry talked about the difficulty of the position to the point they questioned whether they would even stay. That translates on the court in terms of running the offense, getting entry passes, running transition, and getting open shots. Thus, stagnation there is going to frustrate anyone who doesn’t get the chance to shine like they thought they would.

You have to think at some point Williams will be able to get back to where he gets value out of a one-and-done-as someone who is a big contributor but slides in with a bunch of experienced players who know the system and can take pressure off said players. The only answer to that is time, unfortunately.

The Transfer Rule

The big reason that Carolina never had the transfers as other schools is the punitive rule that forced players to sit for a year if they decided to transfer to another school. The rule is great for coaches because it gives them leverage to tell a player to hold on, and maybe...allows a coach to be little more loyal to older players than everyone else would be.

That’s about to change. Around the middle of next month, it’s expected that the NCAA is going to allow players to transfer to a new school one time and get immediate eligibility. The ACC even removed its rule banning intra-conference transfers, meaning if a player feels they are better served by leaving for a different situation, the tables have now turned and the coach essentially has to re-recruit them.

You can debate the merits of the rule, the downside of course is that players that are impatient to succeed now can get recruited again. Also, remember all of those college players everywhere that have another year to play? If you’re someone whose career didn’t go the way you thought it would and now you have one more year to make a name for yourself, but your own program has moved on, all of a sudden you have a chance to make an impact somewhere.

In short, breath

All of this adds up to a ridiculously unique situation where the 2021-22 Tar Heels may look significantly different. We already know about Kessler, but literally everyone that was getting a scholarship this past year has the option to read the writing on the wall and determine if Roy Williams and his system is a good fit for them. After two sub-par years, both that were completely affected by COVID, and how long it took for the team to mesh together, it’s understandable that a lot of players are going to want to see how things shake out.

But as players leave, that will open up opportunities as well, as Brendan Marks put well on Twitter:

Even under the extraordinary circumstances of the year, coaches have been let go, and other players are going to have more years of eligibility where their savvy could be a good fit into the system. Thing is, though, we don’t know who those players are and who the staff has their eye on. We may not know for a while. Even back in 2017, Cam Johnson wasn’t a glint in the UNC eye until at least a month after the season, and this year there are going to be a lot of situations like Cam. Just like some players may ultimately decide this system isn’t for them, others may decide exposure at UNC is exactly what they need.

In short, it’s an off season that we aren’t used to, but the good news is that we aren’t alone in this boat. Several programs will be anxiously waiting for it all to shake out, but one thing is for certain: the Tar Heels will field a team next season. We may not fully know until July or August who’s on it, but once we all are able to gather in the Smith Center again, this team will start the process of getting things back to normal.