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The Dean’s List: The complicated state of Carolina Basketball

Roy Williams has dealt with a lot of inconsistencies over the last four years, but this season may be the most brutal.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Wisconsin at North Carolina Joshua Bickel-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to The Dean’s List! The weekly segment that brings readers hot takes, freezing cold takes, and everything in between from the world of Carolina athletics.

How quickly things happen anymore in sports, right? Yesterday afternoon I released my three things learned piece for the 2021-22 season, and around that time Day’Ron Sharpe made the announcement that we were all expecting: he has declared for the NBA Draft. This should be a shock to absolutely nobody: Sharpe is a promising NBA prospect and I am sure he will have a lot of success at the next level should he land on the right team. Unfortunately, however, he is not the only announcement that was made since UNC was knocked out of the NCAA Tournament.

Walker Kessler announced he was transferring out of the program, which is a decision that he said was strictly about basketball. Transfer announcements are something that UNC fans aren’t extremely used to, but there has indeed been a trend as of late: Seventh Woods and Jeremiah Francis transferred in 2019 and 2020 respectively, making this the third year in a row that the program has seen a transfer. The rumor is that there will be more, and along with said rumors is a lot of stirring about the health of the program. I’m not here to scorch the Earth by predicting what will happen in the future, but I am here to shed some perspective on what exactly has been going on ever since the Tar Heels won the 2017 national championship.

I already pointed out that two point guards that would’ve gotten a fair amount of playing time for Roy Williams transferred out of the program. Along with those names, it’s worth remembering that Garrison Brooks, Andrew Platek, and Sterling Manley was accompanied by Carolina legacy player Jalek Felton. Felton had to step away from the program after an unknown event transpired on campus. The Heels finished the season out with a loss to Texas A&M in the NCAA Tournament, and life went on. It was at this point that things got extremely interesting for Roy Williams: one-and-done players started committing.

After years of negative recruiting hindered his ability to land elite talent, Roy Williams secured current NBA players Coby White and Nassir Little for his roster. Both players were extremely talented, but White was especially gifted when it came to scoring the ball. Many people felt like White wouldn’t be a one-and-done player, but there was one problem: the kid just kept dominating. It was impressive the kind of play that we were seeing from a freshman point guard, although his facilitation skills weren’t always pretty. Regardless, both White and Little ended up getting drafted along with Cam Johnson, and key seniors Kenny Williams and Luke Maye graduated.

So, what came next? Well, a lot of pain, that’s what.

Cole Anthony arrived on campus alongside Anthony Harris. Carolina was expected to have a good year, but not a great year. That was alright, though, as it was really hard to follow—up the previous season considering how many shooters were on the team. There was just two really big problems: all of those shooters were gone, and Carolina could not stay healthy to save their lives. In fact, Cole Anthony suffered the worst of it, missing a good amount of time after suffering a knee injury. There were nights when KJ Smith, Jeremiah Francis (who had just recovered from an injury himself), and Leaky Black were all playing point guard. Long story short, the season didn’t end well, but it didn’t matter because COVID entered the chat anyway.

With all of that out of the way, let’s talk about this year’s team for a moment. Carolina was faced with the most unusual season in NCAA history, and it’s not even close. Students couldn’t attend live classes, couldn’t have a real campus experience, couldn’t watch film with their teammates, couldn’t play pick-up games with former Tar Heels, couldn’t do their normal charity work, along with many many other things. Players were living in hotels in order to keep from testing positive for COVID, and the ability to develop chemistry was non-existent.

Speaking of chemistry, here’s what needs to be made crystal clear: there were no good young teams this season. Duke, Kentucky, and Carolina rolled out three of the youngest teams in the NCAA, and only one of those teams made the tournament. My running theory when it comes to Duke and Kentucky is that neither team had “that guy” this year that made them way better than they had any business being, but it was obvious when watching all three teams play that cohesiveness was virtually non-existent. When you tie three Hall of Fame coaches’ hands behind their back, you can’t expect them to punch you in the face.

Finally, let’s talk about the elephant in the room going into the offseason. The NCAA has allowed a one-time transfer rule, which has never been done before. Players from all over the country are entering the transfer portal in order to seek out new opportunities at different programs. This has of course bitten Carolina in the backside at least once so far, and it will likely happen a few more times. However, not only do things go both ways, but this may have saved Roy Williams and what would’ve been a weaker recruiting class than what he’s had in recent years. Dontrez Styles and D’Marco Dunn are good players, undoubtedly, but this team needs a few players to come in that are proven at the college level. For which positions we can discuss at another time (I refuse to speculate), but truly by the time everything is said and done Roy Williams will have a team to roll out onto the field come November. Things will be alright.

Let me get to my main point. I can sit here and tell all of you what I think players, coaches, and really the university did right and wrong during this pandemic-dominated season and we could have one epic debate about it. However, it’s important to remember that there are a lot of unforeseen circumstances that preceded everything that is happening right now. Carolina basketball hasn’t just been in a weird place this season: it’s been in a weird place since the championship banner was hung in 2017. It’s hard to say when things will get better and the Heels will return to Final Four-destined contention, but it all starts with one thing and one thing only: consistency. Roy Williams hasn’t known consistency since Jalek Felton left the program early, and his only hope of finding it starts with the 2021-22 season. What will be left of this season’s team is the big question, but we will just have to wait and see how everything plays out.

This isn’t written to try to convince fans that everything is alright or that the program needs to be burned down to the ground, and I am especially not calling for anybody’s job. My goal was to remind everyone that there is a luck factor that plays a role in college athletics. Not having transfers, a bunch of injuries, or a global pandemic blessed Carolina basketball with a lot of luck prior to the 2017-18 season. Until bad luck makes its way out of the door, there will probably be some more bad luck in store. All I’m saying is to keep things in perspective, and remember one important thing: at the end of the day, there will be Carolina basketball in 2021-22. We will be right back here cheering joyfully, yelling in frustration, and everything in-between. We are truly blessed as Carolina fans, and I look forward to seeing what blessings are yet to come.

Anyways, those are just some of my thoughts. Y’all have a good day, and Go Heels.