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UNC Basketball: Let’s Ride

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Believe it or not, there are reasons to be optimistic for the 2021-2022 season.

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

To say the least, it’s been a strange week for Carolina basketball fans. After a disappointing 85-62 loss to Wisconsin in the first round of the NCAA tournament, there were almost immediately rumors that the sky was falling in Chapel Hill. Without getting into too much detail, there was supposedly discontent from some players and reports began to swirl hinting that the Heels would likely be dealing with far more players than usual transferring out of the program.

Granted, that statement has arguably already come true with the recent departures of Sterling Manley and Walker Kessler. Manley spent four seasons in Chapel Hill and now has his degree, but he only played in 59 games due to injuries. For perspective, Garrison Brooks, who was in the same recruiting class as Manley, played in 133 games. With two years of eligibility remaining, hopefully Manley can stay healthy wherever he ends up and fully showcase his abilities. As for Kessler, his decision to leave came as somewhat of a surprise given the minutes that figure to be available in the frontcourt next year. Regardless, he made a decision that he feels is best for his future as a player and I believe any true Tar Heel fan will respect and support that.

The only other player that’s confirmed to be leaving is Day’Ron Sharpe, who’s entering his name in the NBA draft. This should not come as any sort of shock as Sharpe proved that he possesses the motor and physical makeup to be a very good pro.

After all these departures, though, Roy Williams and his staff finally got some positive news a couple days ago when Caleb Love announced he will be returning for his sophomore season. This was a bit surprising given that when the transfer rumors were running rampant, Love’s name was typically at the top of the list. His return could be monumental for the Heels.

As a freshman, Love averaged 10.5 points, 3.6 assists, 3.1 turnovers, and 1.2 steals while shooting 31.6% from the field and 26.6% from deep. The numbers aren’t exactly pretty, but anyone who’s watched the dude play knows they aren’t indicative of the kind of player he can be. We saw what he did to Duke the first time around, posting 25 points on 9-16 shooting (4-5 from three). Love is more than capable of scoring at a high rate and I believe he can also be the point guard Carolina needs him to be next season. It’s just extremely difficult to do all of that not only as a freshman, but also in the middle of a global pandemic. It’s worth noting that, assuming Love once again starts at point guard, it’ll be the first time UNC has a non-freshman at the position since the 2017-2018 season.

The roster is still a long ways from being officially set, and there’s a strong likelihood the Heels will see more players transfer out. With that being said, the backcourt all of a sudden has loads of promise. Love will presumably be joined by Kerwin Walton and RJ Davis, and assuming Love and Davis find more consistency, that’s three dudes who can beat you from the perimeter. Moreover, despite having trouble taking care of the ball at times, Love and Davis are both guys that can run the offense. Throw in the likes of Anthony Harris, Leaky Black, Puff Johnson, and incoming freshmen Dontrez Styles and D’Marco Dunn, and the Heels should have no shortage of depth at wing.

Obviously, the frontcourt is a bit of a different story, with three big men already announcing their exits and potentially similar announcements to come. However, if Carolina is able to keep Armando Bacot, that would give Coach Williams an extremely talented and reliable big to build around. Regardless, though it may seem bleak, I think fans might be surprised at how well that situation ends up playing out.

To be fully clear, it’s entirely possible that one or more of the aforementioned players ultimately suit up for a different team next season. The reality is, with the new transfer rule allowing any player to switch schools without sitting out, no roster in America is safe. So give me the three-time national championship winning coach and his uber-talented lead guard and, well, let’s ride.