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UNC Basketball: Moving forward while standing still

Carolina basketball’s prospects next season look bright, but it’s not because of newcomers. It’s because the mainstays are staying!

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament East Regional-St. Peters Peacocks vs North Carolina Tar Heels Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been a week full of good news for Tar Heel fans!

First, on Wednesday, Armando Bacot announced he was returning for his senior season:

Then yesterday, Leaky Black joined the parade and announced he was returning for a bonus fifth season!

Leaky and Armando are two critical pieces for Hubert Davis to have in place to keep last season’s momentum going. At least from February 19th until the end of the season, when UNC shook the shame of the Pitt loss off and really got cooking.

Carolina has some freshmen coming in that are dripping with potential. UNC’s 2022 recruiting class—point guard Seth Trimble, center Jalen Washington, and wing Tyler Nickel—is ranked 12th in the nation and 3rd in the ACC by 247Sports. Right now, none of those players are necessarily needed to plug any holes in the roster, at least not immediately.

With just Caleb Love left deciding his future, Hubert Davis is sitting pretty. His biggest hole is Brady Manek-sized, which is sizable, but he has an interesting mix of players—including Puff Johnson, Dontrez Styles, Washington, and Justin McKoy—that may be able to bridge the gap. What Davis has in spades with his returning roster is experience.

So much of the preseason headlines every year are which teams have the best high school recruits that can potentially be one-and-done. There’s no shame in that, every school wants them. But do they really help you get to college basketball’s holy grail?

Last season’s blue blood Final Four featured three experienced teams and Duke... and Duke was not a vintage year full of freshmen starters. The Blue Devils started only two freshmen, along with a junior and two sophomores. When you averaged the number of years in college basketball each team’s starters had, it’s almost elderly-leaning:

  1. Villanova - 3.6
  2. Carolina - 3.2
  3. Kansas - 3.0
  4. Duke - 1.8

Experience matters. Carolina is returning a lot of that experience, potentially 80% of it should Caleb Love return for his junior year. Talented experience is the key ingredient in UNC’s national championship recipes (along with a dash of heartache in the previous year... let’s not dwell on that). Carolina’s 2005, 2009, and 2017 national championship teams all had junior point guards, and a senior post. Just sayin’.

Not only will next season’s team be more experienced, so will Coach Davis. I would expect him to tinker with his winning formula during the end of the season and the NCAA Tournament. A new Iron Five cannot be run through a full season. It was a miracle they went as long as they did without a significant injury.

But role players know the expectations put on them, and there’s plenty of competition for places. There are established starters to mentor the underclassmen, and the freshmen and sophomores will battle each other to be the first name called from the bench. It’s a team built to win now, with players that can bridge into the next era.

So no new recruits to announce, no transfers coming in. But by maintaining the roster as much as they were allowed, UNC looks like a heavy hitter already.