The 2022-23 version of the North Carolina Tar Heels provided Hubert Davis an excellent chance to return to the Final Four and win the national championship. All of the pieces were there from the previous season, Northwestern transfer Pete Nance was a promising substitute for Brady Manek, and most importantly, everyone seemed to be hungry to get back to the mountain top.
Boy did that not go as planned.
Admittedly, when I wrote the worst-case scenario for last season, I didn’t take into account the possibility that the Heels could regress so dramatically. We don’t need to go into everything that happened, but the end product of missing the NCAA Tournament was Hubert Davis having to hit the restart button. Leaky Black, Dontrez Styles, D’Marco Dunn, Puff Johnson, Will Shaver, Justin McKoy, Tyler Nickel, and Pete Nance all left the program for both mandatory and voluntary reasons, leaving Davis with a lot of empty spots. Those scholarships have since been filled, and now the 2023-24 Tar Heels look nothing like last year’s team. That, much to my dismay, makes it really difficult to figure out what this team could be.
I wish I could leave things there, but for better or worse my job is to risk Freezing Cold Takes finding me on Twitter to point out how wrong I was in March. So, let’s discuss what the floor of this team looks like, as well as what could be the ceiling.
It goes without saying that any time there are seven new players on your team, there’s always the chance that the season will be a catastrophic failure. Sure, Hubert Davis brought in a lot of talent that should make it very difficult for the Heels to miss the NCAA Tournament for a second year in a row, but what is talent without structure? We’ve all seen what’s been going on in Lexington, KY right? It’s one thing to procure a talented roster, but it’s another thing to have cohesive talent.
Here is what a catastrophic failure for this team probably looks like: RJ Davis and Elliot Cadeau can’t find a way to gel, Armando Bacot’s ankles get banged up once again, the team struggles to defend the perimeter (I have faith that the paint will be well protected), and all of the shooters that were brought in forget how to shoot. In other words, we would essentially witness a very similar version of what happened last season, but with different players. Is it improbable? Sure, but last year’s reality check showed us that the improbable needs to be taken very, very seriously.
Worst-case scenario: 8th in the ACC and miss the NCAA Tournament
Let’s give credit where it was due: after the mass exodus of players from the program, Hubert Davis went out and brought in what was one of the most impressive hauls of any team in the country. According to 247Sports, UNC’s transfer portal class ranking is 20th, which is good enough for third-best in the ACC behind Syracuse and Georgia Tech. However, the rankings aspect isn’t what matters the most, but what does is the fact that Davis managed to fill just about every need that needed to be filled in. That is especially true when you also factor in the 2023 freshman class.
As many fans are aware of, freshman guard Elliot Cadeau has perhaps gotten the most attention out of the incoming players. He is the second-best freshman point guard in the country, and during his last season with Link Academy he helped lead them to a Geico Nationals Championship. We got a look at what he could do during Live Action and the exhibition game against St. Augustine’s, and it’s hard to not be excited about his game. He’s an excellent facilitator, has incredible vision, and is a viable offensive weapon. There are bound to be some growing pains and some “Welcome to college basketball” moments, there’s no doubt that Cadeau can have a positive impact on this team.
While Cadeau is the star of the freshman class, Zayden High has shown us that he isn’t to be underestimated. During UNC’s exhibition game, High flexed his defensive skills against St. Augustine’s, and played with a lot of energy off of the bench. He finished the night with 10 points, 11 rebounds, and 3 blocks, and while the competition of course has to be taken into account, it’s hard not to get excited about this guy’s potential. Hubert Davis has already admitted that he can’t not play High, so expect to see him early and often this season.
Then of course we have the transfers: Cormac Ryan, Jae’Lyn Withers, Paxson Wojcik, Harrison Ingram, and James Okonkwo are all players with very specific skill sets that I’d argue were missing from last year’s team. Cormac Ryan and Paxson Wojcik? Both proven shooters on the perimeter. Harrison Ingram? A Jack of All Trades type player. Jae’Lyn Withers? A power forward that can stretch the floor and can do some serious damage at the rim. Finally, there is James Okonkwo, who didn’t get a great deal of burn in West Virginia, but showed during the preseason that he is a skilled rebounder and rim protector.
Finally, throw in established stars in RJ Davis and Armando Bacot, and It is very hard to look at this roster and not get excited if you are a Carolina fan. All of the necessary pieces to compete for both the conference and national titles are there, and perhaps most important of all is the fact that we’ve already heard about how hungry each player is for this season to be a success. Everyone has something to prove for one reason or another, and it can’t be understated how absent that hunger was from last year’s team. If this version of the Tar Heels can play cohesive, disciplined, and consistent basketball, they can beat any team in the country. Yes, that includes you, Duke.
Still, maybe it’s the PTSD talking, but I can’t bring myself to fully realize the picture for this team that many of us would like to see. How many national championships were won with one of the key players being a freshman point guard? Are there too many new pieces on this roster? Finally, who is the real Hubert Davis? Is he really the guy that can take UNC back to the Final Four, or is he closer to the guy that missed the NCAA Tournament with a veteran roster?
The 2023-24 Tar Heels have a lot of potential, but I think the realistic best-case scenario isn’t what we all hope it will be. Perhaps they will once again prove me wrong.
Best-case scenario: 1st Place in the ACC regular season, an ACC Tournament title, and an Elite Eight finish