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UNC Basketball: Building Teams vs. Programs

Carolina fans are used to a gradual build towards title-contending teams. Is that model outdated?

NCAA Basketball: CBS Sports Classic-North Carolina at Ohio State Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

With Carolina out of the NCAA Tournament, Hubert Davis and his staff are already hard at work constructing next season’s team. So far, there are five outgoings:

  • Pete Nance and Leaky Black - exhausted eligibility
  • Justin McKoy, Tyler Nickel, and Dontrez Styles - entered transfer portal

The 2023-24 freshman class only has two players incoming:

  • Simeon Wilcher - 6’4” combo guard
  • Zayden High - 6’9” power forward

Pending decisions from Armando Bacot on his available COVID bonus year and any additional outbound transfers, Hubert Davis has an opportunity to further transform the team. It’s an exciting prospect. Will there be another Cam Johnson? Another Brady Manek? The transfer portal offers lots of promise, but no guarantees. And moving forward, it will be central to how top teams construct their rosters.

Carolina fans of a certain vintage (myself included) are not used to this sort of roster chaos. Think of Roy Williams and his pattern of team building. After the 2005 national championship, the roster reset with Tyler Hansbrough, Bobby Frasor, Danny Green, and Marcus Ginyard. The next season, Roy added more layers with his monster class of Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington, and Deon Thompson, then watched them dominate the field and win the 2009 national championship.

When that team disbanded, Carolina started over and built around Tyler Zeller, John Henson, and Dexter Strickland, eventually adding a trio of McDonald’s All-Americans in Harrison Barnes, Reggie Bullock, and Kendall Marshall. A broken wrist to Marshall in the 2012 NCAA Tournament cost UNC a very credible shot at another national championship, but the quality of that team and their two-season crest followed Carolina’s established pattern.

When that team disbanded, Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson arrived in Chapel Hill. They were followed by Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks, but the 2014-15 freshmen were the real catalysts: McDonald’s All-Americans Justin Jackson, Joel Berry, and Theo Pinson pushed the Tar Heels to the 2016 title game, and the 2017 national championship.

This pattern of deliberately layering quality over quality, building experience together into championship windows every 3-4 years was by grand design. Roy Williams didn’t just build teams, he built a program. But Roy was able to do that without being hampered by two things that make this sort of roster construction impossible today: NIL and the transfer portal. Hubert Davis has to navigate these perils every day. With the roster churn that comes with the portal and players seeking ways to maximize their value for the short window they have in college, can Hubert build a program the way Roy Williams did?

When Hubert Davis took over for Roy Williams following UNC’s early exit from the 2021 NCAA Tournament, the Tar Heels lost Day’Ron Sharpe to the NBA, Garrison Brooks to Mississippi State, and Walker Kessler to Auburn. The only Roy Williams-legacy post player left was Armando Bacot. Coach Davis opted to radically change the direction of the program by not seeking more traditional bigs to pair with Bacot, but signed stretch-fours Dawson Garcia and Brady Manek through the transfer portal to give Carolina more shooting.

Being able to add proven college talent like that was huge. For all of the... how should we say this generously? Awkwardness of the Garcia saga, he was a tantalizing prospect for a while, until suffering a concussion at Boston College. He shot 37.5% from 3-point range and had some monster games, including a 26-point performance in the Purdue loss.

But Brady Manek is the one we all remember. Whether it was winning the Clemson game on that Caleb Love dish, hitting huge 3’s at Cameron to ruin Coach K’s going away parade, or retiring K in the Final Four, Manek was the Four of HD’s wildest dreams. Finding a player who had four years experience at Oklahoma and getting to squeeze that ripe juice was incredible. No high school recruit can deliver that.

Even though Pete Nance didn’t deliver the same juice as Manek, he did have juice to squeeze. Again, if you want to compete at the highest level, do you want to roll the dice with a blue-chip high schooler that will take months to years to develop, and even still, won’t have the physical maturity to compete with grown men their first year? Or do you take a player with a proven track record in the B1G?

Then think of the cost/benefit of recruiting. Roy Williams had to recruit certain players for years to fend off outside interest and secure letters of intent. Remember how long he recruited Brandon Ingram? Now how long do you have to recruit transfer portal players? Everyone who enters the portal is essentially entering a high-stakes game of musical chairs, if they wait too long, their spot could be gone in a New York minute.

If you can identify mature college players with the right profile and production, you can save a lot of time sitting in cramped high school gyms following players that aren’t playing the kind of competition that allows you to truly gauge their ability.

Like it or not, college basketball has changed. High school players may have dreamed about playing at UNC, but first they dreamed about playing period. If a freshman doesn’t see a path to playing time, they can enter the portal, find another school and play right away. Hubert surely understands that. So that leads to another dilemma.

Depth. Does he dedicate valuable minutes to underclassmen in the hopes that they develop enough to trust in games that matter? What if those players don’t feel they’ve played enough minutes and transfer anyway? HD could lose games developing players that won’t stay.

So does he just identify the six or seven best players and ride them Iron Five style? And at the end of the season, when the outbound transfers announce themselves, reload in the portal and do it all over again?

I don’t know what the future will look like exactly. But I think we as UNC fans need to get used to kids we loved watching play and were hoping to see develop like Tyler Hansbrough and Marcus Paige are going the way of the dinosaur.

Hubert Davis took over the Carolina program while the meteor hit. He does not have the benefit of building a sustained program. He can only build teams year by year. Hopefully he gets it right more than not. But even if he does, a Final Four appearance does not guarantee success the following year, not in this volatile atmosphere. Those days are extinct.