The 2016-2017 Tar Heels proved that down and dirty, grind it out style basketball is still in existence and can be a recipe for success. For the past four seasons, the Heels were blessed with two no-nonsense workhorses in Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks who shouldered much of the load for the team on their quest to two straight National Championship appearances.
As these two beloved Tar Heels make their way to the NBA, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to expect head coach Roy Williams to press on with the same slow-tempo and out-rebound your opponent mentality. If the Tar Heels hope to experience the same amount of success in recent years, their overall play style may need a complete revamp.
Due to the tenacious efforts on the offensive and defensive glass given by both Meeks and Hicks last season, much of the team’s offensive production came from second chance points off of offensive rebounds and easy buckets from the transition game.
Things will prove to be extremely different this coming season as the Heels won’t have the luxury of Meeks and Hicks bailing the team out at the end of nearly half of their offensive possessions. It will most certainly be up to the host of incoming freshman big men to provide an influx of glass crashing in hopes of filling the void left by Meeks’ and Hicks’ departure. The rebounding efforts in the upcoming season, in short, will have to become one of a collective workload, rather than placed on the shoulders of only two.
Last year’s team of redemption also benefited immensely from the superb wing play of forward Justin Jackson. Although Jackson was able to create a noteworthy tandem with guard Joel Berry, the focal point of the team remained entering the ball into Meeks or Hicks at either post position and allowing them to go to work and create for others. It should go without saying that this particular strategy may find its way to the back of Roy’s playbook. But what will become the team’s new offensive identity?
Luckily for Roy Williams and Tar Heel fans alike, both Theo Pinson and Joel Berry will be returning to North Carolina for their senior seasons. The pair should look towards junior Kenny Williams to form an athletic, run-and-gun back court. The trio of Berry, Pinson, and Williams will need to become the main source of offensive fire power if the Heels are to continue their dominance. They, however, won’t and shouldn’t be expected to handle such responsibilities on their own.
It is reasonable to assume that both Seventh Woods and Brandon Robinson will show growth as they enter their sophomore seasons, but incoming freshman guard Jalek Felton has the potential to either become of the country’s most lethal sixth men, or even a full-time starter when it’s all said and done. Either way, the 2017-2018 Tar Heels must shift their mindset from low post, grind house basketball to a more modern, guard oriented style of play if they seek a third straight National Championship appearance.
In addition to a more guard- and wing-oriented brand of basketball, returning forward Luke Maye will be expected to take on a larger role in the offense as a reliable stretch-four threat. Maye began to showcase a lethal outside shooting game towards the end of last season and well into March Madness. Maye, however, was only able to provide 5.5 points per game for the Tar Heels in his 14 minutes per game coming off of the bench. Similarly to how the undersized, sharp-shooting power forward position has revolutionized the NBA, you can be sure that Luke Maye’s skill set will have an immediate and noticeable impact on the Heel’s game plan this upcoming season.
Finally, Roy Williams will have to place far more trust in his incoming class of freshmen that ever before. Its very odd in today’s college basketball scene to watch a program as dominant as North Carolina march a mixture of juniors and seniors onto the court. In a landscape of one-and-done players, North Carolina was able to successfully develop young talent and keep them for far longer than most programs would be able to. Having the same attitude towards the newest member of the roster will hopefully yield the same or similar results, but it may be in Roy Williams’ best interest to gear up for a “win now” type of season.
With two consecutive National Championship game appearances and a National Title in the rear view mirror, Roy Williams and the North Carolina Tar Heels are moving forward with a younger roster in hopes of repeating as national champions. The void left by Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Hicks, and Justin Jackson will be obvious to Tar Heel fans, but with an exciting group of incoming freshman and a revamped play style more suitable to the team’s skill set, look for the 2017-2018 Tar Heels to become serious contenders.