- North Carolina lost a host of key players from the team that won the national championship last season. Can the Tar Heels reload?
The college basketball off-season is long and largely lacking in major news developments. Programs are still finalizing their 2017 recruiting classes and sorting out which of their players will return for another season or jump to the professional ranks. We’ve got a long way to go until Midnight Madness. To help pass the time, SI.com is asking and answering three key questions about each of the teams in our Way-Too-Early Top 25. Here’s No. 7, North Carolina.
(1) How does UNC respond to the talent exodus?
It’s awfully hard to win a national championship and not say goodbye to key players the following season. North Carolina knew it was losing seniors Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Hicks and Nate Britt, and it was all but certain junior Justin Jackson would move on, as well. Jackson made that official shortly after the Tar Heels cut down the nets at the Final Four, but freshman big man Tony Bradley waited until late May to reveal he would remain in the NBA draft. Jackson, Meeks and Hicks accounted for 42.6 points and 19.7 rebounds per game last season. Remember, the Tar Heels’ greatest offensive strength was the glass, where they cleaned up 41.3% of their own misses. Coupled with Jackson’s singular talent, the Tar Heels ranked ninth in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency, according to kenpom.com. This, of course, is a program that can reload on the fly, and Joel Berry’s decision to return for his senior year was a boon, but Roy Williams will have quite the task replacing Jackson, Meeks, Hicks, Bradley and Britt. Some of that will come from the annual talent injection at Chapel Hill, and some will come from holdovers taking on larger roles. The exact identities of those holdovers, however, remains to be seen.
(2) What’s the state of Kenny Williams’s health?
Williams started 22 games for the Tar Heels last season before suffering a knee injury in a mid-February practice that eventually required surgery and knocked him out for the run to the national championship. Williams didn’t carry a significant offensive role for the Tar Heels last season, scoring 6.2 points in 23.7 minutes per game, but he was the team’s best perimeter defender. Not only will he reprise that role in the 2017-18 season, but he’ll likely have to take on more of the scoring load. With Jackson off to the NBA, the Tar Heels will be looking for players who can step up from behind the arc. Berry knocked down 38.3% of his three-point attempts last year, and Luke Maye, who turned into a hero in March, was successful on 40% of his triples, but Williams could change the equation for North Carolina’s offense. Berry will handle the ball a ton as the team’s starting point guard, and Williams is all but guaranteed to log more minutes than Maye, though both should be in the starting five. If his knee is structurally sound heading into the season, he could be in for a breakout campaign.
(3) Will a familiar name bear familiar fruit?
Assuming Williams is healthy, he will be the favorite to start alongside Berry in the backcourt. If he’s still dealing with trouble because of the knee, though, Roy Williams has a talented freshman he can turn to with confidence who has a name North Carolina fans, as well as college basketball fans at large, will recognize. Jalek Felton, nephew of former Tar Heel Raymond Felton, is at the head of this season’s freshman class in Chapel Hill. The 6’3” guard is a four-star recruit chased by a number of high-profile programs, including Kansas, Louisville and Florida, though they never made a formal offer because he committed to North Carolina so early. His offense is ready for the next level, and that’s crucial for a team that will be hunting for reliable scorers. Felton may already be the Tar Heels' best shooter, and improving their efficiency from the perimeter may be their best bet for counteracting all the rebounding prowess that left this off-season. Even if Williams is healthy, Felton will push him for the starting job, and will net plenty of minutes regardless of where he begins the game.