By R.L. Bynum
There are so many reasons that offseason excitement around the North Carolina women’s basketball program is soaring.
It starts with the program-changing, four-player, No. 2-ranked freshman class that includes three McDonald’s All-Americans. Throwing two experienced point guard transfers, five talented returning sophomores (from a class ranked No. 11) and a core of upperclassmen into the mix has Tar Heels fans eager to return to Carmichael Arena next season.
“When I say that the fans are eager for this group, it’s an understatement,” said Coach Courtney Banghart, who enters her third season in Chapel Hill. “They should be. It’s a really solid group. It’s an eager group. We’ve been pretty hard at work here and I have a pretty good sense of what we are, and there’s a lot to like about this group.”
Bringing in six new players presents challenges but it’s not quite as daunting considering she welcomed seven newcomers (including two transfers) last offseason before an up-and-down 13–11 season that produced an NCAA tournament berth.
“I have such great respect for the NCAA tournament and being in that will always be a highlight every year,” Banghart said. “I think there were some pretty significant holes that we had to work around and work through and so I was really proud of them.”
The options, particularly in the backcourt, seem unlimited as well as the versatility of the players’ skill sets.
“We have shotmaking, we’ve got coachability, we’ve got speed,” Banghart said. “I mean, we’ve got a lot of things to go to, and how it all comes together and emerges onto the floor? It’s kind of a constant work in progress and that work has begun.”
Banghart is proud that her team shared the ball well and five players averaged double-figure points her first two years. She expects more of the same this season, but possibly at a faster pace.
“I think we can be faster; we can be longer,” Banghart said. “We can create mismatches in different spots on the floor than we couldn’t last time. I can’t really compare this team to last year. It’s so different.”
Before the last two offseasons, Banghart had never taken a transfer in her 14-year college head-coaching career that began at Princeton in 2007 and includes being named Naismith National Coach of the Year in 2015. A player she’s recruited never has transferred. (Kennady Tucker, who Banghart didn’t recruit, left in the middle of last season and is at Oklahoma.)
Jaelynn Murray and Malu Tshitenge are the only players still in the program who were on Banghart’s first UNC team.
“The rankings of the talent of the kids on our team and of the grad transfers have given people a lot of excitement,” Banghart said. “What I keep telling folks is that they’re even better people; they really are. It’s going to be an easy, easy, easy team to love, for sure.”
Carolina lost three starters (guards Petra Holešínská and Stephanie Watts and center Janelle Bailey) but there is so much talent that predicting next season’s starters is tough.
“These grad transfers are good, these freshmen are good and these sophomores are better,” Banghart said. “I think if you ask the team the starting lineup you’d get 14 different answers. I don’t think we know that, to be honest.”
The Tar Heels will miss the 3-point threats of Holešínská and Watts, but Banghart says that the only players on her team who can’t shoot from 3-point range are post players Tshitenge and Anya Poole.
“All the others can shoot it, so that’s something,” Banghart said, singling out sophomores Alyssa Ustby and Kennedy Todd-Williams, freshman Morasha Wiggins and transfer Eva Hodgson. “Alyssa is so improved there. Toddy is much improved there. Mo shot the ball the best of all of them this summer. And, of course, Eva comes in at over 40% in college. We don’t have the Petra who … that’s what she does. But we, of course, have multiple players who can do it.”
There are three new members of the coaching staff with Itoro Coleman (assistant coach), Sean Sullivan (director of player personnel, development and recruiting operations) and Sam Miller (director of scouting and video operations) taking spots Carrie Moore (a Michigan native who joined the Michigan staff), Jackie Manuel (who joined the UNC men’s basketball staff) and Chris Laezier vacated.
A much more normal offseason makes the transition easier because it has allowed more workouts and many more chances for players to improve.
“The amount of growth of the players that you’ll know from a year ago is tangible; it’s very noticeable,” Banghart said. “The offseason is everything. That’s when you become better as a player, you become better as a team. So, we finally got a chance to really work with our guys.”
A year ago, there weren’t as many chances for summer development and the players were in a bubble with very little going on outside of basketball and school. The program seized on the differences this summer.
“It’s just like, let’s do the opposite; let’s go all in, and it was awesome,” Banghart said of the whitewater rafting trip to Lansing, W.Va., where the team stayed in a cabin. “It just couldn’t have gone better. It’s just a really fun group to have an adventure with and that’s kind of what the season is; it’s an adventure.”
The whole idea was to connect the team, including the sophomores who are finally attending classes on-site after taking every class online during their freshman years.
The players convened the second week of June, two weeks earlier than usual, because six players had no season last winter or limited seasons. The team has been going three weeks on and one week off (this is an off week) since then to get in eight weeks of workouts.
Hodgson, a William & Mary transfer, opted out last season and Carlie Littlefield was at Princeton, which canceled its season. Freshmen Kayla McPherson and Teonni Key didn’t have high school seasons and Destiny Adams and Wiggins had limited seasons.
Although there may be a bit of trepidation for all UNC students and faculty as in-person classes began this week amid the national outbreak the delta variant triggered, the team has done what it can since every player and staff member is fully vaccinated.
“Our medical team did a great job of explaining the value and the impact and all that,” Banghart said. “And our kids are 18 to 22. We’re helping them make decisions that are important and their feedback is a part of that. They made the mature decision they needed to make. But there were no rules or requirements on our end.”
All four freshmen were ranked in the HoopGurlz ESPNW’s top 20 of their class, led by Key, a 6–3 five-star forward from Cary, and three four-star recruits in McPherson, a 5–7 point guard, Wiggins, a 6–0 wing, and Adams, a 6–3 forward.
The only other ACC freshmen in that top 20 are Notre Dame’s Olivia Miles and Sonia Citron and Louisville’s Payton Verhulst. Only South Carolina’s freshman class, which has three of the top four ranked recruits, ranks higher than UNC.
“You’re looking at kids who could be future pros. If all four of them are top 20 on the way in, you’ve got a lot to prove to show that they want to be a top 20 on the way out,” Banghart said. “They’ll be first-round draft picks if they are. It’s a talented group; they span various positions. It’s easy to remember how good they are when you watch them.
“But also they’re young. They’re fast. They really have great energy,” Banghart said. “You’re going to notice them the minute you walk into a gym, then the grad transfers are excellent. I mean, these are high-major talented players that we had to recruit against Stanford and Arizona for and everywhere else in between.”
Both transfers are 5–9 point guards: Littlefield, who played for Banghart at Princeton three seasons ago, and Hodgson, who will be a redshirt junior.
With few point guard options last season, five-star recruit Deja Kelly, who mostly was an off guard in high school, got most of her playing time at point guard during her freshman season. She had with help from others, including Kennedy Todd-Williams and Ariel Young.
Suddenly, there are point guards aplenty with Littlefield, Hodgson, McPherson and Kelly, and it’s too early to tell how playing time and positioning will play out. Although the team has played pickup games together, there hasn’t been any formal five-on-five play. Instead, it’s been a lot of skill work.
“Everyone’s going to play where they’re most successful, and we’ve got lots of metrics and analytics and film to show that,” said Banghart, adding that McPherson has been working through an injury and is not yet at full strength. It isn’t clear when that will happen.
“She’s made superhuman progress. She’s getting shots up; she’s ballhandling,” Banghart said. “Basketball is going to be a part of her life for a very long time. We’re certainly not going to rush it. But it’s only August, so we don’t need to. You start to push the envelope a little bit as you get into September and October. And then you see how she responds.”
There’s plenty of wing talent in Wiggins, Ustby, a sophomore, and Murray, a redshirt sophomore who Banghart says could be one of the team’s leaders.
“Jaelynn Murray is one of the most gifted leaders I’ve ever been around,” Banghart said. “She’s others oriented. She has her heart in the right place. She’s a Tar Heel through and through. She’s a competitor, so she just brings an unbelievable amount of genuine energy and commitment every single day. There’s no bad day for Jaelynn, and I think leaders can have bad days.”
Banghart said that leadership could also come “by committee,” with a lot from the five upperclassmen: Murray, Littlefield, Hodgson, Tshitenge and Young.
“No one on this team thinks that it’s theirs,” Banghart said. “I think they all approach it like it’s ours and that we’re best when we’re all on the same page and we’re all moving in the same direction. And so that desire to be a part of something is truly from the top down. It’s the first time since I’ve been here that it’s really realized. I think all of those five are in it for the group.”
Part of that leadership from those five might be by example.
“They are complete gym rats,” Banghart said. “I mean, they are totally into this. We’re going to go through nets on a month-to-month basis at this point.”
There is a big inside void left with Bailey’s departure. Tshitenge (6-3) and sophomores Anya Poole (6–2) and Alexandra Zelaya (6–4) will be forces inside as well as Adams and Key.
“Zelaya got better every day last year, so she’s just a better player than she was last August and a better athlete,” Banghart said. “It’s been exciting to watch her progression.”
Tshitenge dealt with nagging injuries her first two seasons but is now completely healthy.
“She can finish on both sides of the rim and she’s more mobile,” said Banghart, who also has been impressed by Poole. “That jump between freshman to sophomore years is magnificent, it’s massive. She’s stronger, she’s tougher, more skilled.”
How good of a rebounder is Adams? Banghart compares her physical play around the glass to Dennis Rodman, the greatest rebounder in NBA history.
“She can shoot as well, so she can space the floor, but really more of a physical presence,” Banghart said of Adams.
Banghart says that Key can play on the wing and can also be a stretch-four.
“She’s long. She’s a shot blocker. She can defend,” Banghart said.
The natural question with all of the talent on the roster is what the team’s potential and expectations might be.
“In terms of their ceiling, it’s a question I love because I get it a lot,” Banghart said. “We don’t determine ceilings. We map out how good they can be. That’s why America is obsessed with sports; it’s so organic. You can’t plan this. This is truly an organic process and it’s how connected are you, how skilled are you, how coachable are you, how do you endure? We’re on the journey of the organic process of becoming great, and we’re in August so I don’t know where that’s gonna go.”
Wherever it goes, it should be fun to follow.
|RS Jr.||Eva Hodgson||G||5–9|
|RS Jr.||Ariel Young||W||6–1|
|RS Sr.||Jaelynn Murray||F||6–2|
Top photo courtesy of UNC Athletics Communication: From left, freshmen Teonni Key, Kayla McPherson, Morasha Wiggins and Destiny Adams