By R.L. Bynum
Every North Carolina national-championship team had two qualities that next season’s Tar Heels will share — veteran guards and at least three of the top five scorers returning.
After having three starting point guards in three seasons (Joel Berry II in 2017–18, followed by freshmen Coby White and Cole Anthony), UNC will have the same backcourt duo for the third consecutive season. Like most freshmen, RJ Davis and Caleb Love had their struggles but showed marked improvement as sophomores.
History tells you that seasoned backcourts are important, considering only one of Carolina’s six national champions started a freshman guard. Let’s throw in a quick asterisk: It was the greatest player in the history of the game. If you’re reading a story on this website, you should know who that is. If not, read on.
With four starters and four of the top five scorers from the group that played in last season’s NCAA final and a veteran backcourt, next season’s team fits the profile of past Carolina national champions.
The Tar Heels hope to find a replacement for Brady Manek who can replicate his grit, pass as deftly and create space inside with outside shooting. A strong candidate is Puff Johnson, and he showed that on a big stage in the national-championship game before taking a blow to his stomach.
Two Carolina national champions won despite losing their leading scorer from the season before. That won’t be an issue for the 2022–23 Tar Heels.
UNC has leading scorer Armando Bacot (16.3 points, 13.1 rebounds) back, as well as Love (15.9 points), Davis (13.5 points) and defensive specialist Leaky Black (4.9 points). Black showed signs of being able to expand his offensive game and has the potential to become a consistent perimeter shooter.
Carolina’s 2017 national champions are the only ones who won after losing two of their top five scorers. Only the 1982 NCAA champions were led by a senior point guard. Junior point guards led the other five, just as will be the case with next season’s Tar Heels.
Nothing is guaranteed in an NCAA tournament when one upset can end a promising run. But the returning experienced players have sent the expectations for the Tar Heels rocketing.
How does next season’s team compare to Carolina’s six national champions?
When UNC went 32–0 and won the 1957 national championship, it started a backcourt of juniors Bob Cunningham and Tommy Kearns, and had the explosive scoring of senior forward Lennie Rosenbluth. That team returned four of its top five scorers from the previous season.
In 1982, senior point guard Jimmy Black was the floor general for the 32–2 national champions. The Tar Heels did start one freshman, but it was Michael Jordan. They also had future NBA stars in post men James Worthy and Sam Perkins.
Four of the top five scorers were back from the team that lost to Indiana in the 1981 NCAA final, losing only leading scorer Al Wood (18.1 points per game).
Again in 1993, UNC boasted an experienced playmaker who ran the offense efficiently in junior point guard Derrick Phelps. On that 34–4 team were senior George Lynch, juniors Eric Montross and Brian Reese and sophomore Donald Williams.
The only one of the top five scorers from the previous season who didn’t return was current head coach Hubert Davis, who led UNC in scoring for the 1991–92 season with 21.4 points per game.
Junior Raymond Felton was the point guard on the 33–4 NCAA championship team in 2005 that included junior center, and current assistant coach, Sean May. That team returned the top five scorers from the previous season.
In 2009, the point guard on the 34–4 NCAA champion Tar Heels team also was a junior — Ty Lawson. He started in the backcourt along with junior Wayne Ellington for three consecutive seasons, the last time a UNC guard pair has started for three seasons. UNC brought back its top six scorers from the season before, although Marcus Ginyard played only three games because of a stress fracture to his left foot.
It was a junior again running the show when UNC went 33–7 and won the 2017 national title with Joel Berry II, who earned NCAA tournament Most Outstanding Player honors. That title came despite losing one of the Tar Heels’ best shooters in Kenny Williams to a midseason knee injury.
That is the only Carolina championship team that had to replace two of its top five scorers. Leading scorer Brice Johnson (17.0 points per game) and Marcus Paige (12.6 points per game) were seniors on the team that lost to Villanova in the 2016 title game. Despite that, Coach Roy Williams was able to start two seniors (Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks) and three juniors (Berry, Justin Jackson and Theo Pinson).
Carolina will start one fifth-year player (Black), one senior (Bacot) and two juniors (Love and Davis), with the fifth starter likely to be one of the returnees.
All the elements are there for next season’s Tar Heels. But there will be also something new that they didn’t have to deal with last season: high expectations.
After the ups and downs and struggles for much of the season, UNC sneaked up on many observers and surprised the doubters with its amazing March run. Next season, that will be expected and it will be a test for each player to see how they handle that pressure.
All the elements are there, though.
Projected 2022–23 UNC roster
|5th year||Leaky Black||3||6–8||200|
Photo via @UNC_Basketball