North Carolina aims for big follow-up to NCAA title run
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) — The motivation has changed for North Carolina, even if the goal hasn’t.
The Tar Heels enter the season as the reigning national champion after spending last year chasing another shot following a crushing loss in the 2016 final. It remains to be seen whether the goal of winning another one offers nearly as powerful of a driving force.
“I love winning, everybody on the team does,” senior swingman Theo Pinson said. “We’re competitors.
“I remember last year on the day of the national championship game, me and (senior Joel Berry II) woke up and said … ‘Who would ever think we’d be here again?’ So why not have that same feeling again?”
Duke (1991-92) and Florida (2006-07) are the only teams to repeat as champions since UCLA’s run of seven straight ended in 1974.
“It’s really, really difficult,” said Hall of Fame coach Roy Williams, who has won three at UNC. “What you do is you try to set a standard, try to set a goal that you strive for, that you push for, and you think about every day — trying to be one of the best teams.”
Picked to finish second in the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Tar Heels have plenty of holes to fill, losing Associated Press first-team All-American Justin Jackson from the wing along with big men Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Hicks and Tony Bradley Jr. Hall of Fame coach Roy Williams has plenty of perimeter options — starting with Berry’s return as the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player — but uncertainty up front.
March hero Luke Maye, the 6-foot-8 junior who hit the last-second shot to beat Kentucky and send UNC to the Final Four, is back but is more of a stretch-4 with his ability to shoot from outside. The Tar Heels brought in freshman big men Garrison Brooks (6-9, 215), Sterling Manley (6-11, 240) and Brandon Huffman (6-10, 250) — and need them to grow up fast.
Williams has long preferred to have two reliable big men on the court, both for interior scoring and to handle his emphasis on rebounding .
“We look really good walking through the frickin’ airport,” Williams said, adding: “If I had to play for my life, I may not play any of them. I may play really small. But that’s the reason you get to practice.”
Here are things to know about the 2017-18 season for the Tar Heels:
BERRY’S HEALTH: The school said last week that Berry is sidelined for roughly four weeks after breaking a bone in his right hand, coming when Williams said Berry punched a door after losing a video game against Pinson and a student manager. Berry might not miss much time, but UNC needs him on the court as its toughest competitor .
MORE AT THE POINT: Even when Berry is playing, the Tar Heels need to sort out their backup point guard job. Sophomore Seventh Woods played in all 40 games last year, while freshman Jalek Felton also figures to be in the mix.
JOHNSON’S ARRIVAL: Cameron Johnson didn’t have an easy time getting to UNC, but the Pittsburgh graduate transfer offers the potential to replace some of Jackson’s lost production. The 6-8 Johnson is a similar frame to Jackson and shot 42 percent from 3-point range last season. “I’ll just try to contribute in any way,” Johnson said, “make shots, defend, rebound — do all I can.”
WILLIAMS’ RETURN: Junior guard Kenny Williams III provides 3-point shooting and defense, when he’s healthy. Williams missed the final 14 games after February knee surgery , then had a setback in his recovery over the summer. But Williams said he’s ready. “They ask me every day: how do you feel?” Williams said. “And I tell them I feel great. Because I do.”
FREE FROM SHADOW: The school recently got a no-penalty ruling from the NCAA tied to its multi-year academic case involving irregular courses featuring athletes from numerous sports, including men’s basketball. This will be the first in several seasons it won’t hang over the Tar Heels, including in recruiting. “Whatever time period it was,” Roy Williams said, “I was just happy it was over with.”