ACC Burning Questions: North Carolina Tar Heels

Posted by Matt Patton on November 10th, 2016

This team preview is part of the RTC ACC microsite’s preseason coverage.

Can the reloaded Tar Heels get back to the Final Four?

There's no question this year: this is Joel Berry's team. (Photo: Robert L. Poston/CarolinaBlue)

There’s no question this year: this is Joel Berry’s team. (Photo: Robert L. Poston/CarolinaBlue)

As was well-documented, North Carolina’s 2015-16 season was equal parts fairy tale and horror film. Roy Williams loses Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson from last year’s National Runner-Up, but this season’s team will likely be just as talented. First off, Joel Berry is criminally underrated. He was without a doubt the most important player on last year’s team, and he has a good chance to wind up on the short list for National Player of the Year. Second, Isaiah Hicks may finally put everything together last season and will go a long way toward filling Johnson’s shoes. However, there are some open questions here. Theo Pinson is out indefinitely after breaking his foot again, leaving the team overly reliant on Berry in the backcourt. He’ll have help in Nate Britt and freshman Seventh Woods , both of whom should get plenty of minutes (especially considering Roy Williams’ penchant for deep rotations), and Justin Jackson is a likely All-ACC wing. But the dropoff from the talent of Berry to Britt is steep, and Woods is still a freshman. That means Williams will need Berry on the floor for most of the game — especially once conference play begins. With Pinson out indefinitely, Jackson won’t have much help on the wing either. But don’t lose sight of the fact that Jackson and Berry are both elite, championship-level players.

What makes up for a shallow backcourt is one of the best frontcourts in college basketball, as consensus five-star freshman Tony Bradley joins Hicks and Kennedy Meeks up front. That’s a tremendous amount of length and offensive talent in the post. While Bradley may also find himself spelling Jackson on the wing from time to time, Meeks and Hicks will work together to minimize the effect on rebounding from Johnson’s departure.

Apart from a neutral site game against Kentucky and a trip to Indiana in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, the Tar Heels have a rather lackluster non-conference schedule. But those two marquee games should prove good bellwethers for the rest of the season. North Carolina has enough talent and returning experience where the team should be every bit as good as last year, but their personnel losses still leave some doubt. For this team to make it back to the Final Four, look no further than the play of Berry. The junior’s performance (and his corresponding ability to avoid missed time because of injury or foul trouble) will likely determine North Carolina’s ultimate ceiling. When he took the team over from Paige last season, he imbued the Heels with a level of toughness that had been missing. This year’s team will be Berry’s to lead from day one.

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