What’s next for UNC basketball? After a disappointing season, Tar Heels look forward
North Carolina’s now infamous re-creation of the 1981 Sports Illustrated cover during a preseason photo shoot had one glitch: The returning players — R.J. Davis, Caleb Love, Leaky Black and Armando Bacot — copied the poses of the original photo from Jimmy Black, Matt Doherty, Sam Perkins and James Worthy, but current head coach Hubert Davis, a lefty, stood like Dean Smith and pretended to draw up a play with his right hand.
That glitch turned out to be an omen for the Tar Heels’ season, and not in a good way.
Something was wrong with the picture, and, it turns out, something was wrong with UNC’s entire season, which came to an unceremonious end on Sunday as the Tar Heels completed their fall from preseason No. 1 to “first four out” of the NCAA Tournament.
“We have a great bunch of guys that are hurt, they’re sad and motivated,” Hubert Davis said on his radio show Monday night. “And obviously you don’t want to go through this, and you want to be playing an NCAA Tournament, but I really believe this is going to be the driving force for the hunger and thirst that is needed to be the best that you can be. I know it’s only March, but I’m really excited to get started next season with next year’s team and it’s going to be a great season.”
Next season’s roster could look drastically different than the group that finished out this season, and the transition to next season has already begun, which is why Davis said the team declined to play in the National Invitation Tournament.
“Every decision that I make, whether it’s personnel or team or anything, is filtered through what is in the best interests of this program,” Davis said. “I felt like what was best interest for this program is to start the process right now in terms of building team and building this program and changing directions that we all want it to go.”
Who’s leaving Chapel Hill?
Forward Justin McKoy, who transferred into UNC after playing two years at Virginia, has a year of eligibility left and is entering the transfer portal as a graduate transfer who can play immediately.
Freshman Tyler Nickel also entered the transfer portal and will have three seasons of eligibility remaining. The 6-foot-7 forward appeared in 25 games, but averaged just 6.1 minutes per game. Nickel, a native of Harrisonburg, Va., finished high school as the all-time leading scorer in Virginia history. He shot just 6 of 27 from 3-point range for the Heels.
Black and Pete Nance won’t be returning after both exhausted their eligibility.
Black leaves UNC having set a program record for most games played at 154. He played five years, and is unlikely to be drafted, but has intrigued NBA scouts enough to where he will be a sought-after free agent to sign for training camp.
Nance came to UNC as a graduate transfer aiming to make his first NCAA Tournament after four seasons at Northwestern. Nance had the misfortune of being the player who replaced Brady Manek in the lineup and his one season with the Heels didn’t end the way he envisioned.
What Armando Bacot decides will have a major impact on what the frontcourt looks like for next season. The Heels’ all-time leading rebounder could return for a fifth season thanks to the NCAA’s COVID-19 waiver for the 2020-21 season.
Bacot’s decision could again hinge on him wanting to take advantage of NIL (name, image and likeness) opportunities. His skill set doesn’t fit the current mold of NBA bigs because he lacks a perimeter game, and he’d likely go undrafted.
Carolina could conceivably return its core of Bacot, Love and R.J. Davis, although it wouldn’t come as a surprise if Love decided he’d had enough.
No one received more criticism for how the season went than Love, who took a higher percentage of shots than he did last season (28.4 compared to 26.2) even as his shooting percentages from 3-point range dropped to 29.9 percent compared to 36 percent last season.
McKoy and Nickel may not be the last to go elsewhere.
Hubert Davis spoke openly in the offseason about his desire to develop a bench. UNC ended ranked 360 out of 363 Division I teams in percentage of bench minutes according to Ken Pomeroy. Carolina’s reserves played 18.3 percent of remaining minutes.
“Where you earn your minutes is in practice, and you stack plays in practice and that gives me the confidence to put you in the game,” Davis said. “And then stack plays in the games and that keeps you in the game. It’s been consistent with me, if you play well in practice, I’ll put you in the game and if I put you in a game and you play well, I’ll keep you in the game.”
Sophomore Dontrez Styles’ career highlight as a freshman was scoring the first basket in overtime against Baylor on a 3-pointer that helped UNC avoid a second-round NCAA Tournament collapse. Instead of being able to build off that moment in his second year, he actually appeared in half as many games. He played in 30 as a freshman and just 15 this season. Should the Kinston native decide to transfer, that is likely the reason why.
“I’m still trying to figure it out,” Styles told the Bryan Hanks Show in Kinston. “...I should have a decision by next week at the latest.”
Sophomore guard D’Marco Dunn saw his time increase to average 10.3 minutes per game and he averaged 2.7 points per game. But Dunn, like freshman guard Seth Trimble, saw his role as a regular in the rotation early in the season change from their win at Louisville on Jan. 14 until the end of the season.
Hubert Davis tightened his rotation down the stretch of the season where Puff Johnson was the only bench player consistently logging 10 or more minutes off the bench.
Trimble appeared in every game this season and started twice when Nance was out with a back injury. Trimble played 10 or more minutes in 14 games prior to the Louisville game, but just once after. The combination of Dunn, Nickel, Styles, McKoy, Trimble and Jalen Washington only had 10 games total of double figure minutes played after Jan. 14.
Davis said that injuries were partly the reason the bench rotation was thrown off sometimes because certain players weren’t available for some games.
“I felt like this year we were always trying to find a combination off the bench that works and sometimes I got it wrong,” Davis said. “And most of the time, or sometimes I got it right and that’s something that I’m continuing to learn as a second year head coach.”
Washington should expect a much larger role next season, assuming he stays. NBA scouts touted the 6-foot-10 freshman forward as the best prospect on the roster.
Washington was injured to start the season and missed the first nine games. He showed flashes of his potential filling in when Bacot was injured seconds into their loss at Virginia. Washington’s 13 points and six rebounds in 27 minutes were all season highs.
He played 19 minutes the following win at Louisville. But those two games were the highlight — Washington played only a combined 47 minutes in the remaining 15 games of the season.
Who’s joining the roster?
Simeon Wilcher, a 6-foot-4 combo guard from Roselle, N.J., is rated No. 29 overall in the Class of 2023 by the 247 Sports composite rankings.
Zayden High, a 6-foot-9 power forward from Spring Branch, Texas, is ranked No. 53. High was a late addition to the class. Carolina didn’t begin pursuing him heavily until after learning G.G. Jackson, who was once committed to UNC and the No. 1 player in the class, reclassified to 2022 and decommitted to play at South Carolina.
North Carolina could go hard into the transfer portal to add a veteran shooter from the wing, or it could be looking for a player to reclassify from its four 2024 recruiting commitments. The class is currently ranked No. 1 in the 247 Sports composite.
Whatever the Heels choose, they just know next season cannot end up like their last one.
“I’m excited to see how the third year turns out,” Davis said. “But I know it’ll be different from the first and the second.”