Tar Heels look to future without mainstays Berry, PinsonNorth Carolina's Joel Berry II, left, and Texas A&M's TJ Starks, right, chase the ball during the second half of a second-round game in the NCAA men's college basketball tournament in Charlotte, N.C., Sunday, March 18, 2018. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) -- Joel Berry II and Theo Pinson led the way as North Carolina won Atlantic Coast Conference titles, reached two Final Fours and claimed a national championship.
Now they've played their final games, and the Tar Heels have massive holes to fill: Berry's competitiveness at the point, Pinson's knack for playmaking and the duo's role as UNC's seen-it-all leaders.
The Tar Heels (26-11) had hoped to reach a third straight Final Four and become a repeat champion, but that was before Texas A&M overwhelmed UNC in Sunday's NCAA Tournament. It marked the most lopsided NCAA loss of Roy Williams' Hall of Fame career while also marking the second straight season the reigning national champion failed to make it out of the tournament's opening weekend.
''I wish we could've got another'' title, Pinson said, ''but that's the way life goes.''
Berry and Pinson were part of a critical 2014 recruiting class for Williams along with Justin Jackson. They committed to UNC amid the school's multi-year academic scandal that led to uncertainty about whether it would face NCAA sanctions, which ultimately hindered the Tar Heels in recruiting as they missed on top targets for years.
Still, that class helped the Tar Heels win the ACC regular-season title in 2016 and 2017, the ACC Tournament title in 2016 and reach the NCAA title game in 2016 before losing a heartbreaker to Villanova.
Jackson left a year early for the NBA after the 2017 title run. But Berry was a returning Final Four most outstanding player . Pinson's versatility allowed him to play and defend multiple positions, which proved critical in making the Tar Heels' small-ball lineup work. And both were unquestioned leaders.
''In every tough situation, we always looked at them like: What do we do now?'' freshman forward Garrison Brooks said.
That question has changed to: How will the Tar Heels fill those roles?
Point guard is the most pressing concern. Sophomore Seventh Woods missed significant time with a foot injury and struggled to provide reliable play behind Berry. And top recruit Jalek Felton withdrew from school after being suspended at midseason by the university for an unspecified reason.
There's the potential for plenty of returning scoring punch led by Luke Maye, who blossomed in his first year in a leading role by averaging 16.9 points and 10.1 rebounds. Pittsburgh graduate transfer Cameron Johnson (12.4 points) has another year of eligibility along with guard Kenny Williams (11.4 points).
But the Tar Heels will need improved consistency from freshman bigs Brooks, Sterling Manley and reserve Brandon Huffman.
UNC should find immediate help with its best recruiting class in several years, which came together around the same time that the academic case tied to irregular courses popular with athletes reached a no-penalty conclusion last fall.
The top-10 class includes in 6-foot-7 Nassir Little (No. 5 overall recruit in Rivals, No. 6 in 247sports), 6-3 guard Coby White (top 25 on both lists) and four-star prospect Rechon Black - a versatile player who has grown to nearly 6-8 with point guard skills.
Williams, 67, shrugged off a postgame question about retirement after the Texas A&M loss. Instead, he was focused on having coached Berry and Pinson for the final time.
''These two guys up here have given me so many thrills and taken me on so many unbelievable rides,'' Williams said. ''That's the overwhelming feeling I have right now. . I pictured it ending with these guys having a huge smile on their face. But that's not college basketball.''
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