Mass exodus? Several players might leave champion Tar Heels
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina coach Roy Williams didn’t have to struggle for words this time, not after the Tar Heels made good on their season-long drive to win the national championship that slipped away last year.
“The most fun as a coach is seeing the looks on your guys’ faces when they accomplish something very difficult,” Williams told thousands of fans who greeted the Tar Heels when they returned to campus Tuesday with the program’s sixth NCAA championship.
And the Tar Heels could face another tough task by the fall, too. They could return valuable experience for another good run, but there’s the potential to lose their top five scorers between graduation and draft declarations — and would create a very different roster.
Big men Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks, and guard Nate Britt are departing seniors. Associated Press All-American Justin Jackson (18.3 points) took advantage of rules last year allowing players to declare for the NBA draft multiple times and work out for teams while maintaining college eligibility provided they don’t hire and agent, and appears likely to do so again. It’s unclear if point guard Joel Berry II (14.7 points) will go the same route.
Freshman big man Tony Bradley (7.1 points, 5.1 rebounds) told the AP after the title game that he will declare for the draft to get NBA feedback — though his father later told Inside Carolina that the family is still discussing options.
If all three exit with the seniors, rising junior Kenny Williams III (6.2 points) will be the team’s top returning scorer.
“This team has a lot of competitors,” junior Theo Pinson said in the locker room after the 71-65 win against Gonzaga in the title game in Glendale, Arizona. “And all these younger guys, they understand what it takes to get here. And they understand this feeling, what it feels like to win a national championship. So everybody’s going to try to come back and get better.”
As for reinforcements, the multi-year academic scandal that has led to five NCAA charges has hindered recruiting, so UNC has a four-man recruiting class ranked No. 22 nationally by Scout.com and No. 30 by Rivals as of now.
Point guard Jalek Felton, the nephew of former UNC star Raymond Felton, headlines the group as a top-25 prospect from West Columbia, South Carolina. The others are: shooting guard Andrew Platek (Schenectady, New York), forward Brandon Huffman (Anchorage, Alaska) and forward Sterling Manley (Reynoldsburg, Ohio).
The Tar Heels (33-7) talked all season about the pain of losing to Villanova in the 2016 title game on Kris Jenkins’ buzzer-beating 3-pointer, leading to what Williams called the “most inadequate feeling” he’s had when he was searching for the right thing to say afterward.
But Jackson blossomed after an offseason of work, driven by the Villanova memory and advice from NBA personnel to improve his shot. Berry was the team’s toughest player and the team’s floor leader, while Meeks and Hicks became a reliable interior scoring-and-rebounding tandem.
UNC won the Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season race by two games, then survived several close calls in the NCAA Tournament to make it back to college basketball’s biggest stage.
“Our guys were just tough as nails,” said longtime assistant C.B. McGrath, who is leaving this week to become UNC Wilmington’s head coach. “We got tougher. We were tougher this year than we were last year. We had more talent last year and they were tough kids, don’t get me wrong.
“It was somebody different all the time. You never know who was going to make the big play, but somebody was going to step up and do it.”
To McGrath’s point, the Tar Heels didn’t have a great all-around performance in their six NCAA wins. But they kept coming up with big plays: a 12-0 game-closing run to rally past Arkansas in the second round, Luke Maye’s last-second shot to beat Kentucky in the Elite Eight, Meeks’ offensive rebound to seal the 77-76 win against Oregon in the national semifinals.
“You could see everybody give a collective effort, just to build on something special,” Meeks said. “And they’ve got to move those banners over in the Dean Dome now.”
AP Sports Writer Joedy McCreary in Chapel Hill contributed to this report.
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