All of the off-season questions North Carolina faces after losing the NCAA game to Kansas in April are essentially in coach Hubert Davis’ favor.
Will attacker Armando Bacot and guard Caleb Love return? Yes and Yes.
How many players will they lose in a transfer? They lost three, including Dawson Garcia and Anthony Harriswho were already out of the team and yet didn’t play after January.
Who will replace Brady Manek? They are arguably the best shooting big man in the transfer portal in former Northwestern forward Pete Nance†
The result is a grid that, on paper, will be a contender for #1 when the preseason polls are counted† Here’s a look at what you can expect from the Tar Heels:
Carolina will boast one of the most experienced starting fives in the ACC and the country, having brought back four starters from last season’s national championship game.
Bacot will be a season candidate for Player of the Year in the ACC and on national waiting lists for the award. Love and RJ Davis will be regarded as some of the best backcourts in the nation after taking big leaps as sophomores. Leaky Black would finally get his comeuppance as one of the best defenders in the country.
Add Nance as the potential fifth starter and that could mean the Heels play with two juniors, two fifth-year seniors and one fourth-year senior.
The key for Carolina is that the returning starters don’t just rest on what they accomplished last season.
Goodbye to the Iron Five?
Davis notoriously used a very short bench during the ACC game, culminating in the second half at Cameron Indoor Stadium, when the Carolina starters played the entire 20 minutes of their win.
It nearly took the Heels into the second round of the NCAA tournament when Manek was ejected and Love made a mistake against Baylor. UNC played with a lineup that had never used it before, but it still managed to break away with a win in overtime.
They should never face such a dilemma next season. Carolina could go as deep as 11 players based on several reasonable assumptions.
The two players most likely to see their roles increased are Puff Johnson, who quietly had his best piece of the season in the National Championship game against Kansas; and Dontrez Styles, whose three-pointer in extra time against Baylor was arguably the biggest shot of the game.
Year two is better for aspiring senior striker Justin McKoy, who never quite found his rhythm after moving from Virginia; and rising sophomore guard D’Marco Dunn, who played sparingly as a freshman.
Despite Hubert Davis not playing much in his freshman year last season, guard Seth Trimble and forward Jalen Washington could change that next season. Both have the skills and appropriate needs for Carolina that will compel them into action.
Biggest impact on freshmen
Washington has not yet been approved to participate in 5-on-5 full lawsuits. He is still recovering from a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) that he had surgery on last summer. Striker Will Shaver joined the team in January and was able to practice and sit in the front row for the Heels’ furious march to the title game. And striker Tyler Nickel was an accomplished high school goalscorer.
But Trimble will most likely play a key role as a backup for the Heels. He is a true point guard who ensures that Love or RJ Davis can play off the ball and stay in scoring mode. Love and Davis played 40 minutes or more in nine games together last season, each averaging 34 minutes per game.
Trimble’s presence, especially with reserve guards Harris (Rhode Island) and Kerwin Walton (Texas Tech) both switching, will help keep Love and Davis fresh.
Trimble, the younger brother of former UNC forward JP Tokoto, is arguably the team’s most athletic guard.
How will Nance fit?
Walton’s departure paved the way for an open scholarship that Nance eventually claimed. The 6-foot-10 transfer should lessen the impact of losing Manek’s marksmen from the lineup.
Nance can’t shoot as well along the way as Manek, but he did shoot 45 percent from a 3-point range last season. He was the Wildcats’ leading scorer and rebounder, averaging 14.6 points and 6.5 rebounds, earning him an honorable mention with the Big Ten.
He played a lot at downtown Northwestern last season. So if Bacot is in trouble, he offers a good option for the Heels. Most of Nance’s scoring came from last season’s posting. And defensively, he led Northwestern in blocked shots.
Without Nance’s commitment, the Heels would have seemed to play small with McKoy, Johnson or Styles as an underpowered power forward. Now they won’t be forced and Hubert Davis can only go small if he sees an advantage.
There is one thing Nance shares with Manek. He came to Carolina to win on the big stage. Nance has never entered an NCAA tournament in his four seasons with the Wildcats. If everything goes according to plan next season, he will at least get that chance.