The motivation has changed for North Carolina, even if the goal hasn’t.
The Tar Heels enter the season as the reigning national champion after spending last year chasing another shot following a crushing loss in the 2016 final. It remains to be seen whether the goal of winning another one offers nearly as powerful of a driving force.
“I love winning, everybody on the team does,” senior swingman Theo Pinson said. “We’re competitors.
“I remember last year on the day of the national championship game, me and (senior Joel Berry II) woke up and said … `Who would ever think we’d be here again?’ So why not have that same feeling again?”
Duke (1991-92) and Florida (2006-07) are the only teams to repeat as champions since UCLA’s run of seven straight ended in 1974.
“It’s really, really difficult,” said Hall of Fame coach Roy Williams, who has won three at UNC. “What you do is you try to set a standard, try to set a goal that you strive for, that you push for, and you think about every day – trying to be one of the best teams.”
Picked to finish second in the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Tar Heels have plenty of holes to fill, losing Associated Press first-team All-American Justin Jackson from the wing along with big men Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Hicks and Tony Bradley Jr. Hall of Fame coach Roy Williams has plenty of perimeter options – starting with Berry’s return as the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player – but uncertainty up front.
March hero Luke Maye, the 6-foot-8 junior who hit the last-second shot to beat Kentucky and send UNC to the Final Four, is back but is more of a stretch-4 with his ability to shoot from outside. The Tar Heels brought in freshman big men Garrison Brooks (6-9, 215), Sterling Manley (6-11, 240) and Brandon Huffman (6-10, 250) – and need them to grow up fast.
Williams has long preferred to have two reliable big men on the court, both for interior scoring and to handle his emphasis on rebounding .
“We look really good walking through the frickin’ airport,” Williams said, adding: “If I had to play for my life, I may not play any of them. I may play really small. But that’s the reason you get to practice.”
Miles from millions – for now
Instead of making millions in the NBA , Miles Bridges, the 6-foot-7, 225-pound forward, is a college sophomore and loving it. Bridges led undersized and overmatched Michigan State last year with team highs in points (16.9 per game), 3-pointers (56), rebounds (8.3 per game) and was among the top three in blocks, assists and steals. This season, the Big Ten preseason player of the year and national player of the year candidate will have a much better surrounding cast.
“Deserves all the attention he’s received,” Izzo said. “So far he’s handled it with humility and humbleness like hasn’t been seen around here that often. I say that not insulting our other guys, but more or less complimenting him. He’s handled it with class. If you talk to him, he’d much rather talk about his teammates, the program, the coaches than himself. He’s an unselfish guy, and it filters down through the team.”
Learning from experience
Grayson Allen was part of one star-studded freshman class that won a national championship at Duke. He’s also been on a young team that flamed out in the NCAA Tournament’s opening weekend. So the senior guard knows what works and what doesn’t.
And he’s confident this team, with promising freshmen Gary Trent Jr., Wendell Carter Jr. and Marvin Bagley III, resembles 2014-15 – and not last year’s enigmatic group.
“The great thing is, they all have great attitudes,” Allen said. “They’re all extremely talented, from top to bottom, so I’m really looking forward to what we can put together. But we’ve got to put it together.”
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