CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — There’s a lot to like about North Carolina basketball as the Tar Heels embark on their 2016-’17 journey.
Back are three starters from a team that won 33 games last season and reached the national title game in April. Eight of the 13 scholarship players on the roster are juniors and seniors. That includes point guard Joel Berry, who was UNC’s most consistent backcourt player as a sophomore during the 2015-’16 campaign.
On paper, Carolina has the look of a team that’s equipped to make another deep run in the NCAA Tournament. The biggest question, though, might lie in the intangibles.
The word “leadership” was mentioned several times at UNC media day this week. Specifically, how will this team replace the leadership of departed four-year starter Marcus Paige?
“It was really unique because for four years you could make statements about whether (Paige) was our best player or our second-best player all four years,” head coach Roy Williams said. “Everybody trusted Marcus so much.”
That trust was easy to recognize on the court. When the Heels needed a basket in the waning moments of a close contest, Paige was taking the shot, whether it was three seasons ago at N.C. State, two seasons ago versus Louisville, or in last season’s NCAA championship game.
Williams stated on Tuesday that Paige is one of the three best leaders he’s ever been around. He also noted that whoever takes on that role moving forward will need to earn it.
UNC’s rotation this winter projects to include three seniors: center Kennedy Meeks, power forward Isaiah Hicks and point guard Nate Britt. Behind them, all three pieces of what was once a top-10 recruiting class are back: Berry, small forward Justin Jackson and shooting guard Theo Pinson.
Although there are many veteran parts, there is no clear answer as to which individual will fill Paige’s shoes.
“I think everybody has been pretty active and pretty talkative,” Jackson said. “I could say probably Nate, myself and Joel have probably been the biggest whenever it comes to a leadership role.”
Relative to his freshman year, Berry was leaned on more heavily in late-game situations last season. In the regular-season finale at Duke, he scored seven points in the final five minutes of a 76-72 win, including a three-pointer with 4:37 left as the Blue Devils were cutting the deficit. Berry also hit a dagger of a three with 5:25 to go in the ACC Tournament championship game that helped the Tar Heels pull away for good against Virginia.
Berry may be in line to embrace the full responsibility. It could also be done by committee. Regardless of how North Carolina fills the leadership void, it will be tested early; before New Year’s Day, the Heels will take a trip to the Maui Invitational, play at Indiana, and travel to Las Vegas to square off with Kentucky.
With such a loaded non-conference schedule, adversity could come early. For now, the upperclassmen are planning to make a joint effort in guiding the team through any rough waters.
“We know that we’ve got to step right into that leadership role,” Jackson said. “If we can do that, then I think we’ll be all right.”