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Top 25 Countdown: No. 6 North Carolina relies on a new cast of veterans

Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire

Duke basketball possesses the No. 1-ranked recruiting class, with three freshmen projected as first-round draft picks. Add junior Grayson Allen as a first-rounder, and the Blue Devils are everyone’s favorite to win the national title.

North Carolina – picked second to Duke in the ACC at Wednesday’s ACC Media Day in Charlotte, N.C. – has something Duke lacks: seniors.

Senior leadership was certainly a difference last season for the Tar Heels.

Duke was eliminated in the Sweet 16 without go-to seniors. North Carolina advanced to the national championship game behind seniors Brice Johnson and Marcus Paige before the Tar Heels lost to Villanova on Kris Jenkins’ buzzer-beater.

Can North Carolina coach Roy Williams win with experience again?

That depends on three seniors – Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Hicks and Nate Britt – and three juniors – Joel Berry II, Justin Jackson and Theo Pinson – carrying the Heels the way Johnson and Paige did last season.

Berry, a 6-foot, 195-pounder who led the Heels in assists last year (3.8 per game) and was second in points (12.8 per game), thinks there is strength in numbers among the returning players. They are supported by three four-star freshmen: center Tony Bradley (6-10, 240) and guards Seventh Woods (6-2, 180) and Brandon Robinson (6-5, 162).

“I think our leaders are probably myself, Justin, and then just the seniors all together,” Berry said at media day.

“They’ve been here the longest. So they know what coach expects. This year I’ve seen a lot of guys step up and be a little bit more vocal. Even Isaiah, he doesn’t talk as much, but throughout practice I can still hear him say some things to the big men, like Tony, who is coming in as a freshman.”

Berry’s skills, which included leading the team from three-point range at 38 percent, allowed him to top Paige’s on-court production last year.

“I just have to continue to play hard and to do what I did last year,” Berry said. “I’m not going to approach it any different. When it comes down to leadership, I have to be more vocal. I’m the type of guy that I just like to lead by example and not talk much. But that’s one thing that I’m going to have to change this year, being a little more vocal with not having Marcus Paige this year.”

Besides Paige’s intangibles, the bigger skills-related question is replacing Johnson. He led the team with a double-double of 17 points and 10.4 rebounds.

Meeks (6-foot-10, 260 pounds) is a presence in the middle that averages 9.2 points and 5.9 rebounds. He is capable of more and might be ready to blossom this season.

Meeks and Jackson (6-foot-8, 210 pounds) both pulled their names out of the NBA Draft. They recognized they’re not ready for the NBA and needed a strong 2016-’17 season to prepare for the 2017 draft. Jackson was the Heels’ fourth player averaging double figures with 12.2 points.

One setback was losing Pinson (6-foot-6, 211 pounds) indefinitely with a broken toe. He may not return until January. Pinson, who played in all 40 games last season, was expected to start as a wing this year.

Another question is how North Carolina will respond to losing the championship game on a remarkable last-second shot. Berry admitted there is some pressure.

“But at the end of the day, you’ve just got to focus on yourself,” Berry said. “Focus on what’s going on with the team and not worry about the expectations and everything, because everyone has their expectations. But as long as we’re doing what we’re doing and listening to Coach and getting better as a team, that’s all that matters.”

North Carolina’s veterans don’t sound like a team that will be intimidated by Duke’s youngsters.

Follow Tom Shanahan of Today’s U on Twitter @shanny4055

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