Seniors leave gap on North Carolina basketball team

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Seniors Isaiah Hicks (left) and Kennedy Meeks (right) celebrate during the senior night ceremonies before the game.

 Less than 24 hours after the 2017 Tar Heels tied the nylon that once hung from the rims at University of Phoenix Stadium to the plastic snap closures on their national championship hats, Justin Jackson stepped up to the microphone.

He stood on the Smith Center’s makeshift stage, preparing to address the delighted fans welcoming the triumphant Tar Heels home. But before the ACC Player of the Year could look back on the season that so-famously redeemed the 2016 squad, the crowd voiced what it wanted for the future.

“One more year!" people chanted. "One more year! One more year!”

The junior flashed an ear-to-ear grin, taking his audience’s suggestion to stay for his senior season as a compliment. Unsurprisingly, he didn’t talk about which jersey he would wear next while he addressed the fans. He left the speculation to everyone else.

Seniors Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Hicks and Nate Britt also gave their spiels in front of the crowd. But, of course, they couldn’t linger another year if they wanted to. 

In effect, life without those three — North Carolina’s best rebounder, most efficient post scorer and most capable ball handler behind Joel Berry II — was already being imagined. And once Jackson and first-year forward Tony Bradley declared for the NBA Draft, the replacement of these key graduates turned into an afterthought for many North Carolina fans.

The reality is, though, the departure of Meeks, Hicks and Britt will spur just as many — if not more — questions for North Carolina this season as Jackson and Bradley's. After all, the Tar Heels won’t know exactly what to expect from their frontcourt or their No. 2 point guard for the first time in two years. 

First, the big men. Meeks and Hicks led the most formidable rebounding frontcourt in all of college basketball last year, as North Carolina ended with the most offensive rebounds and highest rebounding margin in the country. They both averaged double-digit points in their final seasons, combining for 962 of 1,425 points scored by North Carolina’s post players.

Down the stretch of the NCAA Tournament, Meeks played some of the best basketball of his career. He peaked in the Final Four against Oregon, going off for 25 points and 14 rebounds, including an iconic one-handed offensive rebound snag that cemented UNC’s win. Against Gonzaga, Hicks notched a season-high nine rebounds along with 13 points — including the go-ahead shot with less than 30 seconds remaining. North Carolina never relinquished that lead.

There is no replacing Meeks and Hicks’ impact immediately. Even if Bradley would have stayed and joined forces with first-years Garrison Brooks, Sterling Manley and Brandon Huffman, the void would still be noticeable.

If substitution trends stay the same, head coach Roy Williams will want Seventh Woods to be the primary ball handler when Berry isn’t on the floor. While the returning senior has proven that no in-game responsibility is too much for him to handle, averaging over 30 minutes a game with two sprained ankles in the NCAA Tournament, Woods has yet to prove he can be the Tar Heels’ reliable second option.

The Columbia, S.C., native had 49 assists to 42 turnovers in 7.7 minutes per game. Last year, Britt could be both the guard that replaced Berry as well as play alongside him, even if his on-court production wasn’t eye-popping. The potential is there for Woods, who had his fair share of highlight-reel tomahawks and spin moves last season. He will have to unlock that completely if he wants to be as positive of an addition as Britt was last year.

Each season is new, and every team is different. That said, the inexperienced North Carolina frontcourt and its back-up point guard will have a lot to prove come the first game of the season — and that would’ve been true no matter if Jackson and Bradley were still Tar Heels.

@alexzietlow05

sports@dailytarheel.com

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