Throughout the course of the North Carolina men’s basketball season, the question was never if, but when.
After each close loss or uninspiring win, a melancholic Tar Heel would hang their head and reiterate the potential the team was waiting to unleash. But despite the “ceiling is the roof” mantra, the roller coaster finally came to an end in UNC’s loss to Wisconsin in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament.
Even in basketball realms, this season was far from ordinary. Due to COVID-19 protocols, players isolated themselves in hotel rooms and played games in mostly empty arenas. Although the Tar Heels were bounced early in the tournament, just being able to compete was an accomplishment.
UNC’s biggest consistency this season was its inconsistency. But for every head-scratching moment — like losing to a sub-.500 Marquette team in a seemingly “must-win” game — there seemed to be a 45- or 42-point victory that made the team look as good as any in the country.
Perhaps one of the reasons behind the inconsistency was how the roster was constructed. For the first time in recent memory, head coach Roy Williams relied mostly on underclassmen this season.
Although there were some bumps in the road, this group was a critical part of the team's as success as the year went along.
Despite arriving to Chapel Hill in 2019 as a heralded five-star recruit, Armando Bacot will be the first to tell you that his first year did not go how he envisioned.
Not only did the team struggle with a 14-19 record, Bacot also had trouble adjusting to the college game and shot just 46 percent from the field.
But after an offseason of training, Bacot arguably became the team’s most reliable player. This season, he led the Tar Heels with 12.3 points and 7.8 rebounds per game en route to being selected third team All-ACC.
Bacot’s biggest area of growth was in his efficiency, as his shooting percentage jumped to 63 percent. He also demonstrated that he could take over games when needed, scoring 15 quick points in the second half of the Wisconsin loss to keep things close.
Another key member of Tar Heels' youth movement was first-year guard Kerwin Walton, who, despite being the lowest-ranked member of the team’s vaunted 2020 recruiting class, has emerged to become UNC’s most important offensive weapon in the second half of the season.
Before Walton started to receive consistent minutes, the Tar Heels were 5-3 and fading fast. But when the calendar flipped to 2021, Walton took on a bigger role and gave UNC some much-needed floor spacing as he notched a 42 percent clip from behind the arc for the season.
First-year guards Caleb Love and RJ Davis produced a mixed bag of results in their first seasons in Chapel Hill, but also revealed some signs of promise. Both players struggled on the offensive end — shooting just 32 and 35 percent, respectively — but highlighted how they could explode in any given game.
Love’s best performances of the season came against Duke, as he averaged 21.5 points and seven assists in two contests against the Blue Devils.
Davis scored double figures in each of his first five games and would eventually regain his footing later in the year, capped off with a career-high 19-point performance against Virginia Tech.
Although the rise of young players is typically an encouraging sight for a blue-blooded program hoping to return to prominence, the Tar Heels still have some questions to answer. First-year bigs Day’Ron Sharpe and Walker Kessler announced they will be leaving the program, as Sharpe declared for the NBA Draft and Kessler entered the transfer portal.
Regardless, the performance of each of these young players has the Tar Heels moving in the right direction. If this group sticks together and gets to experience a more typical offseason in the summer, there is reason to believe the young core will continue to grow.