Going into the locker room up 15 points after the first half of the 2022 NCAA championship game, the North Carolina men’s basketball team seemed to be on the verge of achieving the unthinkable. The same team that was considered a bubble team earlier in the season was now just 20 minutes away from an NCAA title.
But as the game clock ran out, Tar Heel fans across the country fell silent. The No. 1 seed Kansas Jayhawks put a stop to North Carolina’s improbable run, rallying in the second half to beat UNC 72-69.
UNC’s “Iron Five” starting lineup, consisting of graduate transfer Brady Manek, senior Leaky Black, junior Armando Bacot, and sophomores RJ Davis and Caleb Love led the team throughout the run. In the offseason, questions arose as to who would stay and who would leave for the NBA Draft.
The questions were answered in April, beginning with Bacot's announcement that he will return for his senior season on April 13. Two days later, Black took to social media to share his decision to use his year of COVID-19 eligibility to return for a fifth year. In the following weeks, RJ Davis and Love also chose to return and play another year for head coach Hubert Davis.
“RJ, Caleb, Leaky, Armando, the older guys, all the returning guys, what they experienced last year has lit a fire inside all of them to have more experiences like that,” Hubert Davis said in a press conference on June 15.
Returning four out of five starters, North Carolina heads into the 2022-2023 season ranked No. 1 in some preseason rankings. Bacot, Black, Love, and RJ Davis make up one of the most accomplished groups returning to college basketball, making UNC a strong contender for this year’s national title.
Outside of UNC's returning starters, Hubert Davis’ staff recently added Northwestern transfer Pete Nance. Nance was one of the most sought-after names in the transfer portal, and his size and shooting ability make him a formidable replacement for Manek. Rising junior Puff Johnson and rising sophomore Dontrez Styles may also help fill the hole left by Manek's departure.
Experience is definitely something the Tar Heels won’t lack in the coming season. Aside from the four returning starters, Johnson, Styles, and other players of this year’s team played in some big games throughout the season. Redshirt first-year Will Shaver, who chose to enroll at UNC and join the team midseason, will be eligible to play this fall and is already familiar with the pressure of high-performance situations thanks to UNC’s championship run in New Orleans.
“The benefit that Will personally got from having that experience I’m very happy with,” Hubert Davis said. “He is in a great spot now because he came early.”
Incoming 4-star recruit Seth Trimble, while new to the college scene, also has his fair share of big-time games, securing gold for Team USA at the 2022 FIBA U18 Americas Championship.
Trimble and Shaver, along with incoming first-years Tyler Nickel and Jalen Washington, will provide depth to a shallow UNC rotation that was dominated by the “Iron Five.”
“The five that I played a lot last year, especially towards the end of the year, they determined it by their play in practice every day," Hubert Davis said. "And it was confirmed by their play in the games."
Next year, Hubert Davis would like to play more of his bench but says that no spot is guaranteed.
"I want to have a bigger rotation, but I’m not going to give people playing time," he said. "I’m going to give everyone an opportunity.”
With high-profile recruits and a strong returning core, North Carolina has a strong case for a comeback season complete with a national title.
"The thing that I like about our team right now is there is a hunger and a thirst and a desire," Hubert Davis said. "It's coming from the returning players, from what they experienced last year, and then the newness of the freshman that are really excited. So combining that together, I think we're in a good spot."