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By Thomas Gessner
No men’s college basketball team from North Carolina was able to make it out of the first round of the NCAA tournament this year, a rarity considering the depth and history of teams in the Old North State.
Appalachian State, after making their first tournament in twenty years, fell to Norfolk State in their play-in game. Meanwhile, UNC Chapel Hill fell to the Wisconsin Badgers by 23 points, and while there is a tiny chance that the Tar Heels were honoring the great Michael Jordan with that number, it’s more likely that they were seeded artificially high because of some past pedigree. UNCG lost by a less embarrassing margin to Florida State, and they kept the game competitive through the defensive heroics of graduating guard Isaiah Miller, but ultimately it wasn’t enough.
Now that these programs’ chances at title for this season are over, there are some interesting developments and possibilities for the coming season that could have a great impact on all three schools.
While App State’s showing in the NCAA tournament was disappointing and brief, very few people expected the Mountaineers to even have a chance at making March Madness. The team completely outperformed their seeding in the Sun Belt Tournament by upsetting Georgia State, which should be pride enough for any fan of the program.
This recent success shouldn’t be surprising though, because it all correlates to the hiring of head coach Dustin Kerns in 2019. Kerns has helped turn the program into a winning team with true aspirations, doing so by coaching seasons that broke historic droughts, like his 18-win debut season, which was the most wins by a rookie head coach at App State since 1942. This statistic is even more impressive considering that the college has had 22 head coaches.
Another impressive feat by Kerns has been the quick turnaround into multiple winning records in and out of the Sun Belt conference, anchored by a great defense. Besides the coaching changes, the Mountaineers have a talented, balanced roster, where no one player is carrying the offensive or defensive load. If that doesn’t sound good enough, they are a young team that is not overly-reliant on graduating seniors, meaning that this team looks like they will only improve next season. The team’s high steal total and top 50 NCAA defense will be enough to keep Appalachian State competitive, but improvements in scoring efficiency for the team would make them contenders to repeat on the Sun Belt title.
Another great defensive team that lacks a well-rounded offense is UNCG’s Spartans, who have some bigger question marks than App State in the future. This lies mainly in versatile guard Isaiah Miller, who is graduating after winning SoCon player of the year and defensive player of the year for the second season in a row. This past season, Miller posted 19.2 points, 4 assists, and 2.6 steals per game, placing him 9th in the NCAA for steals. He anchored both the offense and defense with his skill and sheer athleticism, and UNCG will likely struggle to replace his contributions next season.
Miller was a poor shooter, but he was not alone with the Spartans shooting 42.4 percent from the field and 30 percent from three, and going below 70 percent from the free throw line. This squad has been held together by their already mentioned great defense and almost 40 rebounds per game.
One cannot forget the high-level coaching from Wes Miller, who has brought a winning standard to the school. However, that success has led to Miller, who played at UNC under Roy Williams, being in constant discussions about potentially replacing Williams when he retires, or just leaving UNCG for a more high-profile job at a bigger school.
UNC Chapel Hill
Speaking of Roy Williams, Chapel Hill was the one team from North Carolina in March Madness to lose their first-round matchup as the higher seed. Directly following their loss, the team’s promising duo of freshman bigs, Walker Kessler and Day’Ron Sharpe, announced they were leaving the program, Kessler through the transfer portal and Sharpe through the NBA draft.
This is never a good sign for a basketball team, but at the same time, it is often overblown what these decisions mean in regards to the school. Either way, the loss of these two players is big for North Carolina, and in addition to that, senior Garrison Brooks will be graduating, assuming he doesn’t take the opportunity to take this past season as a redshirt and return for a fifth season.
Aside from the players, Roy Williams is now 70 years old, and has been a head coach since 1988, spending the past 18 seasons at UNC, which is undeniably taxing. Despite whisperings of his retirement, there seems to be no credence to those rumors. The team also caught a big break when freshman point guard and former five star recruit Caleb Love announced he would be returning for a second season.
As of now, UNC is in no position to return to their championship-contender status next season, but like the blue blood program they are, they could always land the next great recruit, which has happened for the Tar Heels time and time again. Unlike the other two teams mentioned, Chapel Hill is one of the most successful college sports teams of all time, and they have done six times what most teams will never accomplish. So even though Carolina has had two uncharacteristically mediocre seasons in a row, Carolina fans should not fret. ●
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