By Adam Lucas
1. This is going to be fun. Caleb Love’s announcement today of his return for the 2022-23 season means the four eligible members of the Iron Five will all be back for next season. That ensures the Tar Heels will be a consensus preseason top-three pick for just the second time in the last ten seasons (the other was the 2015-16 season, when the Tar Heels began the season as the preseason top team in the country) .
2. The schedule is likely to benefit the nation’s top team. Carolina will play in the Phil Knight Invitational in Portland from Nov. 24-27, a stacked 16-team event that includes two separate eight-team brackets. Carolina’s half of the field, which has already been announced, includes Alabama, Iowa State, Michigan State, Oregon, Portland, UConn and Villanova (the loaded Tar Heel women’s team will also participate in a four-team women’s event at the same location) . The Heels are also likely due for a road game–in what will surely be one of the marquee games of the event–in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, and a yet to be announced destination and matchup in the CBS Sports Classic. Keep in mind that Hubert Davis has also expressed a frequent preference for the Tar Heels to regularly play a game in New York City.
3. A previous ACC announcement indicated the three-year schedule matrix will repeat beginning with the 2022-23 season. If that’s the case, that should mean the Tar Heels will have home-and-home matchups with Notre Dame, Pitt, Virginia and Wake Forest. In that scenario, the Heels would have road-only games with Florida State, Louisville, Syracuse and Virginia Tech, with home-only meetings with Boston College, Clemson, Georgia Tech and Miami.
4. And, of course, that ACC regular season slate would be capped with what should be an epic senior day battle against Duke on a Saturday. If both teams play up to preseason screenings, and given that it could be the last home appearance for some Tar Heel favorites, that could be one of the hottest Smith Center tickets in the past decade.
5. The decisions by Armando Bacot and Caleb Love, especially, highlight the new era of college basketball. It used to be that the decision to go pro was tilted heavily financially in favor of playing professionally. In 2022, however, the equation is much different. The run to the 2022 national championship game and the storybook wins over Duke, combined with new NIL rules, catapulted the Tar Heel players into a new marketing sphere. They’ve taken advantage, and that made their decision to return much easier.
6. As you’re thinking about next season–which we’ll all likely do every day between now and mid-November–keep in mind that players and coaches unanimously said the presence of Brady Manek is what made the difference this year from a floor-spacing perspective. We all know what the four returning starters can do. Ultimately, the success of the 2023 season might be determined by the improvements from the Tar Heel reserves who will compete to fill that fifth starting spot and the rest of the rotation, along with the incoming freshmen. Donrez Styles and Puff Johnson both played some key minutes during the 2022 tournament run. Johnson’s three-point shooting would be a major asset, and Styles possesses elite athleticism. justin mckoy gives Hubert Davis a bigger body who can defend taller players inside, and D’Marco Dunn is due to make the frequent freshman-to-sophomore jump.
7. Perhaps the biggest question will be the progress of Kerwin Walton, who took a step back during his sophomore campaign after an encouraging freshman year. Walton has to make significant improvements on defense and offense. But he has shown the ability to shoot from the outside at a productive ACC level, a skill that would make him a valuable asset if he can take the other steps.
8. And what of the Tar Heel freshmen? Seth Trimble gets the immediate benefit of going against Caleb Love and RJ Davis every day in practice, a training ground that will make him much better in his backup minutes and then in a much bigger role as a sophomore. If he’s healthy and ready to contribute, Jalen Washington perhaps plays the position of the most need, as he could give quality big man minutes. Tyler Nickel will experience a major step up in level of competition, but Hubert Davis loves his competitiveness. And Will Shaver made the wise decision to spend the spring semester practicing with the Tar Heels, and will need to continue working hard with Jonas Sahratian to play meaningful game minutes this season.
9. Because someone will ask: Love’s return means the Tar Heels are currently at the 13-scholarship maximum. That eliminates the need to pursue any players from the transfer portal.
10. Just a slight word of caution. There are no guarantees. It’s true that the Tar Heels are bringing back four key pieces from one of the most fun tournament runs in the 21st century. It’s also true that Hubert Davis‘evolution as a head coach and tactician was a major reason why Carolina was so successful. But college basketball is in a new era now. All four players will essentially have three full-time jobs over the next 12 months: they’ll play a Division 1 sport at the highest possible level, they’ll be a college student, and they’ll be a businessman marketing themselves and their NIL opportunities. That’s something Phil Ford gold Eric Montross or even Marcus Paige never had to worry about.
The way they balance those three functions and maintain the final month’s chemistry that made the 2022 team so dangerous will ultimately determine a great deal about 2023. A big part of the push to the national title game was proving everyone wrong (you can read more about that in the new book, Together, which goes to the printer this week and features new interviews with all five starting Tar Heels plus Hubert Davis). There will be no doubters this preseason. The expectations will be very different for 2023.