UNC’s title defense tops story lines for 2017-18
GLENDALE, ARIZ. | The 2016-17 season is over, with North Carolina holding off Gonzaga to win the national championship for the program’s sixth NCAA title.
The win for the Tar Heels wrapped up the season’s biggest story line: How North Carolina would bounce back from a buzzer-beating loss in last year’s finale.
Let’s take an early look at some of the threads to watch leading into next season. March Madness set up preludes to next season for numerous programs, players and coaches:
Tar Heels’ response again
The key question for the 2017-18 Tar Heels as they follow this year’s run is how different the team will look.
Seniors Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Hicks and Nate Britt will be gone, and Associated Press All-American Justin Jackson could join them in an early entry to the NBA draft. Freshman big man Tony Bradley also told The Associated Press after the Monday night win that he was “100 percent” going to test the waters and didn’t rule out hiring an agent, saying he “might not” be back.
Bradley would have a key role inside if he returns, while Final Four most outstanding player Joel Berry II and rising senior Theo Pinson would lead the perimeter.
The Tar Heels will try to become the first team to reach three straight title games since Kentucky (1996-98) and the first to repeat since Florida in 2006 and 2007.
For so long, Gonzaga was the team that couldn’t get to a Final Four. A 37-2 season changed that.
Now it’s time to see if Mark Few’s program can do it again. Like the Tar Heels, there are roster questions such as whether guard Nigel Williams-Goss returns for his senior season or 7-footer Zach Collins decides to become a one-and-done player.
The bulk of the rotation could be back to put Gonzaga back in the Final Four mix.
Kentucky’s latest recruiting haul
De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk are the first of this year’s potential one-and-done prospects to declare for the draft at Kentucky, but John Calipari’s next wave of touted recruits is on deck.
Touted guard Hamidou Diallo is already on campus as a midyear enrollee, while power forward P.J. Washington leads a recruiting class ranked No. 1 nationally by both Rivals and Scout.com.
This year’s group was good enough to drive the Wildcats to the Elite Eight, while Calipari has won a national title (2012) and reached three other Final Fours (2011, 2014, 2015) at Kentucky.
Villanova’s next act
Villanova won the 2016 national championship on Kris Jenkins’ last-second 3-pointer, then carried the No. 1 overall seed into this year’s tournament before being upset by Wisconsin in the second round.
It was a familiar stumble for Villanova, which failed to make it out of the opening weekend of the tournament in seven of eight years following the 2009 Final Four run. And with Jenkins joining AP All-American Josh Hart out the door, it’s time to see what coach Jay Wright can do next.
Way out west
The Pac-12 had a terrific year at the top with Oregon making its first Final Four since winning the first NCAA championship in 1939, while Arizona was a 2-seed and UCLA was a No. 3.
For the Ducks, top players Dillon Brooks, Tyler Dorsey and Jordan Bell have decisions to make on whether to return — and that could determine whether Oregon can take another step after reaching an Elite Eight in 2016 and reaching this year’s national semifinals.
And with Gonzaga’s success, Arizona coach Sean Miller might have inherited the title of “best coach never to reach a Final Four.” Freshman Lauri Markkanen is NBA bound, and it’s unclear whether Allonzo Trier will return.
But reinforcements are coming, with UCLA boasting Rivals’ No. 2-ranked class and Arizona coming in third.
Northwestern was a sentimental favorite after making its first NCAA Tournament and throwing a secondround scare into eventual finalist Gonzaga. Coach Chris Collins now faces the challenge of maintaining instead of building.
As for South Carolina, coach Frank Martin can try to build off a Final Four run as a 7-seed that included knocking off preseason No. 1 Duke.
There are new coaches at several prominent programs, most notably Archie Miller leaving Dayton for Indiana.
Some other new coaches to watch: Georgetown’s Patrick Ewing (replaces John Thompson III); Illinois’ Brad Underwood (from Oklahoma State); LSU’s Will Wade (from VCU); Missouri’s Cuonzo Martin (from California); North Carolina State’s Kevin Keatts (replaces Mark Gottfried); and Washington’s Mike Hopkins (longtime Syracuse assistant).