UNC’s ti­tle de­fense tops story lines for 2017-18

The Washington Times Daily - - SPORTS - BY AARON BEARD

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.

Gon­zaga’s break­through

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.

The sur­prises

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.

Coach­ing shuf­fle

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).

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