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Why North Carolina's good enough to make another run next season

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Few teams build depth like UNC can, and that’s why expectations will still be high in Chapel Hill.

More than its now six national championships, the hallmark of North Carolina’s basketball excellence has been its consistent contention. The Tar Heels have missed the NCAA tournament just three times since 1974, and they’ve finished ranked in the vast majority of those seasons. They’ve been kings of the hill more than almost everybody, but titles aren’t the only standard of greatness. After all, even Michael Jordan only won one national title in Chapel Hill.

The Heels are champions again now, fresh off a win against Gonzaga on Monday night. They’re going to lose tons of production from this title-winning team, and yet, in standard UNC fashion, they’re going to be fine. It’s not likely that they’ll win the national title again in 2018 — but then again, winning a title isn’t “likely” for any one team.

UNC will be in the hunt, like always, because its depth and talent is only rivaled by the very best in college basketball.

Let’s start with what North Carolina’s going to lose, which is, in a word, tons.

The Tar Heels were made up of three good seniors, and their best player was a junior who seems to be a lock to enter the NBA draft. The total output from those players this season was huge.

The rotation seniors who will leave are center Kennedy Meeks, forward Isaiah Hicks, and backup point guard Nate Britt. They’ll take a little less than 40 percent of the team’s scoring out the door with them. Meeks alone was responsible for almost half of UNC’s national-best 302 offensive rebounds.

Small forward Justin Jackson, the ACC’s reigning Player of the Year, probably won’t stick around to defend that title. Jackson is widely regarded as a rising first-round pick in June’s draft, and winning the title affords him the chance to leave school at the perfect time. His value isn’t going up if he spends another year in Chapel Hill.

Assuming Jackson leaves, he’ll take 18 points and five boards per game with him. Grouped with the seniors, that means that more than half of UNC’s points will be departing at once. Three of the top four scorers and rebounders — Jackson, Meeks, and Hicks — will be out.

That’s a lot to replace, and that also assumes junior wing Theo Pinson and point guard Joel Berry II, the NCAA tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, will stick around. Those are still variables, along with Jackson’s departure for the NBA.

This is why it’s good to be North Carolina, though.

The Heels have a lot of young talent in place already. They had a five-star freshman this year, Tony Bradley, who was excellent backing up Meeks and should return. They had two four-star rookies, Seventh Woods and Brandon Robinson, whose contributions were limited. Attrition happens, but there’s a good deal of untapped talent on the roster.

They could also get more out of four-star class of 2015 guard Kenny Williams, who was efficient off the bench before a knee injury ended his season in February. They should also get more throughout next season from rising junior forward Luke Maye, who went from steady bench piece to Carolina folk hero during the tournament regional final.

Everything won’t be perfect for the defending national champions. UNC might still be in some NCAA hot water, and its 2017 recruiting class isn’t slated to be as good as usual. There’s just one four-star and a couple of high three-stars on the way, according to the 247Sports Composite. UNC isn’t likely to install a couple of dominant one-and-dones next season. Then again, it didn’t this year, and things worked out fine.

When you’re North Carolina, you’re able to build up impressive depth over years and years. The Heels will lose several of their best players, but the cupboard is stocked well. The talent they’ll add next year won’t have to carry the load for this team to be a high tournament seed and threaten to make yet another run in March.