Luke DeCock

Backcourt remodel on the fly unusual for UNC, but typical for college basketball today

North Carolina coach Roy Williams directs his team on defense during the first half against Auburn during their NCAA Sweet 16 matchup on Friday, March 29, 2019 at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, Missouri.
North Carolina coach Roy Williams directs his team on defense during the first half against Auburn during their NCAA Sweet 16 matchup on Friday, March 29, 2019 at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, Missouri. rwillett@newsobserver.com

In the space of four days, North Carolina remodeled its backcourt on the fly, like the subject of some kind of HGTV show. By adding a coveted recruit, a depth freshman and a graduate transfer, the Tar Heels turned a position of potential weakness into one of strength.

The Tar Heels were going after Cole Anthony all season, but after landing him they then added combo guard Anthony Harris and Charleston Southern grad transfer Christian Keeling, an unprecedented amount of late player movement for North Carolina, uncommon for Roy Williams and the Tar Heels but increasingly the way business is done in the sport.

Williams has taken emergency graduate transfers before (Justin Knox), gone after late-committing one-and-dones before (Kevin Knox) and taken late depth recruits before (Kenny Williams), but not all at once.

This April remodeling has a different feel to it, because of its comprehensiveness, because of the rare exit out of the UNC program involved – Seventh Woods, in the midst of all this, announced his intention to transfer – and because of how it takes advantage of all the ways college basketball teams take advantage of what is essentially an era of free agency for players, whether that’s recruits waiting to see who commits to the NBA draft or the increasing waves of graduate transfers.

Check out photos of Seventh Woods during his time as a UNC Tar Heel. Woods announced Thursday, April 25, 2019 that he plans to transfer.

That’s not how the Tar Heels have typically done it. With its prestige and reputation, North Carolina typically is way out in front of the recruiting process, identifying the players it wants early, getting early commitments, locking up its classes before many other schools know what they’re doing.

That can backfire sometimes – J.P. Tokoto was one of the most sought-after players in the country as a sophomore, only for his development to stall – but in the Williams era it has typically resulted in a steady stream of talent, both of the multiple-year and one-and-done variety, with the exception of the years the scandal and potential sanctions hung over the program’s head – and even then, in the absence of top-level talent, North Carolina was able to put together the classes of multiple-year players that developed into the 2016 national finalists and 2017 national champions.

Since then, and with the NCAA investigation concluded, the needle has swung back the other way a little. Nassir Little was always a one-year player; Coby White, like Tony Bradley a few years earlier, played his way out of North Carolina in a single season.

But even those classes were locked down early, while other schools chased after the late-deciding top-25 players and rooted around what was left. And this class started out that way, with Armando Bacot and Jeremiah Francis both signed in November while the Tar Heels waited on Anthony. Then April got crazy.

The Tar Heels were always going after Anthony, the potential crown jewel of this class and a key addition with the perimeter offense of Cam Johnson and Kenny Williams departing. But with White leaving for the pros and, later, Woods transferring after a UNC career that never quite measured up to inflated expectations, there were certainly holes to be filled.

Anthony filled one, providing immediate offense. Harris filled another, adding much-needed guard depth for the next few years. And Keeling added experienced guard depth for this season.

Under Williams, North Carolina has occasionally been active in April. But never like this.

And the Tar Heels still have room to add one more player, whether that’s an incoming freshman like undecided swingman Precious Achiuwa or another grad transfer.

Other ACC schools have been doing this for a while, playing the transfer game, graduate and otherwise; filling holes with late recruits; hoping to end up with enough players by October. Williams and North Carolina have not, until now. The Tar Heels always have their own way of doing things, as Williams does his. Even they have had to adapt to these new realities of college basketball.

Sports columnist Luke DeCock has covered the Summer Olympics, the Final Four, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. He joined The News & Observer in 2000 to cover the Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a columnist in 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and has won multiple national and state awards for his columns and feature writing while twice being named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.

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