Two years later, this could be the season.
The North Carolina women's basketball team hasn't seen a winning season in two years, the longest stretch since before UNC's 1994 national title. The Tar Heels lost 12 of their last 15 games in 2016-17, including a 19-point loss to Syracuse in the ACC Tournament — the worst postseason loss since losing by the same margin to Colorado in the 2003 NCAA Tournament. But heading into 2016-2017, the Tar Heels have hope for a turnaround.
Before the 2015 offseason, UNC had gone two decades without a losing season. Then, three players from its top-ranked 2013 recruiting class — Allisha Gray, Stephanie Mavunga and Jessica Washington — transferred, influenced in some part by the years-long NCAA investigation that ended Friday with no penalties. Having already lost top recruit Diamond DeShields to Tennessee after the 2013-14 season, the Tar Heels waded through walk-ons and career backups en route to two losing seasons in the years following the transfers.
Now, free from the NCAA shadow and flush with newly recruited talent, the Tar Heels are determined to regain their footing.
Leading the charge is senior guard Jamie Cherry, the lone holdout from that 2014-15 team that went to the Sweet 16. Filling out the backcourt are Stephanie Watts and Destinee Walker — two standouts from the 2015 recruiting class — and Paris Kea, the versatile guard who transferred from Vanderbilt in 2015.
Guard Jocelyn Jones, a talented 2016 recruit who missed last season with injury, joins talented frontcourt freshman Jaelynn Murray and Janelle Bailey as the top "newcomers" to the 2016-17 squad. And outfitting the rest of the roster is a bevy of niche role players, many of whom gained valuable experience last season when they were thrust into action.
Tonight, coach Sylvia Hatchell takes her team into the Smith Center floor during Late Night With Roy as fans get their first look at what could be the next era of UNC women's basketball. Here are five things to watch in tonight's scrimmage:
All-ACC (?) guards
The Tar Heels feature four guards with All-ACC talents, though none have received the honor. Paris Kea came close last season, leading the team in points per game (17.2) and assists per game (4.1) and finishing among the top in the league in points and minutes. But the Tar Heels' win-loss record (15-16, 3-13 ACC) halted any all-conference honors.
“I think they kind of overlooked us last year …" Watts said. "This year, I don’t think they’ll be able to.”
After using the 5-foot-9 Kea in the post last year out of necessity, Hatchell said she's been playing Kea at point guard during practice. That should free up Kea to showcase her passing instincts and create shots for herself, as opposed to relying on mid-range shots off the catch like she did last season. During the team's final scrimmage Thursday, Kea made two beautiful no-look passes and looked comfortable running the offense.
“I don’t know a kid in the league that’s any more versatile than Paris is," Hatchell said.
Cherry, the undisputed leader of the team, is trying to bring even more to her game this season. The team's only senior led UNC in 3-point shooting last season (37.7 percent) but says she wants to be more consistent with her shot. Hatchell wants Cherry to finish better around the basket, and the coach told her point guard this offseason to be more comfortable dishing to her teammates after feeling the burden to score throughout the past two seasons.
“It’s not that you’re doing anything wrong," Hatchell told Cherry. "I just want you to do more.”
If the Tar Heels are focusing on improving one area this year, it's defense.
Last season, North Carolina allowed its opponents to score 75 points in 11 of its last 13 games. In the final eight games, seven opponents topped 80 points — including Syracuse's 83-point effort to close the year.
Much of that can be attributed to depth. The Tar Heels often held tight in the first quarter last season before letting games slip away in the second and third quarters. Injuries and the aforementioned transfers left UNC's roster thin, and opponents took advantage as the games wore on.
This season, with more able bodies, Hatchell is going back to the fundamentals. The team will rely on man-to-man defense, as it has for years, but Hatchell is drilling the basics of zone defense during practice into both the freshmen and the veterans who have perhaps been too fatigued to rely on defensive principles late in games.
The results show in practice. On Thursday, the Tar Heels handled transition defense well and swarmed as a unit during stretches of zone. That's a positive sign for a team that has looked cobbled together for much the past two seasons.
Faster, faster, faster
Another consequence of UNC's depth issues has been the speed of its offense. Hatchell has relied on a six-player rotation at times during the past two years, so fatigue has limited her ability to push the tempo — which has been fundamental to her best offenses at UNC.
Should the Tar Heels stay healthy this season, Hatchell's offensive vision could come to fruition. With two elite playmakers running point in Cherry and Kea, and versatile wings and forwards capable of moving the ball, North Carolina's offense will flow like a dream once everything clicks.
Of course, that might take some time. With the emphasis on defense, the Tar Heels haven't put the same focus on offensive cohesion in early practices. It's a smart approach for a naturally offensive-minded team, but UNC still needs to break through the rust to resemble its 2014-15 levels of efficiency.
In Thursday's practice, the Tar Heels' transition offense looked sloppy at times, with 3-on-1s and 4-on-2s ending without points. The team didn't look gassed, though. After the past two seasons, that's a step in the right direction.
New kids on the block
Perhaps the biggest change from last year to this year comes in two new additions to the frontcourt: Jaelynn Murray and Janelle Bailey.
Murray, a 6-foot-2 forward from Columbia, S.C., was the South Carolina Player of the Year in 2016-17 and brings size to the power forward position that UNC has sorely lacked since the days of Gray and Mavunga. Alongside her is Bailey, a 6-foot-4 center from Matthews, N.C. who was named a McDonald's All-American and ranks among the top forwards in the Class of 2017.
“They’re both playing like they’ve already played a season of college basketball," Watts said.
Hatchell and Watts were both effusive in their praise of Murray, while Bailey's presence was obvious during practice, providing a post presence that North Carolina simply haven't had in years. It's just as obvious that the Tar Heels are still adjusting to having a reliable force down low. At one point Thursday, Hatchell pleaded with her team to feed Bailey the ball.
"Throw it in to the big girl!" she yelled. "She will throw it back!"
Once the Tar Heels get accustomed to dumping it off down low, it'll change the entire dynamic of an offense that has been all too one-dimensional in the past two years — both offensively and defensively. Teams with even one reliable post player could carve up UNC inside, while the Tar Heels struggled to break perimeter defenses since opponents didn't have to worry about defending the paint. Now, they do.
Staying on the court
It'll all be for not if the Tar Heels can't stay healthy, an issue each of the past two years. This year hasn't started much better.
Watts is still sidelined with the same injury that kept her out near the end of the 2016-17 season, but she'll likely hit the court by November. Walker, though, might not play until December as she recovers from a meniscus injury that's still causing her pain during lateral movement. Leah Church, a freshman and deadly 3-point shooter, is battling a foot injury that's kept her out of practice.
Hatchell joked that she empathizes with coach Larry Fedora and the football team, which is battling its own rash of injuries. The Tar Heels are rostering 14 players, but Hatchell said only 8-10 are healthy enough to practice each day. Ten players hit the court on Thursday, but without Watts and Walker, it's tough to tell what this team could look like at full speed.
Tonight's scrimmage, though, should provide a glimpse.
“We’ve got some talented players," Hatchell said. "The biggest thing now is just bringing it all together.”