CHARLOTTE — It was all about the future for the North Carolina women's basketball team on Thursday at ACC Media Day in Charlotte, where coach Sylvia Hatchell and guards Jamie Cherry and Paris Kea took the stage just three weeks before opening their season on Nov. 10 at Carmichael Arena.
Argyle Report made the short drive to the Queen City and asked about UNC's upcoming season, the NCAA investigation and more. Here are five things to know from the Tar Heels' media tour:
Breaking the spell
The opening question in Thursday's press conference was about UNC's 2016-17 season, when the Tar Heels finished 15-16 (3-13) and lost to Syracuse in the second round of the ACC Tournament. Hatchell was having none of that.
"Can we forget about last season?" she said.
Jokes aside, last year was the second-straight losing season for the Tar Heels, the longest such streak since before UNC's 1994 national championship run. Two years removed from a Sweet 16 appearance, North Carolina is hoping for a fresh start with its influx of talented freshman and slew of standout veterans.
Ten of the Tar Heels' 13 players from 2016-17 are back this season, with forward Hillary Fuller as the only notable departure. Junior guards Stephanie Watts and Destinee Walker have yet to see the court as they recover from lingering injuries, but Jamie Cherry and Paris Kea will be explosive from the get-go. And they'll be joined by a promising batch of newcomers.
At 6-foot-4, center Janelle Bailey was named a McDonald's All-American at Providence Day School in Charlotte and earned a spot on the ACC Newcomer Watch List on Thursday. Jaelynn Murray, a 6-foot-2 forward, was the top player in South Carolina as a high school senior, while Leah Church holds the world record for most three-pointers in a minute (32).
And Jocelyn Jones — a former McDonald's All-American nominee who missed the entire 2016-17 season with an injury — fills out the most talented bench UNC's seen in years.
"The future's going to be great," Hatchell said. "Just trust me on that."
The fellow ACC members don't share Hatchell's optimism just yet, with the coaches picking North Carolina to finish ninth out of 15 teams and the Blue Ribbon Panel predicting a 10th-place finish. But the conference is taking note of the talent in UNC's lineup.
Both Kea and Watts were named to the Preseason All-ACC team by the Blue Ribbon Panel, tying North Carolina with Duke, Louisville and Notre Dame for the most players on the list. The coaches also named Kea as an All-ACC player, while both Newcomer Watch Lists featured Bailey — the first Tar Heel to make the list since Watts and Walker in 2015.
Kea said she's excited to prove the honor in her hometown of Greensboro during this year's ACC Tournament, which was moved to South Carolina a season ago. Based on Cherry's play in that tournament, the senior guard could make a case for an All-ACC nod, too.
In UNC's two tournament games last season, Cherry and Kea combined to play all but four minutes. Kea put up 21 and 17 points against Pittsburgh and Syracuse, respectively, while Cherry dropped a career-high 32 points on the Panthers and added 24 against the Orange.
"That stuff never really mattered to me," Cherry said about the All-ACC awards. "Because at the end of the day, we all have to get out on the court and we all have to prove it."
Kea proved herself at the ACC level last year, and the conference took notice. But she could be even better this season.
As a redshirt sophomore in 2016-17, Kea led the ACC in minutes per game (36.2) and finished fifth with 17.2 points per game. She added 4.1 assists and 2.2 steals per game and shot 48.8 percent — all ranked in the top 10 in the conference. Hatchell said she still can't believe she didn't earn All-ACC honors last season.
"I'm just thankful this kid's back," she said.
Yet Kea likely hasn't reached her ceiling. A natural point guard, Kea played out of position last year as a playmaking power forward for a team sorely lacking in size. Now, the 5-foot-9 breakout star is back to leading the offense in practice and has looked impressive doing so.
At point guard, she has the length to disrupt the perimeter defensively and has the vision to catch opponents off guard with pinpoint passes through the lane. And with the ball in her hands, she'll have even more opportunities to pick her spots offensively when she's not dishing to her teammates.
"I'd put Paris' mid-range game up against anybody in the country," Hatchell said.
Thursday marked the first time Hatchell has spoken publicly about the NCAA's final ruling last Friday on its years-long investigation of UNC. And, much like Roy Williams of the men's team, Hatchell seemed relieved it was over.
Throughout the investigation, the women's basketball program was heavily cited in the NCAA's notices of allegations sent to the University. The possibility of postseason penalties loomed large, contributing in some way to the mass exodus of players from the program during the 2015-16 offseason — which has visibly set the program back the past two seasons.
But the NCAA ultimately decided to avoid sanctions for any North Carolina teams, including Hatchell's. The coach was in her office Friday when she got the call, and she says she felt the same peace she's known for years.
"Peace comes from truth, and that was the bottom line all the way through," Hatchell said. "Now it's behind us and we're moving forward, and I'm extremely excited."
Closing in on 1,000
It seems only fitting, given the tumult that Hatchell's faced in recent years, that the Hall of Fame coach could reach a significant career milestone exactly a month into this season.
Hatchell sits just 10 wins away from 1,000 career victories, a mark only two other coaches have ever reached. The Tar Heels open the season with a 10-game home stand, starting Nov. 10 against Hampton and ending Dec. 10 against Furman.
It'd be a tall task to run the table through that game, especially with two of UNC's top players still shelved with injuries. But it seems inevitable that the Tar Heels will hit 10 wins at some point this season. And when they do, it'll be a symbolic apex for Hatchell after years of climbing.
"I want to get these kids back to where we used to be," she said. "The last two years have been rough. But that's over with. It's behind us. ...
"We have the foundation and the potential to have a really good team this year. I just want to make that happen for these kids."