by Aaron Beard, Associated Press
CHAPEL HILL — North Carolina won't have a difficult time finding motivation this season.
The memories of losing in the NCAA championship game on a last-second 3-pointer to Villanova still sting more than six months later. It was the crushing final play in a 33-win season that saw the Tar Heels go from a preseason No. 1-ranked team questioned about its toughness to a group that matured enough to sweep the Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season and tournament titles before reaching the Final Four.
There are enough veteran returnees for UNC to have the potential to do it again, driven by the memory of coming so oh-so-close to cutting down the nets in April.
"Every time I turn around and look up at the banners, where the national championship banners are," junior Joel Berry II said, "sometimes it hurts me that we don't have the 2016 national championship up there. So it's just motivation to me."
Some Tar Heels, including Hall of Fame coach Roy Williams, still haven't watched film from the loss.
"I thought we had a great, great year but it's just like somebody pulls your heart out and taunts you by shaking it in front of you," Williams said. "But you've got to get over it."
The Tar Heels (33-7, 14-4 ACC) have some big holes with the losses of four-year starter Marcus Paige — the guy UNC looked for when it needed a big shot — and Associated Press all-American Brice Johnson inside. But they return six of their top eight scorers while adding a top-10 recruiting class.
Berry is the top returning scorer (12.8 points), while fellow junior Justin Jackson (12.2) and senior big man Kennedy Meeks are returning starters. The Tar Heels also return ACC sixth man of the Isaiah Hicks, now likely to earn a promotion into the starting lineup.
The Tar Heels also will get help up front from McDonald's All-America Tony Bradley, who headlines a wing-heavy recruiting class.
Some other things to know about the Tar Heels this season:
PINSON'S INJURY: Pinson's injury during a recent practice, announced Friday, has the potential to be a big blow. The versatile swingman is the team's top defender, a good passer and a leader with a knack for keeping up team morale.
BERRY IN CHARGE?: Berry looks like the top candidate to take Paige's role as the guy to entrust with taking the big shot. He was the team's best outside shooter (38 percent from 3-point range) and led the team in assists, steals and free-throw percentage. And in a sign that Berry could be ready for a leap, he upped his game by averaging 13.7 points and shooting 50 percent in six NCAA Tournament games — ending with 20 points against Villanova.
HICKS' FOUL TROUBLE: Keeping Hicks on the floor last season was a challenge, including twice in the final 10 games when he picked up four or five fouls in fewer than 10 minutes. The 6-foot-9 forward brings scoring and rebounding, and he was the team's defensive player of the game eight times — third most on the team behind Paige and Berry. The Tar Heels need him out there this year with fewer frontcourt options.
JACKSON'S GROWTH: Jackson has good size on the perimeter and has been a complimentary scorer through his first two seasons. The Tar Heels need him to become a consistent scorer now in a leading role, especially when it comes to improving his 29-percent shooting from behind the arc last year. He's an unselfish player and has occasionally seemed content to blend into the background, but the Tar Heels are tougher to stop when he's playing assertively.
THE ROOKIES: The 6-foot-10 Bradley, a native of Bartow, Florida, will have a shot at immediate minutes for a team with only Meeks and Hicks returning to the frontcourt. The rest of that recruiting class brings depth on the wing with Brandon Robinson, Seventh Woods and Shea Rush.