North Carolina set to be a force again in 2017-18

Editor's note: It’s never too early to look at what’s to come. Over the next few weeks, we will give you a peek at what is ahead for teams in the Power 5 conferences and some other teams expected to be players on the national scene. Next up, North Carolina.

Last year, the North Carolina Tar Heels lost Brice Johnson, an all-ACC first-teamer, and Marcus Paige, a star point guard, off a team that lost in the 2016 national championship game to the Villanova Wildcats on a buzzer-beater.

Then the Tar Heels won the national title the following season.

That’s North Carolina basketball: Coach Roy Williams often avoids setbacks or rebuilding campaigns after fruitful years.

A “rearrangement” is a more proper tag for a Tar Heels program with the potential pieces to again compete for an ACC title and a national championship. Yet it’s difficult to assess every element of a squad still evolving as its stars make decisions about their futures in the coming weeks.

Isaiah Hicks and Kennedy Meeks, two pivotal pieces in UNC’s run to Williams’ third national title, both are seniors who will leave the program. Nate Britt, another departing senior, is the kind of veteran Williams could send into a critical game without much concern that his team would experience a noticeable drop-off.

And Justin Jackson made too much money in the NCAA tournament to return for his senior season: The 6-foot-8 wing cooked the field and displayed the range and aggressiveness NBA scouts wanted him to show in his third season. Grab the cash while you can, young man.

Talented freshman Tony Bradley also entered the NBA draft without hiring an agent. He could come back for his sophomore season, elevate his draft stock and lead North Carolina back to the Final Four. But he told reporters he “might” hire an agent soon, which means the projected first-round pick could follow Jackson to the next level and a nearby luxury car dealership in the coming months.

Still, Joel Berry II -- who won Most Outstanding Player honors for the Final Four on two bad ankles -- probably will return for another season. If he does, he’ll enter the campaign as a preseason All-American and favorite to be ACC Player of the Year.

The cream of North Carolina’s incoming crop is Jalek Felton, a five-star wing ranked 24th in the 2017 class, per ESPN.com, and the nephew of former UNC star Raymond Felton. Plus, North Carolina is still in the running for elite small forward Kevin Knox.

Felton and Berry should enter 2017-18 as one of the nation’s most talented duos. Add Brandon Robinson and Seventh Woods -- former top-100 recruits -- and sophomore Kenny Williams and the Tar Heels should boast one of the country’s best backcourts. Again.

Even if the Tar Heels lose Bradley, they’ll turn to Luke Maye and Theo Pinson to anchor their frontcourt. Pinson (6.1 points per game, 4.6 rebounds, 3.7 assists) could evolve into the league’s most improved player if he works on his midrange game this summer. Maye, the team’s hero in its Elite Eight victory over Kentucky and Sweet 16 triumph over Butler, could emerge as more than a flash next year. Incoming prep centers Sterling Manley and Brandon Huffman will give UNC more depth in the paint.

But the second-chance-point-accruing, offensive-rebounding monsters who won the NCAA title last season will need returnees to step up and freshmen to produce if they intend to maintain those tendencies in 2017-18.

That’s why Bradley matters.

Bradley could come back and move into the “best big man in America” conversation as he expands his game and gives Williams another Brice Johnson-like talent in the post.

If Bradley leaves, North Carolina remains a good team with a potent backcourt and good frontcourt.

So here’s the summary: North Carolina will lose multiple standouts but will bring back a gutsy, elite, athletic backcourt and a fleet of good bigs, all capable of helping the Tar Heels maintain a top-20 defense.

Yeah, you’ve heard that before.

That’s why it makes sense to expect more success for Williams and the Tar Heels next season.