As the confetti fell from the rafters after the national championship game in April, North Carolina celebrated its third national title of the Roy Williams era.
Minutes after the party, however, workers at University of Phoenix Stadium unplugged monitors and cameras while others swept the floor clean and picked up trash in the stands.
The 2017-18 season began in that moment. Everything would change for the Final Four participants as transfers, NBA decisions and the signings of prep stars rearranged the rosters of North Carolina, South Carolina, Gonzaga and Oregon in the months ahead.
That prompts a question: As June arrives, what’s the state of the Final Four teams from 2016-17?
North Carolina Tar Heels: Facing serious questions about the frontcourt
Had Tony Bradley returned to Chapel Hill for his sophomore season, the Tar Heels would have entered 2017-18 as a top-five team with a healthy chance to defend their ACC and national titles.
But Bradley entered and remained in the draft, a move that created a significant void in the paint for the reigning leader in offensive-rebounding rate on KenPom.com. The four guys who helped North Carolina achieve that status — Bradley, Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Hicks and Justin Jackson — departed.
So it’s over for UNC, right? Slow down. Luke Maye, Theo Pinson and a pair of four-star prospects in Garrison Brooks and Brandon Huffman cannot duplicate the impact of last season’s formidable frontcourt. But the most potent player on the roster, Joel Berry II, returns for the Tar Heels. The reigning Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four led North Carolina to a national championship on two bad ankles. With Berry on the court last season, UNC averaged 1.21 points per possession, compared to 1.03 PPP when he was on the bench, per hooplens.com. That’s a dramatic impact that not even Justin Jackson matched in 2016-17.
“UNC will continue to have great players but for the first time in a long time, their 4/5 men will be inexperienced,” said one ACC coach. “Their strength will be on the perimeter with Joel Berry II, Theo Pinson and Kenny Williams.”
Add Jalek Felton, a five-star wing and top-30 recruit, Seventh Woods and a collection of returning guards, and it’s clear that North Carolina will not resemble the powerful force of past years. But maybe, with all of these guards and an undersized frontcourt, they might look like Villanova.
Nothing wrong with that.
Gonzaga Bulldogs: Prepping for another strong season with returning talent
But Mark Few’s success in Spokane, Washington, persists because he has handled turnover as well as any coach in America.
Gonzaga will turn to Johnathan Williams (10.2 PPG, 6.4 RPG), who withdrew from the NBA draft last week, and Killian Tillie, a big man who played behind Karnowski and Collins, two of the nation’s best centers last season.
Silas Melson and Josh Perkins will make up a veteran backcourt for Gonzaga. Zach Norvell, a top-100 guard who redshirted last season, and Jesse Wade, a talented shooter back from a religious mission, ensure that Gonzaga will again possess a capable backcourt.
One thing is certain: Gonzaga’s brand of equitable basketball will persist, as Few identifies new leaders for his program, an annual ritual. “Killian [Tillie] told me that it was a perfect spot because everybody there is involved in Gonzaga,” incoming freshman Joel Ayayi recently told the Spokesman-Review.
Whatever demons Few had to exorcise disappeared when he led his program to its first national title game in April. He isn’t under any pressure to duplicate last season’s achievements.
But he’s back with another solid roster, one without the NBA talent of last year’s but still equipped to compete against Saint Mary’s for the West Coast Conference title and win multiple games in the NCAA tournament.
Oregon Ducks: Rebuilding but hopeful
Outside Kentucky, few teams in the one-and-done era have introduced brand new rosters after a Final Four season. But Dana Altman’s crew in 2017-18 will not feature the stars from the team that ended a 78-year drought for a program that hadn’t reached the national semifinals since 1939.
“They will be very different,” said one Pac-12 assistant. “Not as much firepower or experience but they have looked like before in May. They usually manage to replenish the roster the season starts.”
The Ducks thrived on Jordan Bell‘s defense and toughness in the paint. Tyler Dorsey became a hero in multiple games. Dillon Brooks soared, too. But they all decided to turn pro after the Final Four. Dylan Ennis and Chris Boucher, who suffered a season-ending injury in the Pac-12 tournament, exhausted their eligibility. Those were not surprising departures after the team’s success.
But Kavell Bigby-Williams and Casey Benson, a pair of promising prospective contributors for next season, both announced their intentions to transfer after the season. Bigby-Williams might return, but that isn’t guaranteed.
Oregon’s immediate future rests on the prospective fusion of three talented wings: Payton Pritchard (7.4 PPG, 3.6 APG), New Mexico grad transfer Elijah Brown (18.8 PPG, 1.3 SPG) and five-star wing Troy Brown Jr. (No. 14 in the 2017 class, per ESPN.com). If the 2014-15 version of Georgetown transfer Paul White emerges and Bigby-Williams returns, Altman could flirt with top-25 status and a top-tier finish in the Pac-12.
But this isn’t the national title contender of last year.
South Carolina Gamecocks: Floating back to earth
In 20 years, Frank Martin will return to South Carolina’s campus for the 20th anniversary celebration of South Carolina’s first Final Four run.
No matter what happens in the future for Martin or South Carolina, Gamecocks basketball fans will forever remember the team’s run in 2016-17. That’s the beauty of firsts: They last, especially for programs unaccustomed to success.
But here comes the aftermath. South Carolina boasted Sindarius Thornwell, one of the nation’s best two-way players, during that run. P.J. Dozier, who averaged 13.9 PPG and 4.8 RPG, entered the NBA draft and hired an agent. Duane Notice (10.2) exhausted his eligibility.
Martin loses three of his top five scorers from last season as the SEC competition intensifies. Kentucky adds the top-ranked recruiting class in the country. Florida is back after an Elite Eight run. Missouri and Alabama both added five-star recruits. Key pieces return for Vanderbilt, Arkansas and Texas A&M. Tennessee just added Howard grad transfer James Daniel III (27.1 PPG in 2015-16), who led the nation in scoring two years ago. Georgia has the league’s best big man with Yante Maten.
Martin will rely on Chris Silva(10.2 PPG, 6.1 RPG) and Maik Kotsar (5.8 PPG, 4.8 RPG) in 2017-18. Plus, Delaware transfer Kory Holden (17.7 PPG, 38.8 percent from the 3-point line 2015-16) regains his eligibility. That’s a solid nucleus, but the Gamecocks lost a pair of stars in Dozier and Thornwell.
“He’s a real, real talented young man,” Martin told local reporters in Columbia, S.C., after the season. “It’s kind of like he’s been confined to certain things. Well, he’s not confined anymore. His voice, his energy, who he is can become more evident in the locker room, because he can start playing games.”
It’s difficult for any team to sustain momentum after losing its best players in a league that will improve.