KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The body language of the players on the court suggested that North Carolina was a beaten team several minutes before coach Roy Williams finally raised the white flag and removed his starters from the game.
Luke Maye was the last to leave, coming out with 1:05 remaining in the Tar Heels’ 97-80 loss to Auburn in the NCAA Midwest Region semifinals last Friday.
As the senior forward walked dejectedly toward the bench to one final chorus of “Luuuuuke” from his fans at Sprint Center, an era of UNC basketball officially came to an end.
Although there are still underclassmen remaining on the roster that have national championship rings to their name, Maye and fellow senior Kenny Williams are the last significant links to their team’s 2017 title.
With graduate forward Cameron Johnson also departing and a pair of star freshmen leaving for the NBA Draft, the Tar Heels will have a vastly different look the next time they take the floor for the opening game next season against Notre Dame.
It’s a realization that hit their Hall of Fame coach with tearful reality during a somber postgame press conference.
“My athletic director is sitting back there and I probably shouldn’t say this, (but) I would coach these guys for nothing,” Roy Williams said, holding back tears during his postgame press conference. “This feeling you’ve had because of the association with them, you have no idea how good that has been. I’ve been a lucky guy to coach these kids.”
Maye and Kenny Williams have been with the Tar Heels for 110 wins over the past four years. The two combined with Johnson to form the nucleus of a 2018-19 team that earned 29 victories and a share of the ACC regular season championship.
“To really know the feeling, the joy you get from playing here, you actually have to be part of it,” Kenny Williams said, saying that if he tried to put his feelings about playing for UNC into words, “it wouldn’t do it justice.”
Between them, Williams, Maye and Johnson accounted for 47 percent of UNC’s scoring, 46 percent of its rebounding and 44 percent of its assists this season. As difficult as that will be to replace, the Tar Heels will also likely lose its two best young players as well.
The first domino fell on Monday when Nassir Little announced his intention to enter the NBA Draft and hire an agent.
Little has always expressed his intention to be a one-and-done college player and despite an up-and-down freshman season that fell short of expectations, he made it official he would not be back in 2019-20. He averaged only 10 points and five rebounds off the bench.
“This past season on and off the court has been amazing,” Little wrote on his Twitter account. “I’m thankful for the opportunity to attend such a prestigious university and play for such a storied basketball program. With that said, it is time to pursue my lifelong dream and enter the 2019 NBA draft.”
Coby White announced his intention to join Little in the draft on Wednesday.
His stock has taken a meteoric rise over the course of a season in which he ranked second on the Tar Heels in scoring at 16.1 points per game and was tops with 143 assists. Most NBA Draft sites project him as a top-10 pick with some having him as high as No. 5 overall.
“This season has taught me so much and I wouldn’t trade the opportunity to play at UNC with a group of guys that have truly become my brothers for anything,” White said in a statement issued by UNC. “These past 10 months have been the highlight of my basketball career and I’ve grown so much on and off the court. Thank you is not enough to show my gratitude to the best coaching staff. They pushed me and the entire team to be the best players we could be.”
Of those teammates that will be back next season, only big man Garrison Brooks is an experienced starter. The 6-foot-9 sophomore averaged 8.0 points and 5.7 rebounds and was UNC’s best defensive player.
He’ll likely move from the five to the four next year with the arrival of five-star center Armando Bacot. But even so, he’ll be looked upon to increase his offensive production.
After Brooks, the statistical drop-off is significant. No one else on the roster averaged more than three points, three rebounds or 11.7 minutes.
Some of that had to do with injury, as with freshman Leaky Black — who was starting to show glimpses of a Theo Pinson-like jack-of-all-trades before missing 13 games with a sprained ankle.
Sophomore center Sterling Manley also saw his development slowed by a knee issue that took him out of the regular rotation for good just as the ACC schedule was starting.
Junior shooting guard Brandon Robinson is the most polished of the holdovers, having made 46 percent of his 3-point attempts while compiling an assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.6-to-1 off the bench.
With junior point guard Seventh Woods having yet to develop into a reliable contributor and Andrew Platek relegated to little more than mop-up duty, the success of next season’s Tar Heels will almost certainly hinge on players Williams is still in the process of recruiting.
Atop that list is five-star point guard Cole Anthony, who has indicated he’s leaning heavily toward UNC but has yet to commit. The Tar Heels may also be in the market for a graduate transfer wing, with both Arkansas-Little Rock’s Rayjon Tucker (20.3 points per game, 6.7 rebounds per game) and Akron’s Daniel Utomi (14.2, 5.5) acknowledging they’ve been contacted by UNC.