In his first 17 years as UNC head coach, Roy Williams had a total of five players transfer out to play at other schools.
It’s clearly a whole new world in Chapel Hill.
In the first few weeks following the conclusion of Hubert Davis’ second season leading the Tar Heels, a total of six players entered the transfer portal in the hopes of leaving to finish their college careers elsewhere.
Part of that is due to the new environment in college basketball, where the transfer portal, NIL payments and loosened transfer rules have turned changing schools into the equivalent of NBA free agency. A record 170 players entered the portal on the first day it was open in March, and the number of players looking to transfer is now well over 1,000.
Still, losing a half-dozen members of the roster with some players’ decisions still pending is a level of instability usually reserved for programs undergoing an unexpected coaching change, not one a year removed from the national championship game with its nucleus still largely intact.
The biggest name among the departing Tar Heels is the latest to make his announcement. Guard Caleb Love, whose game-clinching shot against Duke in last season’s Final Four victory over the Blue Devils earned him a spot in UNC lore forever, entered the portal at the start of this week and became one of the biggest prizes on the open market.
When he’s on, Love can hit from anywhere on the court. On the flip side, he is often a bit too convinced he’s about to have one of his legendary hot streaks and has taken his share of ill-advised shots. On a UNC team that appeared to be wracked by chemistry problems this past season, Love was thought to be one of the players at the center of the conflict.
Davis frequently complained about unnamed players being too concerned about getting their own stats and their own NIL money and not being willing to sacrifice for the team, comments that were thought to be at least partly targeted at the mercurial junior. In his announcement of his decision to transfer, Love thanked Davis and the coaching staff for “constantly challenging me,” perhaps implying that he also thought the comments were directed at him.
Regardless of what went on behind the scenes, Love’s departure leaves Carolina without its leading scorer (16.7 points per game) and, despite complaints about shot selection and selfishness, the team’s most prolific 3-point shooter and second-leading assists man. With 1,476 career points in Carolina blue, he also becomes the highest-scoring player ever to leave by transfer, topping Garrison Brooks, who left for his final extra COVID season after scoring 1,276.
The other five players leaving by transfer appear to be related to coach Davis’ unwillingness to play his bench over his first two seasons. The UNC starting five played 81% of all minutes this past season, and the Tar Heels ranked in the bottom five nationally in bench minutes played. That was thought to be the reason that Justin McKoy (59 minutes played and 22 DNPs), Dontrez Styles (89 minutes, 18 DNPs), Tyler Nickel (150 minutes and 8 DNPs) and Will Shaver (6 minutes in an injury-shortened freshman year) all chose to leave. Puff Johnson, who averaged 10 minutes a game but has battled injury during his time at Chapel Hill, was a bit of a surprise when he entered the portal. Johnson followed his brother Cam to Chapel Hill and was expected to play a major role next year, perhaps even starting.
Nickel, a four-star recruit who left after one year, has reportedly heard from Virginia Tech, Iowa, Mississippi State and Penn State, among the nearly three dozen schools to reach out. Styles, who departs after two seasons, has heard from Illinois, Pitt, Georgetown, Maryland and Texas A&M, and he took a visit to rival NC State. Johnson has been contacted by Kentucky, Indiana, West Virginia and Pitt, among others.
The news hasn’t been all bad for the Tar Heels. All-ACC big man Armando Bacot announced he planned to return for his extra COVID season, and he’ll be joined by guard RJ Davis, giving UNC two of their top three scorers from last season. The Heels also got their first incoming transfer, showing the portal flows both ways.
Paxson Wojcik, a graduate transfer from Brown University, committed to Davis and the Tar Heels for next season. He’s the son of Doug Wojcik, a UNC assistant under Matt Doherty. He shot 38% on 3-pointers last season, which would have easily led the Tar Heels, and averaged 14.9 points, 7.2 rebounds and 3.2 assists. He scored 14 points with six rebounds against UNC at the Smith Center in Davis’ second game as UNC coach.
“It’s been my dream school,” Wojcik, who started his college career at Loyola, Illinois, said of UNC.
It’s the first step in what promises to be a long offseason journey for the Tar Heels staff. Davis will need to continue to mine the transfer portal as he looks to reassemble his roster heading into next season.