October 28, 2020 

Built by Banghart: UNC bolstered by newfound depth

Strong recruiting class, pair of grad transfers raises expectations for Tar Heels

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Janelle Bailey — an All-ACC selection a year ago — is one of just two returning starters for the Tar Heels in 2020-21. (Mitchell Northam / The Next)

Last season did not end the way the North Carolina Tar Heels hoped.

After a Feb. 2 home win over Clemson, they were 16-6 and 7-4 in ACC play in Courtney Banghart’s first year on the job. The Tar Heels had a formidable front court duo and — when everything clicked — their offense was sharp and difficult to stop. Problem was, injuries occurred, a problem with depth became a glaring one, and defensive lapses happened far too often. UNC never really looked right for the rest of the season and finished it on an eight-game losing streak, capped off by a first-round flameout in the ACC tournament.

“Last year, there were some (players) that — either because they weren’t healthy or because they hadn’t progressed to the level that we needed them to progress at — you just go into games knowing that certain people can’t help you,” Banghart said. “It’s not great to have.”

Despite the pandemic, Banghart continued to work hard at reshaping her squad in the offseason. Just two starters return in Janelle Bailey and Malu Tshitenge, but a host of talented newcomers are expected to not only bolster this squad, but raise its potential. While the opposite was true a year ago, this roster has Banghart’s fingerprints all over it — and she’s excited about what this group of players can accomplish.

“The team makeup is quite different than a year ago,” Banghart said during a Zoom call last week. “And we’ve got a bunch of things that make it different, one of which is we have a lot of experience, a lot of talent, a lot of length — a really competitive group. And we have depth, which is going to help a lot in the gauntlet that is the ACC.

“So far, it’s one of my favorite teams that I’ve ever coached… We have a lot more versatility offensively, but we’ve got a whole lot more depth and speed on the defensive end.”

UNC a school that ‘can do both’

In college basketball, a roster can be built in three ways. A coach can go all in on recruiting and try to bring in players that will not only fit their system, but excel at it for four years. The second method is comb the transfer portal, trying to find missing pieces, prospects with untapped potentials and players who can plug-in anywhere and succeed right away. The third way is to combine both of those strategies, and it’s what the top programs in the country have been able to do nearly year after year.

Take the 2018-19 Baylor squad, for example, that topped Notre Dame for the National Championship. Paint partners Lauren Cox and Kalani Brown were recruited by Kim Mulkey and groomed into stars, as were DiDi Richards and Juicy Landrum on the wings. But Baylor’s starting point guard was Chloe Jackson, who had previous stops at N.C. State and LSU before landing with the Bears. All she did was hit the go-ahead bucket in the title game and take home the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player Award. The year before, Notre Dame recruit Arike Ogunbowale hit the championship-winning shot for the Irish, but they were led in scoring in the title game by Nebraska transfer Jessica Shepard.

In this era of college basketball, the teams contending for championships have to be able to bring in players via the transfer market and the recruiting trail. And heading into just her second season at the helm of the Tar Heels, Banghart has again made Chapel Hill a place that can attract talent from both pools.

“It’s like the NBA teams, right? Do you build your team from the draft? Or do you build your team like the Lakers have done it? Because they are attractive enough that they can sort of get everybody’s best,” Banghart explained. “I think at Carolina, you can do both. And I plan to. You can be the team that people want to come to, and you can also build from (recruiting) with the kids that you can have (for) four years… We’re going to continue to recruit here the way that we want to and need to, and it would be irresponsible of me not to also monitor grad transfer and other such impact transfers, as well. So, it’s really just made us more nimble.”

Courtney Banghart coaches her Tar Heels at N.C. State’s Reynolds Coliseum on Jan. 27, 2020. (Mitchell Northam / The Next)

Kelly leads rookie class

The group of freshmen Banghart was able to pull in after just one season on the job is impressive. Of the five rookies, three were ranked inside ESPN’s Top 100 rankings, and one — guard Deja Kelly — was tabbed as the 10th best player in the 2020 class. Forward Anya Poole checked in at No. 49 in those rankings, while forward Alexandra Zelaya ranked 98th. Rounding out the class for the Tar Heels are a pair of three-star recruits in Alyssa Ustby and North Carolina native Kennedy Todd-Williams.

Banghart is hopeful that much of this young group can contribute right away. And she’s particularly high on Kelly, one of four top-10 recruits to enter the ACC this season.

A dynamic 5’8 guard, Kelly hails from Duncansville, Texas and is armed with a slick handle, a smooth drive-and-kick game and a high basketball IQ. She committed to UNC in November 2019 over offers from Notre Dame, Minnesota, Duke and Texas A&M. She had previously committed to the Texas Longhorns as a seventh grader.

“Her comfort and ability to handle the ball contributes to her vision, her change of pace, and her ability to get to attack zones,” Banghart said of Kelly. “And so, she’s very confident in her ability to score the basketball, she’s really eager, she loves film almost as much as me. So, she’s, she’s really trying to dissect and learn the nuances of the game.”

Banghart’s 2021 class is — on paper — even better. According to ESPN, Carolina has secured the second-best recruiting class in the nation, led by top 10 commit Teonni Key and three other players in the top 20.

Grad transfers expected to make an impact

This season, Kelly should benefit from being joined in the Carolina backcourt by two players with a wealth of experience in Petra Holešínská and Stephanie Watts, a pair of highly sought-after graduate transfers who Banghart is going to lean on for playmaking.

“I can’t even imagine that, in May, I was planning a season without them,” Banghart said. “They have raised the bar for what I’m going to expect in a grad transfer.”

A 5’10 sharpshooter from the Czech Republic, Holešínská gives UNC a deadly threat from behind the arc. Last season for Illinois, she was fourth in the Big Ten in three-pointers made (71) and three-point shooting percentage (41%). She led the Illini in scoring with 12.6 points per-game and was an honorable mention All-Big Ten selection.

Holešínská comes to a Tar Heels’ squad that has much more top-to-bottom talent than Illinois did a year ago. Holešínská should benefit from opposing defense not being so focused on her. And on the other end, she’s got some toughness to her. Banghart gets nervous in practice because it seems like Holešínská is taking at least one charge a day.

“Petra is a gifted, quick-trigger, three-point shooter. Proven, right? She allows you to space out your offense,” Banghart said. “And also, while she’s not as long as all the others, she’s really gritty.”

Watts isn’t exactly a newcomer to Chapel Hill. Instead of fans telling her hello, they’ll be saying, “Welcome back.”

A 5’11 native of the Tar Heel State, Watts began her career at UNC strong in 2015-16, claiming ACC Freshman of the Year honors after averaging 14.7 points and 7.2 rebounds per-game and setting a UNC freshman record for three-pointers made with 76. Watts averaged 16.8 points per-game as a sophomore. She missed her natural junior year, but came back in 2018-19 to average 15.2 points, 5.5 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game while shooting 37.3 percent from behind the arc.

But in the aftermath of former head coach Sylvia Hatchell’s unpleasant exit from the program, Watts decided to leave too. She spent last season in southern California playing for the USC Trojans, but she sat out most of the season with a knee injury.

While Watts eagerly wanted to return to Chapel Hill for final season of college basketball, Banghart was initially hesitant.

“What I really pushed on her — to make sure it was the right time for us — was that, in year two of your program, who you are in the locker room is as, if not more, important to who you are on the court… And the culture change that we had worked so hard to endorse is in the right direction and in the right place now, and I wasn’t willing to have a retraction,” Banghart said. “Out of respect to (Watts), I really ran it through her.”

Banghart told Watts: “Steph, I don’t see it. I don’t see any reason you’d come back if you don’t want to make a difference. This is your alma mater. This is not a place where – if you just want to go and come in on a Sunday and shoot on your own, why do you care where you go to school? If you want to come make Carolina better, then on Sunday, you bring a rookie or a sophomore with you.”

Watts heard Banghart loud and clear and has been all-in on boosting the Tar Heels since the day she stepped back in Chapel Hill.

“She’s been more than I ever could have asked for. (Watts) is so glad to be here. She loves this place,” Banghart said. “She wants to be a pro. She’s going to provide, she can make shots, she’s long, she’s in lanes defensively and she’s fearless on her attack.”

Malu Tshitenge led the ACC in offensive rebounding as a freshman last season. (Mitchell Northam / The Next)

Depth not an issue

Watts, Holešínská and the freshmen will be important to UNC’s success this season, but the squad will still be powered by Janelle Bailey, one of the top post talents in the conference. An All-ACC First Team selection and Lisa Leslie Award finalist a year ago, Bailey averaged 14.5 points and a team-leading 9.3 rebounds per-game. This year, she’ll try to improve all aspects of her game in hopes of becoming a WNBA Draft pick.

In addition to Bailey, the grad transfers and the freshmen, Malu Tshitenge returns after leading the ACC in offensive rebounding as a freshman. A mid-season transfer from Michigan a year ago, Ariel Young is also now eligible for the Tar Heels too. Sophomore Kennady Tucker played in all 30 games last year, and junior Jaelynn Murray returns to the court after missing last season with an injury.

Depth issues should not be something that plagues the Tar Heels this season.

“I look at the roster now and, in practice, there’s not a guy that can’t help us in some way,” Banghart said. “We still have another month and they’ll start to separate themselves more and more, you hope. Or maybe they won’t and maybe you really are 12-deep. It’s too early to tell, but I can tell you all every one of those 12 can help you.”

Like every other team in the country though, the Tar Heels do have to deal with the coronavirus. It’s impacted their non-conference slate in a big way.

UNC was supposed to play against Auburn, Alabama, Maryland and Tennessee this season, Banghart said, but the pandemic made those games difficult to schedule. The Tar Heels won’t be participating in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge this season either.

Instead, they’ll play a regional slate of five non-conference games at home, that will feature the likes of Charlotte and S.C. State, among others.

“It’s about keeping your crew safe and also trying to mitigate any risk of your opponents coming in,” Banghart said. “It’s different. It’s regional. It’s I hope safe… I think they’re all at home too. We tried to get an away game and no one would take us.”

Those non-conference games could be key for the Tar Heels as this new-look squad attempts to build chemistry ahead of ACC play, which begins Dec. 10 for the Tar Heels in a game at Wake Forest. If everything goes as planned — if Holešínská sinks a mess of three’s, if Bailey becomes an ACC Player of the Year candidate and if some of the freshmen live up to the hype — the Tar Heels won’t finish this season with a bad taste in their mouths again.

Written by Mitchell Northam

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