It was hard not to think of what be at North Carolina in 2022-23 on Sunday after point guard Caleb Love announced his intentions to return to Chapel Hill for his junior season. Love played a vital role in North Carolina’s stirring run to the national championship game during the NCAA Tournament, and with 28 points, was the hero of the Tar Heels’ 81-77 Final Four win over rival Duke, which ended Mike Krzyzewski’s coaching career.

Love was the final piece of the “go or stay” puzzle in Chapel Hill, and like teammates Armando Bacot and Leaky Black, he elected to return to play 1 more season under Hubert Davis.

Opposing fans might — and some did — scoff at Love’s decision to return, given it was unlikely at best that Love would have been drafted in the “guaranteed money” portion of the NBA Draft this summer had he elected to leave school. What the kernel of truth in those takes ignore, however, is that Love was one of the most improved college basketball players in the country as a sophomore.

Following a freshman season that was disappointing by any objective standard, Love improved dramatically in every measurable category as a sophomore. Love’s field goal percentage jumped by 5.5% points to 37%, on higher volume. His 3-point field goal percentage took the biggest jump in the ACC, rising to 36% from deep on heavy volume from a putrid 26.6% as a freshman. Finally, while his assist numbers remained the same, his assist to turnover ratio improved significantly as Love cut his turnovers by .5 per game and he was 1.2 turnovers per game better in league play. These analytics all suggest Love is a vastly improving basketball player who should only continue to make strides as a junior.

With Love back, the Tar Heels now return 4 of the “Iron Five,” leaving UNC well-positioned for another Final Four run. The four-man core of Love, Bacot, Black and guard RJ Davis gives the Tar Heels a firm foundation to push for the program’s 7th national championship, having come up just short against Kansas in the 2022 title game.

Expectations are always sky high in Chapel Hill, but this group will carry plenty of experience and nous into the breach, making them mentally well prepared for the hype to come. There’s a  very good argument now that the Tar Heels should open the season as the No. 1 team in the country. After all, they return 75% of their offensive production, the ACC’s best on-ball defender (Black) and the league’s best rebounder (Bacot). The declarations to return are reminding many of the 2008 offseason, when Ty Lawson, Tyler Hansbrough and Danny Green all put off the NBA to return to Chapel Hill. They led the Tar Heels to a dominant 2009 national championship.

A cynic might suggest these Tar Heels would be a bit overrated at No. 1. After all, this is a team that didn’t pick up a Quad 1 win last year until a win at Virginia Tech in mid-February. But the facts are that North Carolina went 17-4 down the stretch after a rough start, defeating Duke twice, a splendid UCLA team, an ACC Tournament winner in Virginia Tech and defending national champion Baylor in the process. They also have at least 2 stars, in Love and Davis, who are still figuring out their ceilings as college basketball players. There’s room for improvement.

The loss of Brady Manek is the largest reason for pause.

Manek’s experience was a huge boon to the Tar Heels’ locker room last year and his ability to bury perimeter jump shots at a 40% clip on high volume made the Tar Heels a nightmare to guard based on how well they could extend and space the floor. Who fills in for Manek? Love’s return means the Tar Heels are out of scholarships, so they can’t use the portal to find a ready-made Manek replacement.

Instead, they’ll either need a freshman to contribute more than anticipated (perhaps 4-star Tyler Nickel, one of the premier shooting prep forwards in the country with a pure release on his jumper, will offer more than a few minutes a night as a freshman). Or they’ll need a young player already on campus, like fan-favorite Puff Johnson, to make the type of jump Love just made.

Otherwise, even with Love back, the Tar Heels won’t be as difficult to guard in 2022-23.  Or maybe one of the players who languished on the bench while Carolina fought to stay on the right side of the bubble, likle Dontrez Styles or D’Marco Dunn, will step up and make this UNC team much deeper than the 6-man rotation that just advanced to the program’s 12th national championship game. Both Johnson and Styles will compete for Manek’s starting position, and both offer more athleticism than Manek. Neither is as big as Manek. Johnson is the bigger of the 2, but there’s no replacement for Manek’s shooting and his competitiveness, even if both Styles and Johnson play and make Carolina deeper in the process.

That said, returning microwave guards like Davis and Love, who both had 30-point outbursts in the NCAA Tournament, gives this UNC team the type of backcourt that makes March Madness dreams come true. Add a double-double machine like Armando Bacot to that and a dash of “unfinished business,” as Love referenced in his “I’m back” video, and you get a team that makes a strong argument to be the preseason number one.

A preseason No. 1 team in Chapel Hill? Well, that’s just Carolina basketball.

The rest of the story remains to be written, but it’s off to a great start.