For most fans, it probably feels like decades since their North Carolina Tar Heels walloped the Michigan State Spartans in one of the biggest title beatdowns in NCAA history. Now, a once hopeful 2013-14 squad is quickly sinking at 0-3 in ACC play with no life rafts in sight.
UNC is now on the outside looking in, despite three signature wins over Top 25 opponents early this season. The annual fingerpointing has begun, and most of it appears to be aimed at the program's Hall of Fame coach, Roy Williams.
But is he really to blame for Carolina's downward spiral since the 2009 title? In this writer's eyes, it's an emphatic "no." To explain my defense of Coach Williams, we must put the last five seasons in perspective with a trip down memory lane.
Carolina was on top of the world in 2009, and it appeared sustainable with an incoming class that was ranked second in the nation by ESPN (subscription required). Surely it wouldn't be long before UNC's savior would cut down the nets for a third time and hang the program's sixth banner in the rafters of the Dean Dome.
That's a mark even the legendary Dean Smith failed to accomplish during his 36-year tenure leading the program.
The Tar Heels were off to a promising start in 2009-10 with wins over No. 15 Ohio State and No. 9 Michigan State, despite the mass exodus that followed the championship. A month later, they would finish the nonconference schedule with an overtime loss to Charleston.
Suddenly, the Tar Heels were 5-11 in the ACC and banished to the NIT, where they would eventually lose to Dayton in the championship. Little did we know, an even greater loss was soon to come.
Travis and David Wear, affectionately known as the "Wear Twins," surprised everyone, including Williams, by transferring after just one season in Chapel Hill. Little is known of their reasoning to this day.
That was OK, though. It hurt the depth in the middle, but a new savior would soon be arriving in the form of the nations' top recruit, Harrison Barnes. With him came Reggie Bullock and Kendall Marshall to round out another top-five recruiting class (subscription required).
But it wouldn't be long before the Tar Heels would be questioned by their fanbase. It was beginning to feel like deja vu after a rocky 12-5 start that culminated in a 20-point loss to Georgia Tech. After being outplayed by his bench counterpart, point guard Larry Drew II would lose his starting job to freshman Kendall Marshall.
Less than a month later, Drew would also announce his intention to transfer.
The Tar Heels only lost three games the rest of the season; once in the regular season to Duke, again to Duke in the ACC championship and to Kentucky in the Elite Eight. Marshall would soon be looked at as the savior and fan favorite, and Barnes would be headed down a much different path than anyone could have anticipated.
The 2011-12 squad was virtually a shoe-in for the title. It had leadership in senior Tyler Zeller and a world of talent surrounding the slick center. And though the depth of the 2011 class was questionable, it's not easy to load up with the young talent that was already present in Chapel Hill.
These Tar Heels did not disappoint, either (with the exception of that first FSU game). They clinched the ACC regular-season title with a win over Duke and played in the conference championship for the second straight season, losing a tight one to FSU.
The Tar Heels overcame injuries to Dexter Strickland (19 games) and John Henson (3 games) to battle through the season. But a season-ending injury to Marshall in the second game of the NCAA tournament proved to be too much.
They still managed an Elite Eight appearance, but with Drew's transfer and the injuries to Strickland and Marshall, the Heels were left in the hands of freshman Stilman White. Though his effort was valiant and his legend exaggerated, he wasn't enough to put the once star-studded Tar Heels over the top.
Neither was Barnes, who turned into the scapegoat and was abhorred by fans because he didn't live up to the media's hype. Ultimately, that fell on Roy Williams for another recruiting, teaching or system "failure."
This was the year UNC was supposed to hang another banner. The year of redemption after messy situations with the Wear Twins and Drew. The year Roy Williams would set a new bar with three titles.
It just wasn't to be.
But Dexter Strickland and Leslie McDonald would be back after recovering from ACL repairs, and there was hope Barnes, and especially Marshall and Henson, would return. Instead, we witnessed another mass exodus with the early NBA entries of those three and a graduated Zeller.
By no means was Roy Williams left with scraps, but this simply wasn't the plan. His 2012 recruiting class was meant to have a developmental period—especially point guard Marcus Paige, who expected to learn from a living legend in Marshall. And though it would have been smart to replace Zeller with a premier, ready-to-go center, Williams at least could have had Henson to play the position and McAdoo alongside the would-be senior.
Once again, it was a season of turmoil in 2012-13. Yet, somehow Roy Williams still managed to limp them into a third-place finish in the ACC, a third straight visit to the ACC championship and another NCAA tournament appearance.
This was a team many fans were saying would be a repeat of 2009-10. But when Williams manages to get more out of the team, he still doesn't receive his due credit.
Though this season has been the roller coaster nobody wanted to ride, he led the team to three wins nobody saw coming with P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald suited up on the bench and would-be seniors Harrison Barnes, Reggie Bullock and Kendall Marshall playing in the NBA.
For the last five years, the Tar Heels have continually crushed those dreams of a sixth title that once seemed so inevitable. In that time, Roy Williams has gone from hero to zero in the eyes of so many within the program's passionate fanbase.
"He can't coach," they say. "He's lost his touch recruiting. He's too stubborn to adapt."
I think these last two seasons have been clear indicators he is willing to adapt. He went small last season when nobody was stepping up at center. He installed a zone defense this season and has even started calling those last-minute timeouts we have all been begging for.
Sure, he has his ways. But he also has two titles, six Elite Eights and three Final Fours in 10 full seasons with a program that was 26-34 the two years prior to his return to Chapel Hill—doing it his way.
He hasn't lost his touch with recruiting, either, and that is evidenced by another strong class coming in 2014. Yes, he missed some big names like Julius Randle and Andrew Wiggins in 2013, but there was also an academic scandal being investigated during the recruiting season and people were concerned with how long Williams would be coaching after having a tumor removed.
Those things do make a difference in recruiting.
Perhaps it's time we turn those fingers around and point them at ourselves. We have been spoiled by championships and perennial contention. The reality of the college game—especially in the era of one-and-dones and two-and-throughs—is there will be rebuilding years. We should be there to support the program, its players and its Hall of Fame coach.
That's what it used to be about. We've gone from "wine and cheese" to fire and brimstone. We're that spoiled brat who screams in the grocery store because Mommy won't buy the cereal he wants.
Larry Drew II shared those sentiments in an interview with Los Angeles Times' Ben Bolch last year.
"When you're winning (at UNC), everything's good," he said. "When you're losing, it's opposite. Going to a school like that, I was aware of the potential for how things could be. I wasn't aware to the extent."
Yes, fans will be fans, and that is indeed short for fanatic. But there comes a time when passion needs to meet reality. And the reality is that Roy Williams hasn't been playing with a full deck of cards since his last title in 2009.
Maybe we should appreciate everything he has done to bring the program back to prominence instead of blaming him for its alleged demise.
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