Since taking over on Chapel Hill in 2004, North Carolina head coach Roy Williams has enjoyed unparalleled success in the world of college basketball. The hall-of-famer has guided the Tar Heels to an incredible 225-62 record, five ACC regular season championships, two national titles and helped 12 players reach their childhood dreams of playing in the NBA.
After a rough beginning, last season’s Heels—one of the youngest but most talent-laden squads in the country—rebounded to win the conference and come within seven points of advancing all the way to the Final Four. NBA early entry implications aside, UNC figured to use their late season prowess as a springboard to dominance in 2011-2012.
This, though, is the age of “one and done,” when elite collegians rarely forgo a chance to be selected in the NBA draft. Often, even those players with no guarantee of being selected choose to realize their professional dreams. Thus, surefire first round prospects like UNC’s Harrison Barnes, John Henson and Tyler Zeller are never expected to stay in school.
Well, Carolina fans across America rejoiced today, as Barnes—a likely top four draft selection—announced he would join Henson and Zeller back on campus next season to form the devastating nucleus of a potential national champion.
Combine those three thoroughbreds with just returnees like precocious sophomore PG Kendall Marshall, athletic young wings Reggie Bullock, Leslie McDonald and Dexter Strickland, and Williams would have more than enough firepower to deliver another national title to Tar Heel nation. Throw in a top five recruiting class led by all-everything F James McAdoo, and the Carolina cupboard is overflowing with top-tier talent.
Such a loaded roster begs a scary question for the rest of college basketball: are the 2011-2012 Tar Heels the best team Williams has ever had? In answering, it makes sense to examine only Williams’ two title-winning Carolina teams, as the Heels will unquestionably sit atop every preseason poll when November finally rolls around.
Ty Lawson, Tyler Hansbrough (50), and Wayne Ellington led the 2009 Tar Heels to a national title.
First, let’s examine the Tyler Hansbrough-led championship team of 2008-2009. It’s easy to forget that flanking the dominant trio of Indiana Pacers’ starter Hansbrough, Denver Nuggets star PG Ty Lawson, and Minnesota Timberwolves reserve wing Wayne Ellington, were guys like Danny Green and Deon Thompson. The latter was UNC’s leading scorer in 2009-2010, while the former provided stifling defense and deadly outside shooting to the Tar Heel attack and sits on the bench for the San Antonio Spurs.
Even more impressive about this team, though, was that a dominant freshman like Toronto Raptors rookie Ed Davis came off the bench. He gave UNC a defensive-minded paint presence that Hansbrough and Thompson couldn’t, while routinely finishing highlight-reel lobs from Lawson. By any measure, Davis was arguably the top reserve in the country that season. Amid the four NBA players listed above, he has a chance to be a better pro than all of them. Also coming off the pine were experienced backcourt contributors Bobby Frasor and Will Graves, not to mention a freshman Zeller.
Could next year’s Heels be better than the ’09 squad? It’s debatable. Betting against Hansbrough is never smart, but one thinks that the length, athleticism and defensive prowess of Zeller, Henson and McAdoo might make next year’s front line better than 2009’s. Despite the obvious talents of Marshall, point guard is where the former Heels have a decided advantage, as Lawson—when healthy—was maybe the top player in the country that season. On the wings, the singular presence of Barnes —the top pro prospect on either team—almost matches the duo of Ellington and Green, while depth undoubtedly favors 2011.
If the talent is relatively similar, other aspects need to be addressed. This is where the ’09 Tar Heels have a big edge on next season’s, as they endured two years of NCAA Tournament heartbreak to bind them together.
In terms of experience, fit and overall comfort level with one each other, that team has most any beat. Though the 2011 squad will only be integrating one new piece or two, the youth of Barnes and Marshall and the continued offensive development of Henson ensures they have some growing to do. The 2009 Tar Heels were, for the most part, a finished product coming into the year. The same can’t be said for next season’s team, and for that reason it’d be premature to call them Williams’ best ever—at this point, anyway.
If they completely mesh, though, their superior defensive ability and length would give them a slight edge over UNC’s last title team, a scary thought for the rest of college basketball.
Interestingly, the ’09 Heels almost perfectly mirrored the title-winning squad of 2004-2005. They had an inside-outside, veteran triumvirate to match with F Sean May, SG Rashad McCants and PG Raymond Felton. Though the former two players endured little pro success, they each were drafted in the first round and were considered a better-combined duo than Hansbrough and Ellington.
Felton, for all intents and purposes, was a perfect precursor to Lawson, undersized and cat-quick with underrated shooting ability. He, too, was considered UNC’s best player by some, even though his interior counterpart got more publicity. In every Carolina fans' dream, he’s paired with Lawson to form devastating, two-headed PG monster for the Denver Nuggets. Playing the role of Green and Thompson were swing forward Jawad Williams and defensive ace Jackie Manuel. Like Green, the former has carved out a niche as a reliable end-of-bench NBA player.
The similarities between each squad continue on the bench, as freshman F Marvin Williams was the country’s best reserve and a future NBA lottery pick. Like protégé Davis, he came off the pine and immediately injected athleticism and energy into Carolina on both ends of the floor. Veterans Melvin Scott and David Noel rounded out the UNC rotation, while Reyshawn Terry received minimal playing time, but eventually emerged as a star for the Heels the next two years.
2005 UNC had a dominant and versatile frontcourt. May was a potent scorer and reliable rebounder, while Jawad and Marvin Williams provided athleticism and defense he couldn’t. However, those two lacked real NBA size; they both frequently play on the wing as pros. For that reason and a decided advanatge defensively, the 2011 Carolina bigs—7’0’’, 6’10’’ and 6’8’’ with pro futures in the painted area—will be more effective than those of 2004.
Like with 2009, though, Williams’ current team has a disadvantage at point guard. Marshall will be great next season, but he doesn’t have the scoring instincts or defense prowess of Felton. McCants can perhaps match Barnes in terms of pure scoring ability, but the former also affects the game as a great rebounder and defender, something McCants never did. Though Manuel was a fantastic defender, it’s easy to believe that the trio of Strickland, Bullock, and McDonald offer more overall than he did.
The similarities are getting redundant at this point, but again it comes down to intangibles. Next year’s Tar Heels have developing to do, while 2005—though not to the extent of 2009—knew what they were. Roles and niches have to be found and explored by Williams’ guys next year. If they are with relative ease, 2011 Carolina will be better than the team Williams won his first title with, and a third could be on the way.
Overall, next year’s Tar Heels simply have potential defensive advantages that 2009 and 2005 didn’t have. Hansbrough and May—the frontcourt cogs of each—were poor defensively, while Zeller, though not as gifted a scorer, is decidedly better on the other end. Combined with Henson, possibly the NCAA’s top shot-blocker, and McAdoo, the Carolina frontline will be impenetrable. With either of Williams’ championship teams, that was far from the case.
The other advantage the 2011 squad has on their predecessors is simple: Harrison Barnes. In Barnes, the Tar Heels have a player with All-Star size and ability on offense and defense. He’s a true go-to scorer in the ilk of Ellington and McCants (though more versatile), but is also capable of locking down the opponent’s top scorer. If Barnes lives up to his potential next season, he should be the best two-way player Williams has had since he took the reigns at Chapel Hill.
Bottom line: next season’s Heels have growing up to do. Their ceiling, though, is higher than either of Williams’ championship teams. That alone is reason enough for Tar Heels fans to cheer. With a cerebral and mature player like Barnes leading Carolina’s evolution, they’ll be celebrating all season long en route to Williams’ best season ever and a third national title.