The North Carolina Tarheels played their school’s very first men’s basketball game on January 27, 1910, defeating Virginia Christian with the score 42-21. Who knew on that day the Tarheels would grow to be one of the more prestigious basketball programs in the entire nation?
Since the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament began back in 1939, the Tarheels have cut down the nets in five of those tournaments, tied along with Indiana and rival Duke for third-most in NCAA history. UNC has had five championship-winning squads in their rich history, including one back in 1983 with the greatest basketball player known to mankind, the name Michael Jordan should ring a bell.
The 2015-16 North Carolina men’s basketball team making it to the Final Four this year is no big deal, as there’s been eighteen of those already, just adding on to what was already the most by any school ever. They’ll make their trip to the school’s nineteenth appearance in the Final Four next weekend in Houston, but title or not, I can make a case that this could be considered one of the greatest Tarheel squads of all-time.
Allow this Duke fan to convince you how special this team is, opposed to any other team in Tarheel existence, and it’s because of their bond, determination, and desire to succeed.
Many colleges go out and recruit some of the top freshmen who have created the “one-and-done” trend around the world of college basketball. The Kentucky Wildcats are a team who are associated as the team to begin this trend and make it popular, while other schools like Duke followed suit. Both schools put their best effort out to recruit the top players out of high school, just hoping a top-5 recruiting class in the nation will bode well for them next season. Sometimes it works, as Kentucky and Duke each have a national title since 2012, with first-round picks like Anthony Davis and Jahlil Okafor leaving after winning a title their freshman year. But for North Carolina, they didn’t rely on freshmen this year whatsoever, as Luke Maye averaged 5.6 minutes a game and five-star recruit Kenny Williams averaged 4.5 minutes a night, and neither of the two averaged one bucket (2 points) a game.. Neither of them!
After watching the Blue Devils win a National Championship last year with four diaper dandies (Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow, Tyus Jones, Grayson Allen), the Tarheels did not waiver and did not cave to the blue(devil)print their rivals laid out before them, but instead went their own route with a lighter shade of blue, but just as effective. The Tarheels convinced men like Marcus Paige, Brice Johnson, Kennedy Meeks, and others into staying an extra year in pursuit of a championship. Roy Williams only had to replace JP Tokoto, who forego his senior season to be drafted in the second round, and even the energy Tokoto commanded in his time at Chapel Hill, the Tarheels seemed to have rebounded from that loss.
I personally believe that senior leadership, installed by Paige and Johnson this season, is an element that is irreplaceable in March Madness. Of course, a team might have the common sense heading in that a player up to Okafor’s caliber or Kentucky’s Karl-Anthony Towns last season, they’d be one-and-dones, but any player can make an emotional decision to stay in school another year to win a title before leaving, if they aren’t satisfied with how they’d leave things after a loss in March. But for a senior the decision is out of their hands, ineligible to return to school the following year if it doesn’t work out, and after putting four years of blood, sweat, and tears into a school’s program, they want to have something to show for their hard work. Diaper dandies, as Dick Vitale likes to call them, can not replace senior leadership or experience.
We can sit here and look at the 1983-84 Tarheels team that had a junior Michael Jordan, a team that despite winning a National Championship, ended up producing ten draft picks to the NBA (still impressive even if there were more than two rounds back then). We could probably go back two years prior to Jordan’s freshman year that only lost two games the entire year and actually won the NCAA Championship, this team with James Worthy. Many would probably consider the 1981-82 team, also looking at how both Dean Smith and Roy Williams were apart of that team’s success, and not even mentioning they beat Duke twice that year, both times by double digits.
I’m not trying to dismiss anything the legendary Dean Smith teams did, or either of the two Roy Williams championships he has thus far, but we see an era of college basketball where a great team is never constructed, it’s never built, it’s persuaded. In a society driven by the pursuit of money, it is nearly impossible to convince your core group of guys to pass on pro basketball money, even the D-League contracts handed out in today’s world is insane, and lead them to an alternative of staying in college, getting their degree, and living without the cash two or three more years. People will ask all the time if Michael Jordan had stayed his senior season, but it would change the landscape of college basketball more if players such as Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Kyrie Irving, John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, and countless others had stayed more than just one. If the top recruits coming out of high school were willing, or even forced, to stay in school at least two or three years, we’d see a much better nation of college basketball, and we’d look at it more preciously than we do now.
From all the sophomores, the juniors, and more importantly the seniors, who have delayed a living playing pro basketball, their lifelong dream, they have truly made the North Carolina team, the ones in the Final Four, one of the more remarkable teams we’ll remember for generations to come. We’ll remember this team, perhaps with nobody great as Michael Jordan went on to be, but ones who wanted more than anything to stay together and win a championship that’ll last as long as this earth rotates.
Coming from a Duke fan, whether this team is able to have Roy Williams take down his third net in thirteen years at the helm, or they fall flat on their faces against Syracuse in their Final Four matchup, I’ll always remember this squad who was willing to make the sacrifices to achieve greatness. That is how you define true champions.