Roy Williams has now won three national championships, and all of them are undoubtedly wonderful for him. He’s now a long way from the time he was constantly asked if he could win “the big one.” But this one probably feels a little different than the first two, and not for the most obvious reason that has already been much-talked about – a sense of redemption from a year ago.
Simply put, this North Carolina team doesn’t hold a candle to his first two title teams from a talent standpoint.
No question, there’s a feeling of redemption, for lack of a better term. A year ago, the Tar Heels lost a memorable championship game on a buzzer-beater, and just seconds after they completed a rally from being down by ten points with just a few minutes to go. There is unquestionably a reason to feel like they finished what they tried to a year ago.
But that takes a back seat to something else: talent.
The teams that Williams won national titles with in 2005 and 2009 were built to win titles. They were expected to get to the Final Four and possibly win it all, and with a lot of future pros. The 2005 champions had five McDonald’s All-Americans, along with some pretty talented players who didn’t quite make the game like Reyshawn Terry and Jackie Manuel.
The 2009 champions were the unanimous preseason No. 1 in both the AP and USA Today Coaches Polls, led by eight McDonald’s All-Americans, three of whom were first round picks in the NBA Draft that year and two more who were drafted in the first round in later years. The senior class that year never lost a game at Cameron Indoor Stadium, an amazing accomplishment that has only been done by two other players, Wake Forest’s Tim Duncan and Rusty LaRue. All of that speaks for itself.
This year’s team, in contrast, had six McDonald’s All-Americans, which means they had more than the 2005 champions. However, this year’s group is unlikely to match the 2005 team at the professional level. Four Tar Heels were lottery picks in the 2005 NBA Draft; this year’s team likely has no more than two future first-round picks: junior Justin Jackson and freshman Tony Bradley, and neither projects to sniff the lottery if they come out this year. Frankly, this team wasn’t even the most talented team in the ACC; Duke was, and not by a slim margin (though not by a mile, either).
Aside from numbers of any kind, anyone who has paid attention could tell that recruiting had fallen off at North Carolina of late. There was a time when the Tar Heels got seemingly any big-time prospect they wanted, but that has been far from true the last few years. Williams has a pretty good idea of why that is.
“Maybe I’m not as good, or we’re not as good, but in the first ten years we recruited 26 McDonald’s All-Americans,” Williams said before the national championship game. “And the last three I think we got one.”
After the national championship game, he added, “We didn’t get a lot of guys we wanted to get.”
In fact, the Tar Heels have recruited four McDonald’s All-Americans over the past three classes (2014-16), and 26 total during his tenure, so his numbers are a bit off. But the gist of his comment is unchanged. Negative recruiting from NCAA allegations of infractions at the school has unquestionably hurt the basketball program. Even so, this is still a team with talent that over 300 Division I schools would love to have. And it was enough to win a national championship.
One thing that national champions over the years have had, with very few exceptions, is high-end talent. That is exactly why Villanova’s win in last year’s game was so big – that team was not loaded with top 10 prospects or future NBA lottery picks. Their best NBA prospect might have been a freshman reserve on the team, Mikal Bridges, who is far from a household name even after he started harnessing some of his potential this season.
Teams don’t win with talent alone, but having it goes a long way towards winning championships. Put another way, it is no guarantee of a championship, but it is a prerequisite. Since the Tar Heels haven’t had the same level of raw talent, this title is a story in perseverance and player development as much as anything. You can go right down the list.
Jackson always had a ton of potential, going back to when he was a freshman in high school and played up in the Nike EYBL, and this year he really started harnessing it and developed into the ACC Player of the Year. Joel Berry II was their most important player, and when they needed him most – the national title game – he responded despite being hurt. Kennedy Meeks is in far better shape now than when he arrived in Chapel Hill. Theo Pinson has been hit with injuries, but when healthy his intangibles have been big and he made big plays in their title run.
This team, let’s not forget, was the regular season champion in a juggernaut ACC. The conference didn’t have a great NCAA Tournament run, with the Tar Heels being the only member to reach the second weekend, but it had immense success all year and North Carolina came out on top with an outright title – by two games, no less, over three teams that tied for second place.
Roy Williams now has three national titles as the head coach at North Carolina, putting him one ahead of Dean Smith. He doesn’t think this puts him ahead of his mentor in any way, and that’s a debate for others to have. But this one probably feels quite different from his first two there, and not just because they lost at the buzzer a year ago, though that is understandably one reason for it.