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Then vs Now: Examining UNC’s non-conference success under Roy Williams

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North Carolina is in a familiar position as they begin ACC competition.

NCAA Basketball: Ohio State at North Carolina Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

Roy Williams is in the middle of his 15th season as the Tar Heels’ head coach. Over that time, we fans have become accustomed to tough non-conference schedules. Those schedules have given us exciting and important victories (often Kentucky or Michigan State) and mystifying losses (Santa Clara, Belmont, Wofford). Regardless, the Heels have consistently played a mixture of opponents in order to prepare for the rigors of ACC and NCAA Tournament competition.

This Christmas season, I dug through every Roy Williams-coached UNC squad and took a quick glance at their non-conference records, or “OOC” - out of conference. The results were interesting.

2003-04
OOC Record: 9-1
Best Win: #1 UCONN 86-83 (Home)
Worst Loss: #8 Kentucky 56-61 (Away)
ACC Record: 8-8
Overall Record: 19-11
NCAA Tournament: #6 seed, loss to #3 Texas in Second Round

Roy’s first season at Chapel Hill included cleaning up a program that was in disarray after the chaotic Doherty years. It was a quirky non-conference slate with ACC play starting before Christmas (a triple overtime loss to Wake Forest), and UCONN visiting Chapel Hill in February. The OOC had a balance of cupcakes and challenges, but considering the .500 record in conference play, wins against Illinois and UCONN were more the exception to that team’s production than the norm.

2004-05
OOC Record: 11-1
Best Win: #8 Kentucky 91-78 (Home)
Worst Loss: Santa Clara 66-77 (Away)
ACC Record: 14-2
Overall Record: 33-4
NCAA Tournament: Roy’s First. UNC’s 5th.

Roy’s first championship team started the year off with a shocking road loss to Santa Clara (Raymond Felton was suspended due to participating in an unsanctioned pro-am summer league). They then rebounded and rattled off 14 straight wins against non-conference and ACC opponents, including winning the Maui Invitational. When the Wildcats from Lexington visited, the Heels avenged the previous season’s loss—their only victory over a ranked team in non-conference play.

2005-2006:
OOC Record: 9-2
Best Win: #10 Kentucky 83-79 (Away)
Worst Loss: Southern Cal 59-74 (Away)
ACC Record: 12-4
Overall Record: 23-8
NCAA Tournament: #3 seed, loss to #11 George Mason in Second Round

Another 9-2 OOC record, punctuated with another win over Kentucky. Considering the amount of talent that exited for the NBA after the previous season’s title, this team arguably overachieved throughout the season. They finished with a 2-2 record against major conference opponents losing to Illinois and Southern Cal, but defeating Kentucky and Arizona (in another rare February contest).

2006-07
OOC Record: 14-1
Best Win: #3 Ohio State 98-89 (Home)
Worst Loss: Gonzaga 74-82 (Neutral)
ACC Record: 11-5
Overall Record: 31-7
NCAA Tournament: #1 seed, loss to #2Georgetown in Elite Eight

An extensive OOC schedule that once against included a February victory against Arizona. The only blemish was an early season loss against an unranked Gonzaga in Madison Square Garden. This season saw the Heels go undefeated against four major conference opponents in Rutgers, Tennessee, Ohio State, and Arizona

2007-2008
OOC Record: 15-0
Best Win: Davidson 72-68 (Away)
Worst Loss: None
ACC Record: 14-2
Overall Record: 36-3
NCAA Tournament: #1 seed, lost to #1 Kansas in the Final Four

Perhaps an all time Top-3 UNC team that failed to win the title, these Heels raced through the non-conference slate undefeated. They defeated Ohio State and Kentucky along the way, but a Stephen Curry led Davidson was likely their best win (and earned the highest NCAAT seed of any non-ACC opponents).

2008-2009
OOC Record: 14-0
Best Win: #13 Michigan State 98-63 (Away)
Worst Loss: None
ACC Record: 13-3
Overall Record: 34-4
NCAA Tournament: Number 6.

Williams’ second title was fueled by another strong OOC performance. Ultimately UNC defeated 5 major conference opponents and won another Maui Invitational title. The Heels easily dispatched any competition, winning all non-ACC regular season games by a minimum of 15 points. The NCAA Tournament was a little more competitive— the smallest margin of victory in March and April was a paltry 12 points against Oklahoma. “Dominant” doesn’t begin to describe how good this team was.

2009-10
OOC Record: 11-4
Best Win: #9 Michigan State 89-82 (Home)
Worst Loss: College of Charleston 79-82 (Away)
ACC Record: 5-11
Overall Record: 20-17
NCAA Tournament: None. NIT Runner-ups

The only true “blemish” during Roy’s tenure at UNC, this season is easily acceptable considering the mass exodus of talent to the NBA. This time there wasn’t a Tyler Hansbrough to help bridge the gap during the rebuilding year. Nonetheless, they still maintained their dominance over Tom Izzo and Michigan State. So that was nice.

2010-11
OOC Record: 10-4
Best Win: #10 Kentucky 85-83 (Away)
Worst Loss: Minnesota 67-72 (Neutral)
ACC Record: 14-2
Overall Record: 29-8
NCAA Tournament: #2 seed, loss to #4 Kentucky in Elite Eight

The Heels stumbled out of the gate with four losses, all to major conference opponents -Texas, Vanderbilt, Illinois, and Minnesota. Another road win against Kentucky proved this team had the ability to win in the toughest environments. It finally all came together when Larry Drew was benched in favor of freshman Kendall Marshall. Four games later Drew left the team, having his father deliver the message to Coach Williams. He remains the most recent player to transfer from UNC.

2011-12
OOC Record: 13-2
Best Win: #9 Wisconsin 60-57 (Home)
Worst Loss: UNLV 80-90 (Neutral)
ACC Record: 14-2
Overall Record: 32-6
NCAA Tournament: #1 seed, loss to #2 Kansas in Elite Eight

With all the of the previous season’s drama behind them, and buoyed by Harrison Barnes’ return for his sophomore season North Carolina returned to their strong OOC performances. Despite a head scratching loss to UNLV in Las Vegas and a last second loss at Kentucky, UNC still defeated 4 major-conference foes. If 2008 was arguably a top-3 best UNC team to never win the title, 2012 is arguably a top-3 “What If”, in Carolina lore.

2012-13
OOC Record: 10-3
Best Win: #20 UNLV 79-73 (Home)
Worst Loss: Butler 71-82 (Neutral)
ACC Record: 12-6
Overall Record: 25-11
NCAA Tournament: #8 seed, loss to #1 Kansas in Second Round

A third massive departure of talent to the NBA saw another “rebuilding” year for North Carolina. Butler put the Heels on notice, and the Heels failed to earn any truly noteworthy wins. This team was better than an #8 seed when March rolled around, but the slow start had already done enough damage. By the time Roy Williams began using a small-ball rotation that included P.J. Hairston in place of Desmond Hubert in February, the Heels were already fighting for their tournament lives.

2013-14
OOC Record: 10-3
Best Win: #1 Michigan State 79-65 (Away)
Worst Loss: Belmont 80-83(Home)
ACC Record: 13-5
Overall Record: 24-10
NCAA Tournament: #6 seed, loss to #3 Iowa State in Second Round

Personally, I consider this Williams’ best coaching job. After finding an unconventional rotation towards the end of the previous season, Reggie Bullock bounced to the NBA and P.J. Hairston was ruled ineligible due to poor life choices. This was also when uncertainty began swirling around the program in regards to the NCAA investigation.

For every understandable and conceivable reason, the non-conference slate was a roller coaster of emotions. Impressive wins were registered against #1 Michigan State, #3 Louisville, and #11 Kentucky. Those were countered by home losses to unranked Belmont and Texas, and a road loss to University of Alabama-Birmingham. This team constantly teased fans with its potential including a late season 12-game win streak. Unfortunately, they stumbled late, losing 3 of their last 4.

2014-15
OOC Record: 10-3
Best Win: #12 Ohio State 82-74 (Home)
Worst Loss: Butler 66-74 (Neutral)
ACC Record: 11-7
Overall Record: 26-12
NCAA Tournament: #4 seed, loss to #1 Wisconsin in Sweet 16

Another solid, though not dominating, pre-conference slate. Wins against Florida, UCLA, and Ohio State helped make up for losses to Iowa, Butler, and #1 Kentucky. As the NCAA cloud was reaching its apex, the Heels were going on their sixth straight season without reaching the Final Four. Despite all of that frustration, a #4 seed and close loss to Wisconsin finally gave reason for optimism.

2015-16
OOC Record: 11-2
Best Win: #2 Maryland 89-81 (Home)
Worst Loss: Northern Iowa 67-71 (Away)
ACC Record: 14-4
Overall Record: 33-7
NCAA Tournament: Kris. !@#$%^&. Jenkins.

We know how this ends. The loss to Northern Iowa gained context when they defeated Texas (UNC’s other OOCloss) in the NCAA Tournament. In hindsight, neither loss was terrible. However, with the exception of Maryland visiting for the ACC-B1G Challenge, there weren’t many other big fish to truly gauge UNC’s talents. They simply took care of business. Nonetheless, they took home both ACC titles before....well, you know.

2016-17
OOC Record: 12-2
Best Win: #16 Wisconsin 71-56 (Neutral)
Worst Loss: None
ACC Record: 14-4
Overall Record: 33-7
NCAA Tournament: Redemption.

Undefeated at home. Took care of business when it mattered, including another title in Maui. Their only two losses were the instant classic against Kentucky on a neutral court, and at Indiana. I refuse to label either one of those as “bad”. While there wasn't a massive feather in their Shea Rush designed fedoras, the ability to overcome adversity (injuries to Theo Pinson and Joel Berry), gave fans enough hope that everything would come together. SPOILER ALERT: Everything came together.

2017-18
OOC Record: 11-2
Best Win: #20 Tennessee 78-73 (Away)
Worst Loss: Wofford 75-79 (Home)
ACC Record: TBD
Overall Record: TBD
NCAA Tournament: Back-to-Back Titles TBD

So how does this year stack up to previous years? Truthfully, it’s fair to say this year’s performance rivals that of Roy’s best teams - and it’s certainly more encouraging than the 3 and 4 loss teams that littered thr landscape between 2010-2015. It’ll be easier to look back in March and determine just who was good and wasn’t, but based on what we know now this was an impressive close to 2017. Also, consider these scheduling facts:

  • According to KenPom’s strength of schedule rankings, UNC’s played the 29th most difficult non-conference schedule this season.
  • This ranks as UNC’s second toughest non-conference schedule in the Roy Williams era. Only 2015 saw the Heels play tougher competition prior to the ACC slate.
  • The ONLY other major conference team to have a more difficult schedule this season? Tennessee at 28. North Carolina beat them in Knoxville. (This is based on the time this article was written).
  • The three championship teams had non-con SOS rankings of 64 (2005), 126 (2009), and 54 (2017). Perhaps this metric can be overrated.
  • With the exception of maybe 1993-94, this is the best start to a season following a Tar Heel NCAA championship victory.
  • They finished 5-1 against major conference teams, defeating Arkansas, Ohio State, Tennessee, Michigan, and Stanford. Only one of those was at home.

All of this is to say, this team is on track to reasonably be expected to defend their title in March. There will be bumps and stumbles, but ultimately the early signs are overwhelmingly positive. Considering the amount of talent, experience, and leadership that graduated or was drafted last season, the Heels have surpassed all expectations at this point in the season.

Sure, be disappointed in whatever the hell happened against Wofford. Just don’t dismiss defeating 4 other major conference opponents by double digits. If that’s not enough, then please accept how difficult it was to defeat the potential SEC champions on their home court (yes, the Volunteers are that good).

In the meantime, after being forced to watch Wake Forest against Tennessee at a family Christmas gathering last weekend (and being inundated with numerous Wofford jokes), I’m ready for the ACC season to begin.

Bring on the Fighting Baptists.