If you are still reading this, you are probably just like me. You have been trying to soak in every last ounce of Monday’s National Championship victory against Gonzaga. You have been spending all of your money on merchandise, watching sports shows, reading articles, you might even live near Chapel Hill and welcomed home the team in what was a packed house full of grateful fans for the work these fine gentleman put in this year to hang another banner in the Dean Smith Center.
Once the dust settled a little bit, the time for reflection arrived. A huge question that is now an interesting one to ponder is: are we here this year if last year didn’t happen? If Kris Jenkins never hits that buzzer-beater, if North Carolina goes into overtime and wins it all, are we still discussing a National Championship win this year? Nobody truly has the answer to this, but one thing that can be argued is that last year’s shortcomings may have made for one of the sweetest National Championship stories in North Carolina history, if not NCAA history. Furthermore, winning the championship this year may have been sweeter than if it had happened last year.
Before we dive into this, it must be thrown out there that Marcus Paige, Brice Johnson, and Joel James 100% deserved to be National Champions last year. That is the part that will always and forever sting about the events that transpired during the title game last year. They have always been amazing representatives for everything that is Carolina on the court, in the classroom, and in the community, and they deserved every single thing that they achieved last year.
The silver lining is that they managed to be champions anyway; they won the ACC regular season and tournament titles, as well as making it to the Final Four. While they were not able to finish off Villanova, I don’t think anybody will forget anything what they accomplished during their tenures at UNC anytime soon. With that said, let’s take a look at why winning the championship in the 2016-2017 season may just be sweeter than had it been won during the 2015-2016 season.
The national media before that 2015-16 season had North Carolina and Kentucky as the pre-season favorites. For a large part of the year, the Tar Heels managed to keep up with those expectations. UNC lost to Northern Iowa and Texas, both widely considered as bad losses for the Heels. More or less, though, they managed to have a very strong regular season with losses that mainly came from NCAA Tournament teams.
Notre Dame, Duke, and Virginia all made it to the big dance (the only other loss in ACC play was against Louisville, who did not play in the tournament due to self-imposed bans). They blew through the ACC Tournament, avenging losses against Notre Dame and beat Virginia in the championship game. Even in the NCAA Tournament, each game up until the championship game wasn’t even close, as each win was a 10+ point margin of victory. Then, well, Villanova happened, and the pre-season favorites left Houston empty handed.
This year the pre-season favorite to win it all was Duke. They reloaded in a huge way, getting players like Harry Giles, Jayson Tatum, and Frank Jackson. They also managed to keep Luke Kennard, Grayson Allen, and Amile Jefferson around, and they were set to make a tear through the ACC as well as the NCAA.
Kentucky had loaded up with highly talented freshman, Kansas looked like they were ready to make up for their loss to Villanova in the Elite Eight game, and Villanova was also still projected to get back to the Final Four as well. There were a few people that felt like UNC had what it takes to possibly get back to the Final Four, Jay Bilas from ESPN being one of them who actually projected them to win it all, but aside from that the odds were stacked against them.
The 2016-2017 Tar Heels had their ups and downs. They came out of the gate firing on all cylinders, dominating the Maui invitational, only to lose to Indiana immediately after in Bloomington. They attempted to regain a little momentum before running into a Kentucky team with Malik Monk, who scored 47 points and hit the game-winning shot to prevent overtime.
Perhaps the most polarizing loss that caused what seemed like a very unnecessary amount of angst was the loss against Georgia Tech. It was talked about a lot following that game, and I do mean a lot. It seemed as though UNC skeptics had found their ultimate bargaining chip for the year, even though this was not only the first ACC game for Carolina of the year, it was their first ACC road game as well. Nevertheless, North Carolina managed to win the ACC regular season for the 2nd season in a row.
They got knocked out of the conference tournament by Duke, who then went on to win the ACC Tournament championship and the Duke supporters came out in droves. Duke was back, all of the stuff they dealt with during the season no longer mattered, and they were projected to be in contention with Villanova to get back to the Final Four after the brackets were released.
Once the Tar Heels got back to the tournament, things got tough. After a convincing win against Texas Southern, they ran into an Arkansas team that played a tough game against Seton Hall. UNC managed to get past the Razorbacks before running through Butler on their way to a revenge match against Kentucky. This is where things got as stressful as they were fun.
Kentucky and UNC went down to the wire, and after Malik Monk nailed yet another amazing three-pointer to tie the game, Kennedy Meeks kicks the ball out to Theo Pinson, who finds Luke Maye for what will potentially go down as one of the most memorable buzzer-beaters in UNC history. In the Final Four, Carolina ran into Oregon, who had knocked Duke out of the tournament the previous year. In another nail-biting contest, the Heels escaped after managing to get two rebounds off of their own missed free throws to keep Oregon from getting one more opportunity to win the game.
The North Carolina Tar Heels were now set to face the Gonzaga Bulldogs for the NCAA National Championship. The narrative for two days was focused on whether or not UNC could handle the size of Gonzaga. Przemek Karnowski had proven to be a dominant force in the paint, being able to man-handle players underneath. Zach Collins was a 7 foot player with the makings of being a one-and-done player for the Zags, and in general everyone on their team was just…big and skilled.
However, nobody really took the time to question whether or not maybe Gonzaga would struggle with the size and skill of Carolina. This proved to set up an unexpected underdog story for the national championship, as even the ESPN BPI generously favored the Zags to win it all.
The National Championship game was one of the hardest fought games of the year for the Tar Heels. The same, I’m sure, can be said about the Zags as well, but considering that a lot of the wins this year for the Heels came off of dominating offense and rebounding performances, this game was different in just about every way.
There was massive foul trouble for both teams, both teams played extremely good defense, and both teams’ key players were missing shots they normally make. Karnowski couldn’t buy a bucket, and Justin Jackson didn’t hit a single three-pointer even with some of the good looks he was getting. Nonetheless, UNC was simply tougher than Gonzaga: a full-circle statement that silenced many upon many critics of any Roy Williams team up to this point.
The huge knock against a lot of his teams, especially a particular analyst who shall not be named, is that North Carolina is never tough enough. They’re soft. Well, there was nothing soft about this team. They battled, they fought, and they clawed their way to bringing another National Championship home to Chapel Hill. Duke had lost in the 2nd round, Villanova lost to Wisconsin in the Sweet 16 preventing a revenge game, Kansas lost to Oregon, and North Carolina overcame all odds to bring the title home.
I will always love the 2015-2016 Tar Heels. I think that is easy for anybody to say, because they were not only a lovable team but they were a dominant team. They were a team destined for greatness, and they felt just one shot of obtaining that. However this 2016-17 team overcame the odds, they dealt with countless injuries, they had weird losses, and before the year started nobody knew who would step up and fill the shoes of Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson.
The answer to the question was: everybody. Everybody proved to be an important part of this team, having a different hero every night with the exception of consistent efforts all year from Justin Jackson and Joel Berry. All around, this turned out to be an amazing sports story for the ages. This seems like something that only matters to the media when it’s all said and done, but when you get to witness it yourself on the winning side, when you get to see the joy in the team you’ve pulled so hard for all year’s faces, and when you see that trophy sitting on stage in Chapel Hill as they thank everyone for the support…it becomes real. It becomes one of the realest, most amazing things you will ever get to experience in sports. We are all lucky to be Tar Heels.