When thinking about some of the best teams in Carolina basketball history never to win it all, there are a couple of teams that are easy to overlook because of what happened the following year. The Tar Heels have been fortunate enough to have a few of those seasons, and perhaps the most memorable of those in my lifetime is the 2007-08 season that translated into the dominant 2009 NCAA Tournament run. However, there’s one in particular that Heels fans, including myself, don’t like thinking about let alone discussing. It was a season that had so many great things happen, and yet the way it ended was something that a lot of us can’t even stomach watching again no matter how many times YouTube tries to troll us into doing so. I am of course, referring to the 2015-16 North Carolina Tar Heels.
Considering the recruiting damage that the NCAA investigation did, the 2015-16 team was one that was special on various levels. Talented big men? Check. Shooters that can punish teams that load the paint? Check. X-factors that properly developed and became important pieces in the tournament run? Check check and check. This team was as much of a feel-good team as anyone could’ve hoped for. Unfortunately, good feelings don’t (always) win championships, and thus is how this team ends up on our list of best teams to never win it. Let’s take a close look at one of the best UNC teams of the 2010s.
Tale of the Tape
Overall Record: 33-7
ACC Record: 14-4
Conference Finish: 1st place
ACC Tournament Result: ACC Championship
Record vs. Duke: 1-1
NCAA Tournament Finish: National Runner-up
Key Players (per game averages)
Brice Johnson — 17 points, 10.4 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 1.5 blocks
Joel Berry — 12.8 points, 3.4 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 1.5 steals
Marcus Paige — 12.6 points, 2.5 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 1.1 steals
Justin Jackson — 12.2 points, 3.9 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 0.6 steals
89-81 win against No. 2 Maryland
71-67 loss at Northern Iowa
What Went Right
Following what was a fairly forgettable 2014-15 season, the Tar Heels had a new look to them going into their ‘15-16 campaign. Kennedy Meeks had been doing a lot of work on his body, Justin Jackson Joel Berry had their coming out parties throughout the season, and senior forward Brice Johnson decided that the college basketball universe was his and everyone else was just living in it. Johnson’s dominance all season long was impressive to witness, as he became harder and harder to stop in the paint as the season went along. His most impressive performance was in the 106-90 win over Florida State on January 4th when he finished for 39 points and 23 rebounds.
Like many teams in the past, UNC wasn’t without their hiccups throughout the season, but really aside from the loss against Northern Iowa there weren’t really any others of significant note. After coasting through the ACC Tournament, the Tar Heels went on to dominate each team that they ran into in the NCAA Tournament leading up to the Final Four. They were even blessed with two games against ACC opponents Notre Dame (Elite Eight) and Syracuse (Final Four) leading up to the national championship game in, which in any season that doesn’t have two 20s in it is a pretty good situation to find themselves in.
The smallest margin of victory for UNC in the 2016 NCAA Tournament was 14 against Notre Dame, which should shed some light on just how incredible their run was. However, it’s what happened next that made this team extremely hard to discuss, and it’s also why a certain name
might as well be is a curse word in households across the state.
What Went Wrong
***Takes deep breath and remembers that he has a job to do***
Kris Jenkins. There. I said it. Now I’m going to go wash my mouth out with soap.
It never stops hurting me that one person is the sole reason that this Carolina team is one that we can’t even enjoy talking about anymore. We should be discussing how much we love Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson, or how Joel Berry literally flexed on teams to help win the ACC title, and even about Theo Pinson just because he’s fun to talk about. Alas, we’re not discussing any of that, because Kris (insert your angry word of choice here) Jenkins ruined it all.
The really funny thing about how this game ended (no not funny ha ha) is that my memory of how things went before “the shot” has been completely distorted before revisiting the game for this article. Carolina was in control of things for most of the first half, and then Villanova jumped out in front of them in the middle of the second half. Down by 10 with 5:29 left, Joel Berry, Brice Johnson, and Marcus Paige helped the Heels claw their way to a three-point deficit with 31 seconds left in the game.
We all know what happened next: out of a Villanova timeout, Marcus Paige got the ball and made one of the silliest, most improbable, beautiful shots in Carolina basketball history. It was something that was supposed to be in highlight reels to this day non-stop, and something that was show in the Smith Center until the end of time. Instead, that other shot stole the spotlight, and here we are.
The terrible thing about this game other than how the loss happened is who the loss happened to. Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson didn’t deserve to have their college careers end the way it did, and it was sickening that there wasn’t a way for them to get redemption. The good news? The 2016-17 team was able to get the job done in their honor. 2015 to 2017 makes for a great story in its full completion, but 2015-16 on its own is maybe one of the most heartbreaking sports seasons I’ll ever witness in my lifetime. I really hope I’m right too, because I don’t think my soul can handle anything like that ever again.