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One of the Best Teams to Never Win it: The 2008 Tar Heels

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Not quite as heartbreaking in hindsight as the 2016 team, but possibly a better team

Kansas v North Carolina Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

I’d say I’m sorry for bringing up painful memories, but Brandon already did that earlier today. So, here we go, for some backstory: we all say we want to forget K**s J*****s’ shot to win the 2016 title, but as fans of college basketball, it’s an objectively cool memory to have been watching that piece of history live. What we really want to forget, and have mostly succeeded in doing so, is how the 2008 season ended - an 84-66 boatrace at the hands of Kansas, which might as well have been called after the 40-12 Kansas extended run to start the game. The Heels got within 4 at some point, but never threatened to get closer, and then allowed another run so the game score could more accurately reflect the balance. At the time, it was a huge deal that Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington, Tyler Hansbrough, and Danny Green all decided to come back to Chapel Hill for a shot at redemption despite decent-to-great NBA Draft stock, especially in Lawson’s case. But all of them cited erasing this embarrassment particularly as their reason for doing so, because they’d had a good enough season otherwise to leave UNC happy with what they’d done. Let’s put a pin in that.

The UNC teams of 1998 and 2016, which Al and Brandon wrote about here and here, are probably the easiest for UNC fans to bring up in discussions of the best teams to have not lifted the trophy. And while they’re not wrong that those two teams had pretty easy cases for being the best in the country (the 2016 squad was better than the 2017 one, don’t @ me), I’m going to submit that those two team also benefit from the most pathos for this argument: the pain of Heels like Antawn Jamison, Vince Carter, Ed Cota, and Bill Guthridge in 1998 and Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson in 2016 not being able to get rings on their terms still resonates with a lot of us today, in addition to those teams having deserved it. But the discussion of best teams, UNC or not, not to win it all doesn’t deserve to be swallowed by pathos. Was either of those squads the best UNC team to not take home a trophy? Maybe. But, for your consideration, I’m submitting a team that I think we’ve started to see as an afterthought: The 2007-2008 Tar Heels.

Roy Williams’ career at UNC has been characterized by arcs and cycles more than individual years, and that’s a humongous credit to his team- and program-building ability. He took a class that wasn’t his to the championship in 2005, then developed a team into the unstoppable force that was the 2009 squad, then reset and got the 2012 team into championship shape before a broken wrist derailed them (don’t worry, that article is coming, too), then fought the NCAA cloud off to take home the title in 2017, and now is mired in a kind of transitional period for college basketball as a whole, easily adjusting in some places and struggling to handle change in others. It has only been particularly special individual players and people who have made exceptions to this kind of thinking, most notably Paige and Johnson but also guys like Coby White. And that’s where my perspective on the 2008 team starts: They lost only Brandan Wright from the previous year’s Elite Eight team, straight-up did not have an incoming freshman class, and returned everybody but Quentin Thomas and Alex Stepheson for the next year. There aren’t any sob stories here, no missed chances that really stand out to history. It wasn’t the case then, but now, looking back, I think we mostly see the 2008 team as little more than a precursor to that magical 2009 season, a second act to the arc that culminated with Carolina Blue confetti raining down in Detroit. And while that’s probably fair, given that the team returned almost everybody for the next year, I think this mindset makes us forget exactly how good that team was, until it wasn’t.

Again, it’s remarkable that this UNC team had exactly one scholarship freshman (redshirt freshman Will Graves) and one scholarship senior (Quentin Thomas), who played 16 minutes a game in relief point guard duty (a number inflated by Ty Lawson’s missing most of February). For Roy Williams, this has always been the sweet spot. Freshmen in his system don’t usually get it right away, and his best players usually leave before they’re seniors, so if he has a senior-laden team, it’s either 2009 or you can expect a weaker team than usual. And this team started out with expectations reflecting that sweet spot: They began the season as the preseason #1 team in the nation, and proceeded to justify it by rolling through the beginning of the schedule to the tune of 18-0. There were a couple of hiccups, including Wayne Ellington’s OT heroics in Littlejohn Coliseum, but for the most part this team was embarrassing its opposition. Tyler Hansbrough and Wayne Ellington were both much improved from their 2007 editions, Hansbrough putting up career high averages in points and rebounds while Ellington was showing an improved shooting stroke, a more varied offensive game than spot-up shooting, and a newly discovered clutch gene after taking the previous year’s loss to Georgetown personally. Ty Lawson was more comfortable running the offense and improving his scoring efficiency while maintaining his playmaking qualities. Danny Green was playing a bigger part as the nation’s best sixth man, backing up a steady Marcus Ginyard. Deon Thompson had now established his place as a load-bearing low-post big. And the backups, like Thomas, Bobby Frasor, and Stepheson, were all pulling their weight as well. They lost to an unheralded Maryland team, the kind of baffling January loss that every UNC team has, then to #2 Duke at home in their first game without Lawson, who missed most of February with an ankle injury. The squad rallied and won all 5 of their next games without him, including a double-overtime squeaker against Clemson (like the first one didn’t give us enough heart attacks). He came back without the team missing a beat, and the Heels finished the regular season by thumping Duke at Cameron Indoor and claiming the regular season title. They weren’t done winning, though, because they then took home the conference tournament title after finishing the three-game sweep of Clemson in the finals.

You might not have been counting. This UNC team lost a total of two games in the season before the NCAA Tournament. They were 32-2 going into March Madness. No Roy Williams UNC team has ever had a better record, and only a handful of UNC teams, or any program’s teams, have had more wins before the NCAAT. They were very obviously the top overall seed going into the tournament, and, if they just kept winning, they wouldn’t have to leave the state of North Carolina until the Final Four in San Antonio. They were the best offense in the country, and lately the defense had been clicking as well, with only Clemson and a charged-up Jared Dudley of Boston College having recently broken the 80-point barrier against a team that could score 85 in its sleep. They looked ready to steamroll the opposition, despite a hotshot named Derrick Rose in Memphis and Bill Self’s best team in a while having their own claims to greatness.

So what went wrong?

The Heels stomped on all the competition they faced in Raleigh and Charlotte for their first four games, as expected. Washington State in the Sweet 16 was a pushover, and Louisville in the Elite Eight was slightly tougher but still not a problem. And then... there are a lot of possible explanations for what happened against a Kansas team that should have been a problem, but not such an unsolvable one. Maybe the Heels got too used to playing in front of a home crowd and the adversity of San Antonio’s audience got to them. Maybe it was the bright lights and seeing the possibility of winning for the first time. Maybe Roy Williams just couldn’t bring himself to his usual intensity against his former employer, a mostly nonsensical narrative that nevertheless gained steam when he showed up to support the Jayhawks against Memphis in the finals and has maintained some staying power given his inability to beat them in 2012 or 2013, and his ongoing refusal to schedule a home-and-home with KU. Whatever it was, I can’t honestly say I think there wasn’t something more than just a bad day at the office that led to the 2008 team getting down 40-12 to start the game. This team was too good to have that bad a performance without something or other going on. Whatever it was, it was an unceremonious end to a really good season. Since the new millennium, Roy Williams’ 36-3 record in 2008 is the winningest season by an ACC coach. Overall, it’s tied for the third winningest season by any D1 coach, and one of very few seasons of 36 or more wins to not include the NCAA Championship game (Kentucky’s 2014-15 superteam and UNLV’s 1987 Final Four squad are the only others I saw). It goes without saying that 36 wins is a UNC record, as well. Hansbrough and Ellington were the stars of the season, and here are their averages:

  • Hansbrough: 22.6 PPG (career high), 10.2 RPG (career high), 54% FG
  • Ellington: 16.6 PPG (career high), 1.1 SPG (career high), 40% 3FG, 51% 2FG

As a team, the 2008 Heels ranked first in the nation in total points, rebounds, and made free throws; second in assists; and 10th in FG% and steals. They weren’t the most efficient team, but with their rebounding edge and lack of turnovers, they didn’t have to be: like the best Roy Williams teams, they simply overwhelmed their opponents with opportunity, to the tune of an overall adjusted efficiency margin of +30.22, per KenPom. That’s better than the margin of the 2017 team, and better than any of Williams’ other non-championship-winning teams, including 2016. And that’s my point: while we don’t feel sorry for this team because everybody we remember from it ended up with a ring anyways, there is no question in my mind that this team deserves to be foremost in the discussion of best UNC teams that didn’t end the season holding a trophy.