Picture this with me: Once the coronavirus has passed over, you have been bestowed the title Czar of North Carolina Basketball. The first item on your agenda is to hang a player’s jersey in the rafters from the Roy Williams era who doesn’t already have his number honored or retired. Or, if you feel like it, you can remove a certain person’s jersey from the rafters. His number is 32; that should help narrow it down.
When picking the person to put in the rafters, it really comes down to one question: If somebody were to ask you to tell them the story of Carolina basketball from the beginning to now, could you tell the story without mentioning this player?
I narrowed my list down to three players, all of which I don’t think you can tell the history of Carolina basketball without.
3. Kennedy Meeks
When telling the story of the 2015-2017 Tar Heels teams, it would be impossible to leave out Kennedy Meeks. Not only was Meeks a crucial part of the 2015-2016 national runner-up team, the 2016-2017 national title team might not have won it all if not for the big man’s spectacular performance in the Final Four against Oregon.
Meeks was good for the Tar Heels from day one. He started 81% of his games, averaging 10.4 points and 7.3 rebounds. But the best case for Meeks to have his jersey in the rafters has to be how close he has to have been to winning the 2017 Final Four Most Outstanding Player.
In the Final Four against Oregon, Meeks scored 25 points and grabbed 14 rebounds, one of the most clutch performances from a Tar Heel ever. Even though Meeks and Joel Berry missed four free throws in the final seconds against Oregon, Meeks grabbed the offensive rebound on the fourth, securing the win and a spot in the title game for the Tar Heels.
Even though he struggled in the title game, only scoring seven points, he still finished the Final Four averaging 16 points on 78% shooting, 12 rebounds and 2.5 steals.
The fact that Meeks didn’t win MOP of the Final Four in the 2017 title year is a little disappointing because he was such a huge factor in getting the Tar Heels to the final game. The big man put the team on his back against a future first round NBA Draft pick in Jordan Bell and helped deliver redemption for 2016.
2. Kendall Marshall
Oh what could have been. Instead of getting everybody even more depressed in these trying times, I will avoid talking about the C-word game in which Kendall Marshall got hurt as much as possible, but I do have to say this: Marshall might have had his jersey retired had the Tar Heels won the title that year.
North Carolina has had three Bob Cousy award winners in its history: Raymond Felton, Ty Lawson and Kendall Marshall. Marshall is the only one that doesn’t have his jersey in the rafters. Would it be difficult to put a jersey in the rafters for a guy who averaged 7.2 points per game for his career? Possibly. But as the main question I stated earlier goes, you cannot tell the story of Carolina basketball without Kendall Marshall.
The number one reason that is true is his injury derailed a national championship caliber team. He was the most important player on the 2011-2012 team and we saw that as soon as he went down. Marshall was also a two-time All-ACC player in two years to go with his Cousy Award.
The 2012 Tar Heel team will go down as the biggest what-if of the Roy Williams era. If Marshall stayed healthy, there is a great chance that Williams has four NCAA titles right now. It’s easy to see a scenario where the Tar Heels win it all and Marshall wins the Most Outstanding Player. He averaged 14.5 points and 10.5 assists in the first two games of the tournament.
Kendall Marshall is one the most under-appreciated point guards in the Roy Williams era. He deserves to be in the same company as Raymond Felton and Ty Lawson.
1. Luke Maye
I think Luke Maye is the only right answer. He had the perfect combination of iconic moments and a good statistical career. The first two years of Maye’s career weigh down his final numbers, but over his final two seasons he averaged 16 points and 10 rebounds per game.
Maye will live forever in Tar Heel lore because of his shot against Kentucky in the 2017 Elite Eight, but he won’t get his jersey immortalized because he didn’t meet the criteria of an honored jersey. That seems a little unfair, seeing as how Maye’s shot is the most iconic moment of a national title season.
The preferred walk-on carried the momentum from that shot into his junior season, where he had his best season as a Tar Heel averaging 17 points and 10 rebounds. He shot 43% from three too. Maye was voted third team All-American by the AP and Sporting News. In order to have your jersey honored in the rafters you must be second team or better. That’s how close Maye was to being in the rafters.
If I had to choose just one, Maye would go in the rafters. His shot against Kentucky will be shown on the big screen at the Smith Center until North Carolina basketball doesn’t exist. But his stats over his final two years warranted a spot on at least a second team All-America.
These are just from the Roy Williams era, but feel free to sound off in the comments with who you would put in the rafters from all of North Carolina history!