It all seemed to set up perfectly.
In 2000, Bill Guthridge was leading his third Tar Heels team through a stormy season. The year prior, UNC had been shocked in the first round thanks to Harold “The Show” Arceneaux, and the current squad led by Ed Cota and Brendan Haywood had struggled to find consistency throughout the season. Despite having a signature win against Maryland in the game that led to the students getting the whole lower bowl, Gut’s team stumbled weakly out of the ACC Tournament, and entered the NCAAs with an 8 seed. Somehow, though, they caught fire and stormed their way to the Final Four, Gut’s second in his three years.
A couple of months later, tanned and relaxed, Guthridge decided it was time to join his mentor Dean Smith in retirement, and all eyes quickly turned to Lawrence, Kansas as former Smith assistant and successful Jayhawk coach Roy Williams was expected to quickly take over. It would be one of the smoothest transitions a major program had ever had, allowing a legend to thank his long time assistant and then put it in the hands of the next best coach in the game.
Only it wasn’t to be.
When things broke down during that summer, it initiated a set of dominoes that would forever change the course of Carolina Basketball, not to mention several others. So what if Roy Williams had his tearful goodbye then instead of three years later?
The easiest place to start would be in the 2000-2001 season. That Carolina team doesn’t get mentioned a lot as a great team to never win a title, but people forget just how much talent Matt Doherty - and by extension, our hypothetical Roy Williams - had on the floor. Once ACC season began in January, Ronald Curry and Julius Peppers joined a squad that had Haywood, sensational sophomore Joseph Forte, as well as Jason Capel. While the non-conference season had been a little up and down, the full squad announced exactly what they could do as the new year began against Wake Forest:
Yes, kids, Julius Peppers could play basketball. He could play it very well.
This Tar Heel team reeled off eleven straight ACC wins, roared to the number one ranking in the country and defeated a resurgent Duke team at Cameron. They entered the last couple of weeks of the regular season looking like the team to beat in all of college basketball.
And then it all came crashing down.
What happened during the 75-65 loss at Clemson may never be fully known. The coaches and players will always know the truth, but what is clear is that from that moment forward the Tar Heels showed the signs of dysfunction that would ultimately define Matt Doherty’s tenure as the head coach. Despite this, the Tar Heels finished the ACC 13-3, got to the ACC title game, and had a two seed in the South for the NCAA Tournament. Unfortunately, by the time they got to New Orleans they had already been blown out by the Devils in that title game, and Penn State would stun the Tar Heels at the site of their 93 title win.
So picture Roy Williams on the sideline with that team instead. Despite all the turmoil going into that season, Williams managed to get his Kansas team to a Sweet 16 in San Antonio, as he was building towards another strong run leading him to the Final Four in 2003. It wouldn’t be a stretch to think that a squad used to how Guthridge led them, wouldn’t have had the same dysfunction that blew up the season if they’d been transitioned to a similar leadership style with Williams. Williams, gifted a team with such talent that catered to his preferred style of play, would have also been able to steer the team through any obstacles that came at them. You easily can see in this scenario where Carolina continues steamrolling along instead of getting derailed against the Tigers, and even if they don’t take home the national title in 2001, they more than likely deny Duke theirs.
Picture it: Carolina gets the top East seed instead of the Devils, plays Maryland in the Final Four to again frustrate Gary Williams, and corrects the injustice of the 1997 Final Four loss by beating Arizona. Roy Williams gets his first title in 2001, not 2005, and quickly cements his place for the next two decades plus and Carolina keeps rolling along.
As much as that thought hurts, avoiding the next season might have even been a bigger deal.
Prior to 2001-02, Haywood graduated, Forte left early because of his rocky relationship with Doherty, and both Curry and Peppers decided to focus solely on football under new coach John Bunting. The team fell apart time and time again, and the infamous 8-20 season happened. Would Williams had been able to convince Forte to stay one more season? Would at least Ronald Curry decided to have come back to basketball? Would Roy had been able to bring in more help besides Jawad Williams, Melvin Scott, and Jackie Manuel? Those three lynchpins to the eventual 2005 national championship team could have benefited, particularly early in their careers, from having a little more top talent, and at the very least, Williams coming off a better season would have created some cohesion that could have avoided the team giving up as they did.
There’s also a question as to whether or not Roy would have recruited everyone for the 2002 class that Doherty did. Raymond Felton and Sean May likely still come no matter what, as their style fit Roy like a glove, but what about Rashad McCants? Even if he still comes, would the fact that Roy had recruited him instead of being thrust upon him have changed the friction that developed over the years between him and the program? I’ll leave things there, but there’s a lot more that changes if the relationship between McCants and UNC either doesn’t exist or isn’t soured so significantly.
That’s a ton to think about just on the Carolina side, but think about three other programs that felt the ripples: Duke, Kansas, and Notre Dame.
Krzyzewski was able to complete his comeback from 1995 thanks to the Tar Heels’ collapse. His third national title in 2001 solidified his position at Duke and allowed him to sail along basically unchallenged for the rest of his career. Think about this: if K doesn’t win that title, and nothing else changes, he doesn't take down another one until 2010, a span of almost 20 years between titles. That title likely changed the course of his ability to recruit, and showed the college basketball world that his first run was no fluke. Does he get the same players with another stumble? Does he end up getting direction of USA’s national team? Does he adapt his style to where he embraces the one and done to try and get another title, if he doesn’t have the clout with high school kids to be able to do it as well as he has? It’s intriguing to think about, and it is also makes you wonder if the power dynamic between K and Roy would be different had Roy managed to get that first win in 2001.
Kansas also changed irrevocably thanks to Roy staying another couple of years. There’s no telling who Kansas would have tried to hire at that point, as Bill Self hadn’t quite established himself at Illinois the way he did in 2003. It’s almost impossible to think that they could have found anybody better for the program than Self had Roy left a few years earlier. Without Self at the helm, you have to wonder where the program would have been since the turn of the century: would they be able to maintain a place among bluebloods without one of college basketball’s best active coaches? On the flip side, would they currently be the poster boys for the sneaker mess engulfing college basketball? And do Carolina fans resent Roy for wearing the Kansas sticker at their title game because he wouldn’t have spurned Chapel Hill once before? Heck, if UNC’s issues against Kansas, first seen in 2008, since Roy took over are in fact a mental block of Roy’s, does that go away if the emotion of that first decision isn’t so visceral?
Finally, the current coach at Notre Dame was the one who was named the replacement after Doherty left South Bend and took the Carolina job. In a lot of ways, the move worked out much better for the Irish than if Doherty had stayed, because the blowup that happened at Carolina looked inevitable wherever he had landed. Mike Brey, meanwhile, has led Notre Dame basketball to a high level of consistency. Maybe they are never in the national title discussion, but they are very rarely in the basement, either, and always provided a good game for both their Big East and ACC opponents. It’s doubtful Doherty would have had as much consistency in South Bend, so who knows if that program is as attractive today as it was when he left.
Three short years made all the difference in the world. It all worked out for Carolina fans, as no one will-or should-complain about three national titles in seventeen seasons. Still, twenty years later, it’s difficult to not wonder how much heartache could have been saved if Williams had just saved everyone the trouble and came to Carolina in the first place.