Yesterday, Al took a look at one of UNC’s biggest what-ifs of the 21st century, namely the question of Roy Williams coming home a few years earlier and avoiding the Doherty era altogether. Later on in the week, we’ll look at some others that stick in the minds of most Tar Heel fans, like Kendall Marshall’s injury, the NCAA investigation, you know the drill. But today, I wanted to take a look at a very recent what-if, one that I fear is already getting ignored in the larger Carolina Basketball narrative: What if the flu hadn’t ravaged the Carolina locker room in March of 2019?
I worry that, because the team’s best players by the end of the season were two one-and-done freshmen and a two-year grad transfer, the 2018-19 team is going to be overlooked for how good it really was, especially when everything started clicking for them in February-March. Per Kenpom’s adjusted efficiency, that team was better on a per-possession basis than any of Roy Williams’ non-Final Four teams in Chapel Hill: Better than the 2012 squad that we all believe would’ve made the championship game with a healthy Marshall, much better than the 2011 Elite Eight team, and significantly better than his other Sweet Sixteen team in 2015. But, looking back, it’s not hard to remember, either: They absolutely crushed a stacked Duke team twice, which may have been lacking arguably the best college player ever but even without him may have been the most talented team in college basketball, and then lost a toss-up by one point with Zion Williamson healthy and in the lineup. Starting in mid-January, led by Coby White’s full adjustment to the college game, they absolutely dusted most of the teams in a stacked ACC, including a ranked Seminoles team, a top-10 Virginia Tech team, a solid Miami squad, etc. They had some trouble at times, including a rough game against Clemson and the Heels’ continued inability to beat Virginia, but they ended up sharing the ACC regular season title with the Hoos. They were in good shape, and even got the last #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
The team was led by Cam Johnson and Coby White, and they were nothing short of phenomenal when the New Year hit. Each had the best conference season at their position that a Roy Williams team has seen since 2010, if you trust the Player Efficiency Rating metric (sports-reference only measures PER that far back). White had fully grown into his role as lead guard and ran Williams’ offense perfectly, with the type of speed and slashing creativity we hadn’t seen in a while plus an increasingly lethal jump shot. Johnson was the best shooter in the ACC and possibly the country, if you take level of competition into account. But as good as they were, and as good as the team’s results were, we all knew they could have been more. Seniors Luke Maye and Kenny Williams, coming off real growth in their junior years, both massively declined as players. Both had been really good sharpshooting role players the year prior, Maye providing elite rebounding and Williams being the team’s best perimeter defender, and they had both been expected to help carry the team in their senior years. Maye had his moments, like his effort against Gonzaga early in the season, his outbursts in rivalry games, and a clutch three-pointer against Miami to force overtime. But on the whole, both saw severe shooting decline throughout the season, both hitting just about 30% of their three-pointers. Williams became a near-nonpresence in his attempts to not keep missing, while Maye kept shooting, making his negative impact on offense even greater. Williams’ defense and Maye’s rebounding remained at a high level, but they struggled to give more. And super-hyped freshman Nassir Little, though he had his own outbursts where he was clearly the best player on the court just by being, had yet to really integrate into the UNC offense, his delayed basketball development showing up in his learning of an entirely new system.
And then came the NCAA Tournament. The seniors continued to struggle, but Little was suddenly magnificent. He put up 19 points in 17 minutes against Iona, who had pretty effectively slowed the rest of the team down, and then 20 points on 11 shots in 21 minutes against Washington, outscoring the Huskies 13-9 by himself in one crucial stretch that put the game away. Things were clicking: his positioning was better, he was reading defenses and making smart passes, he was moving without the ball for good shots rather than traveling into bad ones, and his talent, always obvious, was now in the right spots to really take over. Combined with White and Johnson continuing their excellence, it looked like a very good team was getting what it needed to become a great one.
And then... Auburn happened.
It’s not universally agreed upon that UNC lost to Auburn in that Sweet 16 matchup because of the illness that swept through the locker room and handicapped at least Little and Johnson. That Auburn team was an excellent one, built outside-in to capitalize on the UNC defensive system’s weaknesses and capable of getting hot from deep. They had won the SEC Tournament and ended up losing in the Final Four; they were clearly a team that could have beaten anybody, healthy or not. But bear with me. In the first half, UNC was killed by Auburn getting to a lot of long rebounds. Little and Johnson were both big wing-type players who could have bodied those boards a lot better if they were able to play to their fullest; Luke Maye was an elite rebounder but mainly controlled the area right under the basket. They also just didn’t score enough, and Little and Johnson were, at their best, instant offense - Johnson’s shooting could have been vital in a game where UNC was 7 of 28 from outside. Little had also become possibly the team’s best wing defender, and it wasn’t guards Bryce Brown or Jared Harper who killed the Heels, it was small forward Chuma Okeke, who went off for 20 points before an unfortunate injury late in the game. I’m positive Little would have mitigated that. I won’t say this victory would have been as certain as, say, 2012 against Kansas with a healthy Kendall Marshall, but I do think it would have been likely for a UNC squad at full strength. Auburn was really good. That UNC team with White, Little, and Johnson on all cylinders was great.
And what happens from there? Auburn went from that game to fighting off a very good Kentucky team that UNC would have matched up excellently with; seeing as they didn’t take a ton of threes outside of Tyler Herro and mostly played through big wings. They had beaten UNC in December but this was a very different team, and Kentucky hadn’t really changed since then other than Herro going from decent to red-hot. It would have been tight, as that clash of blue-bloods just about always is, but I think UNC would have had a better-than-50-50 chance: Even in December, when Kentucky was clearly the better team, the margin was only 8 points. With the two more or less even, I like the Heels’ chances. And then, of course, we get to Virginia, the tournament’s eventual champions. The Heels saw them once in the regular season, losing 61-69. And they were on another level in the tournament, just ripping through teams to try and take off the stink of losing to a 16-seed the previous year. And since 2013, Roy Williams is just 3-9 against Virginia. I think this is probably where this hypothetical ends.
So what would’ve happened after? It’s hard to tell, being just a year and change removed from it, but here’s what I think we know: That team didn’t hamper recruiting; UNC missed on more than a few targets in the 2019 class but probably none who would’ve changed their minds based on a Final Four appearance. Coby White’s rise was enough, seemingly, to counter the narrative that Roy Williams holds back one-and-done talents even with Little’s eventual tumble in the NBA draft. Maye and Williams, both fan favorites, left with rings from their sophomore year. On the other hand, you can’t help but think a Final Four creates some winning momentum for guys like Brandon Robinson and Garrison Brooks, who ably led the 2019-20 team but could have used the bona fides that a Final Four appearance gives a player in the locker room. Every single report about work ethic from last season was about a freshman: Cole Anthony being the hardest worker in practice, or Jeremiah Francis and Anthony Harris attacking rehab like nobody since Tyler Hansbrough. That’s awesome, and a great rebuttal to the boomer idea that freshmen need to learn how to care about college basketball, but is it outlandish to say that having a couple of leaders who knew what it took to get to the last weekend of college basketball would have created a more cohesive work group? This year’s team probably wasn’t built for major success, but they could have been better, and not left us in such a rut, with a little more cohesion (and less injury, but, well...).
And there’s also this: another Final Four appearance would have further distanced Roy Williams from most of the rest of his active peers; he’d have had, I think, 10 (putting him behind only Krzyzewski’s 12, in much less time as a head coach). At a time where his legacy is becoming set in stone, that milestone would have been a nice feather in his cap.
But here’s my biggest thing: coaches are different from the rest of us, and particularly different from those of us who write about sports. We look for reasons, we imagine what-ifs, we don’t hold stake in actual results the way that coaches do. On the sidelines, it’s the nature of the job to be next-man-up, as dumb as that sounds to those of us at home; to avoid excuses even when they’re more than a little valid. And with such a limiting big-picture view, I fear that the flameout of such a talented team that happened to be more four-out, one-in than Williams’ traditional 2-big lineup is going to dissuade him in the future from looking at installing more 1-big looks as the majority lineup. It’s definitely not happening in the near future, with a logjam at the big man positions that will only be cleared up with some semi-unexpected departures. Basketball is evolving, and I think we’d all love for UNC to evolve at least a little bit with it: For example, we’ve all been bemoaning the defensive system’s propensity to give up lots of semi-open to open threes since the turn of the decade, at least. The 2019 team was their best chance to do so, with an optimized lineup for more modern basketball. If they could only make the Sweet 16, as stacked as they were, can we expect to see 1-big lineups with less optimal rosters? I’m writing this because I haven’t forgotten that it was illness that stopped them from getting further. I don’t know that any successful coach can really do the same. The 2019 team could have been an inflection point for UNC men’s basketball, a team that signaled some tweaks to keep up with the modern game and reconfigure optimizing offensive production. But they ended up giving us more excitement than results, and so, I’m afraid, we’re not going to see anything change for a while. UNC basketball will be great as long as Roy Williams is coach, I’m sure of that. But I can’t shake the feeling a major opportunity for self-improvement has been missed thanks to that illness, and as the close games and unexpected losses to inferior teams like Wofford, Texas A&M, Miami, and the like continue, it’s a feeling that only keeps growing stronger.