Earlier this month, we started a three-part series exploring the best teams that never existed at UNC. The first installment covered the 1970s and 1980s. The last team mentioned was the 1989-90 squad that sorely missed J.R. Reid after he declared for the NBA Draft after his junior season.
Today we continue looking at these hypothetical rosters through the 1990s and early 2000s. Early entries continued to increase, though the one-and-done era as we know it today was not quite as prominent in the college landscape. Instead, after five years of relative stability, a combination of top-talent and coaching upheaval led to a surprising amount of turnover in the years immediately before and after the turn of the century. It was all just a precursor to what we experience today, though we’ll save that for next time.
As a reminder, here are the rules to this game:
- Recruiting “misses” or impact on recruit commitments are not factored. (So, no, we aren’t retroactively adding Kevin Durant or Brandon Ingram to a roster).
- Positional backlogs and scholarship limits are irrelevant.
- Injuries never happened. For instance, Kenny Smith never suffered a broken wrist.
- Early departures can only impact one future team. Joseph Forte technically had two years of eligibility remaining when he left in 2001, but I only take into account a hypothetical 2001-02 junior season. Not a senior year. (There is one exception on today’s list because the NCAA is a model for ineptitude.)
- Teams that were impacted by a national title combined with a mass exodus of players are not listed (2006 and 2010).
- However, if a title team only lost one, and those players would have significantly impacted the following season, then that player is mentioned (1983 and 2018).
Off we go!
Missing Player(s): Rasheed Wallace, Jerry Stackhouse
Undoubtedly the greatest “what-if” roster in UNC’s history.
Imagine a starting lineup of junior point guard Jeff McInnis, junior Jerry Stackhouse, senior Dante Calabria, freshman Antawn Jamison, and junior Rasheed Wallace. Add a bench of junior Serge Zwikker, sophomore Shammond Williams, and freshmen Vince Carter and Ademola Okulaja. Fans were salivating after the 1995 Final Four run came up just short thanks, in part, to a hobbled Stackhouse against Arkansas.
It wasn’t meant to be. Both Wallace and Stackhouse left after only two seasons and were the #3 and #4 overall picks in the 1995 NBA Draft. They were the first Tar Heels to leave that early in their career since Bob McAdoo in 1972.
Without Stack and ‘Sheed, North Carolina went 21-11 (10-6 ACC), and lost to the Red Raiders of Texas Tech (pre-Bob Knight) in the Sweet 16. For those old enough to remember, hatred for Darvin Ham and his backboard shattering dunk is only surpassed by Weber State’s Harold Arceneaux in ‘98, and the entire 2012 Creighton team.
There’s no guarantee a freshman Jamison and Carter could have successfully coexisted with a junior Stackhouse and Wallace, but as a fan, I will always believe that squad would have rolled to a national title. At the time, Jamison even said he had visions of winning a ring with the two departed sophomores. Vince Carter also recently talked about how stacked this squad could have been on the All the Smoke podcast.
Best what if Carolina lineup ever?— Dadgum Box Scores (@dadgumboxscores) May 24, 2020
Plus . . .
Ademola Okaluja pic.twitter.com/S3Z8Fezqh5
Missing Player: Jeff McInnis
It’s hard to argue with 28-7 record (11-5 ACC), and a Final Four appearance, but over two decades later, this one still stings. Fresh off the Sweet 16 disappointment against Texas Tech in 1996, the Heels returned a sophomore Vince Carter and Antawn Jamison, a junior Shammond Williams, and a senior Serge Zwikker. A freshman phenom by the name of Ed Cota also began his Tar Heel career.
However, this team was missing one major piece that all title winning UNC teams have: An experienced starting point guard.
After the 1996 season, junior point guard Jeff McInnis bolted for the NBA, surprising many fans. Despite averaging 16.5 points and 5.5 assists, he was not considered a first-round talent. This was also before the G-League and lucrative international opportunities, so fall back options were limited. It was rare for college players to leave for the NBA without a guaranteed pay day. Even Dean Smith said McInnis was the first player to leave UNC without an a known landing spot.
McInnis was ultimately drafted in the second round, as Cota and Williams shared ball-handling duties in ’96-97. Williams also hit 95 three-pointers, which stood as a UNC record for 20 years. However, in his UNC career, McInnis shot 39.7% from deep. That would have been nice to have in the Final Four when the Heels went 4-21 from three against the eventual national champion Arizona Wildcats.
Missing Player: Vasco Evtimov
Our own Al Hood argued that this team was the best UNC team to never win a title. He provided great context to a team that’s been largely forgotten in the pantheon of almost-so-close Tar Heel teams. However, one reason for the heartbreak is often more forgotten than others.
Two words. One player.
After Antawn Jamison returned for his junior season in ’97-98, the Bulgarian-born, French national went home to fulfill a military obligation. Instead of wasting a year of eligibility behind the eventual National Player of the Year, Dean Smith gave his blessing for Evtimov to take a redshirt season and spend 10 months with the French army. While serving, he was asked to play for the French national team, but had to play for a French club in order to be eligible. He obliged and played for a local team for free.
As we all painfully remember, the Heels fell to Utah in the Final Four. They finished the year with a 34-4 record (13-3 ACC), but lacked consistent production in the post from players not named Jamison. The future NBA small/power forward was the starting “center” at just 6-8 and 220 pounds. UNC, who had no answer for 6-11, 260-pound Michael Doleac in the national semifinal, sorely missed Evitmov’s size. An experienced 6-10, 245-pound big man would have been a nice toy to play with.
This was also the first season without Dean Smith on the sideline. What if….
Missing player(s): Antawn Jamison, Vince Carter, Vasco Evtimov
Continuing with Evtimov, both Jamison and Vince Carter left for the NBA after their junior seasons, paving the way for increased playing time and a break-out season in 1998-99. However, when Evtimov returned to Chapel Hill, the NCAA suspended him 18 games for gaining an “competitive advantage” while in France. Now playing for Bill Guthridge, who was not the head coach prior to his military service, Evtimov never got comfortable and only averaged 4.4 points and 5.0 rebounds. For context, he averaged 15 points and 10 rebounds in three exhibition games before his suspension.
Both seasons could have been vastly different if the 1996 McDonald’s All-American had been available. (Sidenote: Evtimov eventually returned to Chapel Hill to earn his degree, fulfilling a promise he made to the man who recruited him).
Meanwhile, Jamison and Carter were selected with the #4 and #5 overall picks in NBA draft before this season started. Carter was named the NBA Rookie of the Year and Jamison was named to the NBA All-Rookie Second Team.
If any one of those players returned to play a full season, it’s a safe bet that UNC would have finished better than 24-10 (10-6 ACC) and earned higher than a #3 seed. Thus, Weber State never would have happened, and Bill Guthridge might have had a legitimate chance at back-to-back Final Fours.
Missing Player(s): Joseph Forte, Julius Peppers
This hypothetical team never had the potential to be among the “great” Tar Heel rosters, but it may be the most important.
How different would UNC basketball history be if two key players had returned to the hardwood following the 2001 second-round defeat against Penn State? Matt Doherty, coming off being named the National Coach of the Year in his first season at UNC, welcomed Jawad Williams, Melvin Scott, and Jackie Manual as his first full recruiting class. They were expected to join rising juniors Joseph Forte and Julius Peppers and rising seniors Kris Lang and Jason Capel to form a solid, if not overwhelming, rebuilding team.
The only problem? A 2000-2001 Consensus All-American and co-ACC Player of the Year, Forte (20.9 pts, 6.1 reb, 37.7 3P%) originally committed to Bill Guthridge and was underwhelmed by Doherty’s style. The sophomore fled to the NBA where he was the #21 overall pick by the Boston Celtics. Peppers also left for the professional ranks. The #2 overall pick in the 2002 NFL draft carved out a Hall of Fame career over the next 17 years.
Lacking shooting, scoring, depth, physicality, and experience, UNC stumbled to an 8-20 record and missed the postseason for the first time since 1966. Doherty never truly recovered and was replaced by Roy Williams one year later. So, maybe, this wasn’t so bad after all?
Missing Player: Brandan Wright
It’s difficult to get upset over this non-existent team. The nucleus won a title the following season, while the real-life version reached the Final Four in 2008. But at Chapel Hill, titles define truly great teams. This team came up just short, despite Tyler Hansbrough earning National Player of the Year honors.
The one thing lacking from the 2008 team was an extra big body down low as a secondary option to Hansbrough. Deon Thompson wasn’t unproductive with 8.4 points and 4.8 rebounds per game, but it’s hard not to get excited about what a sophomore Wright might have added to a 36-3 team (14-2 ACC), that fell just short in San Antonio against the Kansas Jayhawks. When we talk about the best UNC teams to never win a title, this squad has a strong case, as Akil recently touched on.
It’s easy to understand why Wright departed for the NBA after the 2006-07 season. He averaging 14.7 points and 6.5 rebounds in his only season at UNC, while being named Second-Team All-ACC, the ACC Rookie of the Year and the ACC Tournament MVP. Selected by the Charlotte Bobcats with the 8th overall pick in the NBA Draft, he eventually ended up with the Golden State Warriors after a draft-night swap.