Today we conclude out three-part series about the best UNC teams that never existed. The first part reached back to the the 1970s and 80s. Last Sunday’s spanned the 1990s and 2000s. While the more recent one-and-done era has provided programs an up-close-and-personal experience with early departures, the Heels have experienced early NBA draftees for over 40 years.
And yet, the past decade has been rather unusual compared to the rest of UNC’s history. From Bob McAdoo in 1972 to Brandon Wright in 2007, this series only highlighted 10 UNC teams that were impaired by the loss of a key player due to leaving schools early (or in Vasco Evitmov’s case in 1998, taking a redshirt season). Compare that with today’s episode, which highlights six teams in the last 10 seasons alone. Surprisingly, the Heels can’t fully blame the OAD-era on their roster turnover.
Before we continue, remember these rules:
- Recruiting “misses” or impact on recruit commitments are not factored. (So, no, we aren’t adding Brandon Ingram to a roster).
- Positional backlogs and scholarship limits are irrelevant.
- Injuries never happened. For instance, Cole Anthony never tore his meniscus.
- Early departures can only impact one future team. Tony Bradley technically had three years of eligibility remaining when he left in 2017, but I only take into account a hypothetical 2017-18 sophomore season. Not a junior or senior year.
- Teams that were impacted by a national title combined with a mass exodus of players are not listed (2006 and 2010). That doesn’t impact the last decade.
- However, if a title team only lost one player, and that player would have significantly impacted the following season, then that player is mentioned (2018).
Finally, to clarify one point that has been raised by a couple of readers, we did not count players transferring out of the program for any teams. UNC has had so few over the years, and most transfers struggled to find success at their next location, most impacts would have been minimal.
Missing Player(s): Ed Davis
A year removed from the NIT, it’s easy to call an Elite Eight loss to Kentucky a “successful” season. Led by a junior Tyler Zeller and freshman Harrison Barnes (the #1 recruit in the country), North Carolina rebounded with a 29-8 record (14-2 ACC), and #2 seed in the NCAAT. They were even better after Kendall Marshall took over the starting point guard duties, finishing 17-4 in the final 21 games with the freshman passing phenom running the team.
And yet, this team never quite clicked. Too much inexperience at key positions. Not enough depth at others. Yes, some of that was due to Travis and David Wear transferring prior to the season, and Larry Drew skipping town in the middle of the season. However, Travis (career average of 8.2 pts, 4.1 reb) and David (career average of 6.8 pts, 4.3 reb), arguably would not have been major contributors as sophomores. Drew’s skills would have been nice to have as back-up PG, but the improved team chemistry created by his departure made his transfer addition by subtraction.
No, instead, another key loss harmed this team’s chances of making a Final Four run.
Unfortunately, Ed Davis entered the NBA Draft after that tumultuous post-championship NIT-bound 2010 season. He was selected with the #13 overall pick by the Toronto Raptors. As a sophomore, Davis averaged 13.4 points and 9.6 rebounds. Zeller (15.8 pts, 7.2 reb) and John Henson (11.7 pts, 10.1 reb) were plenty productive in that 2011 season, but a third NBA-caliber big man to help relieve pressure on a young perimeter might have earned a few more wins and a #1 seed.
Missing Player(s): Harrison Barnes, John Henson, Kendall Marshall
By this point, the NBA’s drafting philosophy rewarded unknown potential over proven results. The one-and-done mindset was beginning its rampant ascendancy among recruits. The G-League (then the D-League) was evolving into a value-added minor league system. North Carolina became a victim of this changing landscape after the 2011-2012 season.
The Heels, coming off consecutive Elite Eight trips, could have returned two-time ACC Defender of the Year in junior John Henson (13.7 pts, 9.9 reb), and All-American sophomores Kendall Marshall (Cousy Award, 8.1 pts, 9.8 ast) and Harrison Barnes (First Team All-ACC, 17.1 pts, 5.2 reb). Instead, all three declared for the draft, along with graduating senior Tyler Zeller. That left a 2012-13 squad that limped to a 25-11 record (12-6 ACC) and #8 seed, where they fell to Kansas for a second year in a row.
Had 2012 Cousy Award winner Marshall and two-time ACC Defender Player of the Year Henson returned, a perimeter-heavy lineup would have gained on a two-way post presence down low and one of the best passers in UNC history running the show. A title was likely a long shot, but a second round exit was avoidable. If Barnes, was who was a two-time All-ACC selection and never truly expected back, had miraculously returned, title aspirations in Chapel Hill would have been an expectation.
Barnes was selected by the Golden State Warriors with the #7 overall pick and was named to the NBA All-Rookie First Team . Marshall went to the Suns with the #13 overall pick. The Milwaukee Bucks grabbed Henson with the next pick at #14.
Missing Player(s): Reggie Bullock, P.J. Hairston
Sensing a theme? The past decade has been rife with “what ifs” for UNC’s rosters. Coming off the underwhelming 2013 season, the Heels were built once again with a guard-heavy lineup and post threats in sophomore Brice Johnson and junior James Michael McAdoo. Freshman Kennedy Meeks served as a solid third option with 7.6 points and 6.1 rebounds off the bench.
Alas, this team “stumbled” to a 24-10 record (13-5 ACC), and slightly bettered the previous seasons NCAAT with a #6 seed. The problem? Reggie Bullock and P.J. Hairston never played a single minute for this team. After the 2013 season, Bullock left for the NBA, where he was a first-round draft pick. Hairston, sidelined with NCAA issues, went to the NBA D-League (now G League) and was eventually a first round pick in the 2014 draft.
In 2012-13, Bullock led the team in three-point shooting at 43.9%, while averaging 13.9 points. Hairston led the team with 14.6 points per game and was second in three-point percentage at 39.6%. Without them, Marcus Paige was the only regular rotation player to shoot better than 35% from deep.
The 2013-14 Heels eventually blew a late lead in the second round against Iowa State. It was the second consecutive year the Heels failed to make the Sweet 16.
Missing Player: James Michael McAdoo
Seriously, folks. Every single season seemingly unexpectedly lost a player, or players, for various reasons. The 2015 finally made it back to the Sweet 16 where they lost to eventual runner-up Wisconsin. Along the way they finished 26-12 (11-7 ACC), but still earned a #4 seed. Marcus Paige led the way with 14.3 points, but Brice Johnson, Kennedy Meeks, and Justin Jackson also averaged double-digit scoring.
However, as was the case with many of these teams, they came up short on depth and experience in a key position. This time, it was James Michael McAdoo who left for the NBA after the 2013-2014 season, but went undrafted. He took his 30.1 minutes, 14.2 points and 6.8 rebounds with him.
McAdoo may have had a limited ceiling at UNC, but the Heels struggled at key positions without him. An inconsistent sophomore Meeks (11.7 pts, 7.6 reb) started 32 games but only averaged 23.2 minutes per game. Junior Joel James and sophomore Isaiah Hicks combined to average 25.9 minutes, 9.1 points, and 4.9 rebounds per game
Missing Player: Tony Bradley
Coming off consecutive Final Fours and a national title in 2017, this selection could be classified as greedy. The 2018 team, led by Joel Berry, Theo Pinson, and Luke Maye finished 26-11 (11-7 ACC) and entered the NCAAT with a #2 seed. They were then promptly dismantled by a Texas A&M team, led by two-time SEC Defensive Player of the Year, 6-9 forward Robert Williams and 6-10 center Tyler Davis. Lacking a true inside presence once again burned the Heels on a cold shooting night from outside.
The missing link? Tony Bradley, who averaged 7.1 points and 5.1 rebounds in just 14 minutes of action, was expected to play at least two years at UNC. He undoubtedly would have been the prominent figure in UNC’s post-centric system. That strong freshman year, however, caught the eye of NBA scouts and the Utah Jazz made him a first round draft pick. His defection left a gaping hole in the middle of UNC’s offense and defense, making them vulnerable to bigger, more physical teams.
Just how good was Bradley? Check out our analysis after the 2017 season, comparing him to the rest of the country’s freshman.
Missing Player(s): Coby White, Nassir Little
Obviously, this past season didn’t go as hoped for/expected/planned. And yes, the Heels lost five of their top six players from the 2018-19 team. And yes, two of those players were freshmen Coby White and Nassir Little. We all know the story.
Little (9.8 pts, 4.5 reb) went to the NBA, as was his plan all along. White (16.1 pts, 4.1 assts, 35.3 3P%) shot up draft boards with a surprisingly strong freshman year and declared at least one year earlier than expected. It was the “perfect” ending to a decade of unprecedented roster turnover at UNC.
Little was selected with the #25 pick by the Portland Trailblazers. Coby White became UNC’s first top-10 selection since Harrison Barnes when the Chicago Bulls took him at #7.
Had both players returned, the Heels could have boasted a starting lineup of Cole Anthony, Coby White, Nassir Little, Garrison Brooks, and Armando Bacot.
Think 2020 would have played out a little differently?
That brings us to the end of this fun little game. Of course some of these rosters and outcomes weren’t completely realistic. Would Cole Anthony really come to UNC if Coby White returns? Could Forte really have saved that 2002 teams from Matt Doherty’s coaching? Were there really enough minutes for Carter, Jamison, McInnis, Stackhouse, ‘Sheed, Shammond, and Calabria?
However, at a minimum, it shows just how close UNC has been to even more success than they’ve already attained. It also displayed just how ravaged the program has been by early departures over the last decade, which is arguably a much larger culprit for unfulfilled seasons, than poor recruiting because of the now defunct NCAA investigation.
Some of that attrition is due to UNC’s recent recruiting success and bringing OAD candidates to campus. Ironically, many fans who clamored for such talent for the better part of a decade, are realizing just how much of a fool’s errand it can be. Other personnel were unexpected departures, either through player development or off-court decisions.
This season UNC welcomes six more new recruits, all of them freshmen. Some are projected to only stay one year. The expected starting point guard, Caleb Love, is considered the #6 overall player in the country by 247 Sports. He will be the fourth starting point guard in the last four years. The roster turnover doesn’t appear to be slowing down.
If that remains the trend, then the next decade may add an additional six, seven, or even eight “what if” teams. Hopefully, there is a title team (or two) mixed in along the way.