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UNC Basketball: Post-championship expectations

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What does history tell us about Roy Williams’ teams following a championship

Kentucky v North Carolina Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

There are three types of hangovers. First, there is the type where you wake up and know you will feel horrible all day. Second, there is the type where you wake up thinking “this is not too bad” and then slowly realize that the situation is worse than you thought. Finally, there is the type when you wake up, feel good, and start the party again. Basketball Championships are the same way.

The 2005 Tar Heels went 26-3 in the regular season (including an opening loss to Santa Clara without Raymond Felton), lost in the semifinals of the ACC tournament to Georgia Tech, received a 1 seed in the South, and ultimately beat Illinois for the NCAA Championship.

Then came June.

Four players were drafted in the first round and four graduated. The top seven scorers were gone (and yet I have no sympathy for Oregon right now) but the Heels brought in a top ten recruiting class to join notable returnees David Noel, Byron Sanders, and Reyshawn Terry. With a lot of trepidation and very few expectations, the team got off to a rocky 5-4 start in the ACC but demonstrated how quickly a group of talented freshmen with some senior leadership can come together.

It is also amazing how quickly the "Fire Roy" chants stop after a seven-game conference winning streak, including a win on senior night over Dook. Ultimately, the freshman inexperience caught up with the team against a red hot 11 seeded George Mason that reached the Final Four. Roy Williams was named AP National Coach of the Year and the team finished second in the conference regular season on the way to a 23-8 record. This was a good hangover.

The nucleus that began in 2005-2006 picked up a number of talented recruits and once again won the Championship in 2009 with a spectacular tournament run where no one even came close (they only trailed for a total of 10 minutes). The national championship game against Michigan State was over about the time their first match-up ended in December. Two wins over Michigan State that year with a total margin of victory of 52 points and a National Championship.

Then came June.

Three players were drafted in the first round, one in the second round, and five others graduated. With all of that fire power gone, a letdown for the 2009-10 season would have been predictable; looking back, it was a certainty. The preseason top 10 team returned Ed Davis, Tyler Zeller, Marcus Ginyard (for a fifth year), and Deon Thompson among others to go with a top five incoming class. After a strong start, the team lost its chemistry and 12 of its final 17 games to finish the regular season at 16-15. A first round ACC tournament loss and a trip through the NIT to a championship game loss ended the season at 20-17. This was the hangover that looked like it would be fine, but then deteriorated quickly.

The rebuilding began and after years of ups and downs, fans were able to witness a tremendous redemption story. The 2017 NCAA tournament was a series of close calls and narrow victories but ultimately, after about 40 million fouls, the Tar Heels are Champions again.

Now, it is June.

Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Hicks, Nate Britt, Justin Jackson, Kanler Coker, Stilman White and surprisingly, Tony Bradley, are all moving on in their lives and careers. For those scoring at home, that's a total of nearly 55 points per game (including 4 of the top 5 scorers), over 26 rebounds per game (including all of the top 4), and nearly 140 minutes per game. Additionally, the 2017 recruiting class is ranked well below the top 10 classes from 2005-06 and 2009-10. This could be an evil hangover.

The key difference, however, is that 2005-06 and 2009-10 returned promising big men while losing their starting backcourts. 2017 is returning its starting backcourt (both versions of it) but losing most of its bigs. There is an understandable nervousness that is associated with losing so much size from one of the nation's best rebounding teams, but in today's college game, guards are kings. Point guards are emperors. Having inexperienced guards is a risk that can be rewarding (2005-06 with Bobby Frasor and Quentin Thomas) or disappointing (2009-10 with Larry Drew II). The Tar Heels will not have that problem this year.

With this information in mind, I asked world famous pessimistic prognosticator, My Grumpy Dad (“MGD”), for his thoughts on the upcoming season. He responded, “[t]hey've got some guys that can play, but when they play a team with a big center, they are going to get killed. They will have to run his legs off." This seems to be a common sentiment, especially considering the highest rated incoming freshman is also a guard.

Nevertheless, history gives us cause for cautious optimism. Freshmen big men tend to learn and handle Carolina’s running game faster than guards. This is not necessarily true in the half court set, but if MGD is correct, there will not be a lot of half court sets. Additionally, three point shooting percentage is more of a certainty this year and that makes a big difference for UNC Championship hangover teams. The 2005-06 team shot 37.5% from three point land while 2009-10 shot only 32.8%.

Chemistry is the x-factor in the equation of team success. Previous instances have demonstrated that defending a national championship brings together freshmen and upperclassmen over the summer and early in the season. The question becomes, how does the team react when adversity strikes? Joel Berry II and Theo Pinson have already demonstrated leadership through difficult times (such as one year ago).

The 2005-06 and 2009-10 teams provide insight into the chances of success, warning signs, and appropriate expectations for 2017-18. Admittedly, there are a number of uncertainties facing this team that won't play out until November or March. In the meantime, I am going to enjoy the party instead of dreading the hangover.

After all, it is only June.