The 2017-2018 Tar Heels basketball team will face an upcoming challenge that only five other teams have dealt with in UNC history—following up a national championship season.
The last three follow-up seasons (1993-94, 2005-06, and 2009-10) have failed to make it past the second round of the NCAA tournament, and the 2009-10 team failed to even make the field of 64.
There are certainly some similarities between the upcoming Heels and those teams, but the differences between this squad and those of the past (a few negative and one huge positive) will determine if the 2018 Tar Heels have a strong showing in defending their title.
First, the negatives:
Incoming Recruiting Classes
One of the largest differences between the 1994, 2006, 2010, and 2018 Heels is their incoming recruiting classes. There’s no secret that Roy and company have seemed to miss on the high end recruits recently, but the other championship teams were certainly reloaded after the trophy came to Chapel Hill. The 1993 class was headlined by Rasheed Wallace, Jerry Stackhouse, and Jeff McGinnis; all McDonald’s All Americans. Recruiting wasn’t nearly the spectacle it is now, so it is difficult to find team rankings, but that had to be near the top.
The 2005 class was led by the one and only five-star recruit Tyler Hansbrough. He was joined by four-stars Danny Green, Bobby Frasor, and Marcus Ginyard, which was good enough for third in the country. The 2009 class also ended up third in the country on Scout.com. This class was headlined by five-star John Henson, and also included Dexter Strickland, Leslie McDonald, and eventual transfers David and Travis Wear.
The class of 2017 settled out at 15th overall. Although still a high level, it isn’t nearly as star-loaded as the previous classes. The lone five-star is Jalek Felton, and Garrison Brooks is a four-star. Sterling Manley, Brandon Huffman, and Andrew Platek ended the recruiting cycle as three-star recruits. One of the more important newcomers to the squad won’t be found in the rankings. Cam Johnson, the grad transfer from Pitt, might not be in the rankings, but he will be a huge addition.
This difference seems like it goes somewhat hand in hand with recruiting talent. The 1994 Heels had a total of six players log NBA minutes with Wallace and Stackhouse going on to be frequent All-Stars. The 2006 UNC roster didn’t have the same breadth of NBA talent, but had a lottery pick in Hansbrough and a six season NBA starter (so far) in Danny Green, which for a college basketball team, is still a solid NBA showing.
The 2010 UNC team finished with the worst record of the Roy Williams era, but still ended up with three first round picks in Tyler Zeller, John Henson, and Ed Davis. The 2018 UNC roster is obviously still speculative, but as of right now, Draftexpress.com only has Theo Pinson in the draft next year at 53rd overall. NBA talent certainly isn’t the only factor for a successful college team (right Dook and UK?), but talent is usually better than no talent.
Now to the to big positive difference:
The 1994 Tar Heels still featured many players from the NCAA championship team a season before, which is what 2018 will feel like. Eric Montross, Derrick Phelps, and Donald Williams all returned, but the loss of George Lynch turned out to be a large factor in the team’s tournament success.
They still won 28 games, including the ACC Tournament, but fell to Boston College in the second round of the tournament. Some of this was due to coach Smith sticking with his seniors instead of letting Stackhouse and Wallace take over the offense, but falling in the second round with all of that talent was disappointing.
The 2006 Tar Heels fell victim to a mass NBA draft in 2005. The four players were drafted in the NBA lottery (Marvin Williams, Felton, May and McCants), along with Scott, Manuel and Jawad Williams graduating accounted for 93% of the scoring for the championship team. That’s a tough group to make up for. 2006 was probably a little over-seeded in the NCAA tournament as a 3 seed, and lost to the ultimate Cinderella George Mason in the second round.
The 2010 team suffered a similar exodus to 2006. They lost 80% of their scoring four of which were starters (due to GInyard’s injury). Although they did return some NBA talent with Davis and Zeller, they failed to make the NCAA tournament.
The 2017 team will have the most experience coming back from a championship since at least 1994. Of course they lost Justin Jackson, Tony Bradley, Isaiah Hicks, Kennedy Meeks and Nate Britt, but they accounted for only 65% of the points vs 80% and 93% from previous teams.
They return three players that started last year in Berry, Pinson, and Kenny Williams. Luke Maye has shown he’s not afraid of the big moment, and although Cam Johnson wasn’t a UNC starter, he averaged 33 minutes last season in the same conference. The biggest question mark will be at the center position, but the ability to go small and shoot from every position with Berry, Williams, Pinson, Maye, and Johnson is certainly a new dynamic to a Roy offense.
North Carolina hasn’t had much success with recent reigning championship teams, but with all the talent they return, hopefully they can buck the trend. At least having your team struggle after a championship isn’t too bad, is it? I know I wouldn’t mind having this problem every few years, that’s for sure.