In filmmaking, the word “turnaround” is not a good one. A turnaround is an arrangement in the film industry whereby the production costs of a project which one studio has developed are declared a loss on the company’s tax return, thereby preventing the studio from exploiting the property any further.
To put it in basketball parlance: If the 2019-20 Tar Heels were a feature film, we would probably declare it to be “in turnaround.” But it is only January. Which means that there is still time to...well...turn it around.
Yes, I can hear you rolling your eyes already. It’s unlikely, to be sure. At this point, the only real hope for UNC to be playing tournament basketball is to get everyone healthy (everyone they can, anyway), get scalding hot, and go on a run in the ACC Tournament in Greensboro. Win over Oregon aside, UNC’s schedule features a bevy of horrific losses, most at home, and that will kill them on Selection Sunday, even if they grab some good conference wins. But there is still time. And there is some precedent.
Here are the most notable turnaround seasons in recent memory:
The 1996-97 squad came into the season with a lot of buzz: They were ranked #8 in preseason and returned super sophomores Antawn Jamison and Vince Carter, along with sharpshooter Shammond Williams and big men Serge Zwikker and Ademola Okulaja. The Tar Heels fell in their season opener to Arizona, but rattled off nine straight wins heading into conference play. Then things got hairy.
What Went Wrong?
UNC had lost starting point guard Jeff McInnis to the NBA and veteran shooting guard Dante Calabria to graduation after the 1996 season. They were now leaning on freshman Ed Cota, who struggled at the beginning of ACC play, shooting poorly from the field and committing a high rate of turnovers. In addition, UNC faced a tough set of opponents early on traveling to Tim Duncan’s #2 Wake Forest and hosting #19 Maryland. The Heels lost their first three ACC games, the last of them a ten-point loss to Virginia, and were on the ropes at home against NC State, on the verge of going an unthinkable 0-4.
The turnaround for the Heels started in dramatic and memorable fashion. Down 7 points to State with 2 minutes to go, UNC made a furious comeback to win 59-56, sending a relieved Dean Dome into hysterics. The game slowed down for Cota as the season progressed and his play improved dramatically, becoming the ACC’s assist leader and being named ACC Freshman of the Year. He had arguably his signature moment as a Tar Heel in the rematch in Raleigh, nailing a game-winner in the dying seconds to give UNC the season sweep (the Cota Floata!)
Antawn Jamison played terrific basketball throughout, Vince Carter transitioned from talented prospect to bonafide star, and Shammond Williams established himself as one of the best shooters in America. The Heels tallied convincing wins at home over Wake and Duke and finished 11-5 in ACC play before winning the ACC Tournament and reaching the Final Four, part of a 16-game win streak.
Comparisons to 2019-20
Obviously the biggest difference is talent. The 1997 team was loaded, with stars like Jamison, Carter, and Williams all approaching the peak of their powers (they’d reach that peak the following year). Even without the injuries the current squad has suffered, they don’t have anywhere near the roster that ‘97 had. Where they are comparable however is backcourt inexperience. Cota would go on to be a star, but he hadn’t been expected to start from Day 1, much like UNC’s point guard by committee this year. If this team can find stability (and health) with one primary ballhandler, whether it be Francis or Anthony, they might be able to get things back on track.
Along with the 2000 Tar Heels, this has to be the most up and down UNC season of the 21st century. A season that featured incredible wins (Michigan State, Kentucky) and mind-blowing losses (Belmont, UAB) was at a low point early on in conference play, before a thunderous turnaround saved UNC’s 2014 campaign from disaster.
What Went Wrong?
UNC had lost PJ Hairston and Leslie McDonald to suspension earlier in the season (McDonald would return, Hairston would not) and that, along with the early departure of Reggie Bullock the season before, had cost them their three most consistent perimeter shooters. On top of that, the 2014 squad was horrendous at the free throw line, especially James Michael McAdoo and J.P. Tokoto, whose aggressiveness attacking the hoop had begun to taper off out of a fear of getting fouled. UNC dropped four of their first five ACC games, one of them a putrid 57-45 loss the Syracuse, the lowest scoring output by a Roy Williams squad up to that point.
Most of us vividly remember Marcus Paige seizing control of the season with a wave of brilliant second half performances, but lost in that (well-deserved) fanfare is the return of McDonald and the improved play of McAdoo. McDonald’s return added another badly needed shooter to the lineup and McAdoo rediscovered his aggressive edge, giving UNC more solid 2nd and 3rd options to support Paige. UNC ran off 12 straight wins, including the comeback win against Duke and the overtime classic against NC State. The Heels finished 13-5 in conference play, losing only their regular season finale at Duke after the 1-4 start.
Comparisons to 2019-20
The biggest similarity is the absence of key contributors. Coming into the 2013-14 season, everyone expected UNC to be PJ Hairston’s team. PJ’s suspension kept that from becoming a reality. Leslie McDonald’s absence had a negative impact as well and the team improved upon his return. No suspensions this year, but injuries have crippled UNC in the backcourt and this team has been unable to find any chemistry with the revolving door of lineups that Roy has had to put on the floor. In addition, shooting is also a big problem for this year’s team. The biggest difference between the two seasons is that even with the suspensions the 2013-14 team clearly could play: Their win on the road at #1 Michigan State was one of the best of the Roy Williams Era and it came before the 1-4 meltdown. The concern with the 2020 team is that they might not be good, period.