You couldn’t help but watch North Carolina in the NCAA Tournament and think, Wow, this team could be really good next year. And Roy Williams’ comment s after the Kentucky game about how UNC should remember that feeling remind you of the process the Tar Heels endured before the 2009 NCAA title.
There are really three paths for top collegiate teams. One is to stuff your roster with NBA talent and hope you make a lightning run through the tournament. That’s basically John Calipari’s approach – it doesn’t matter if Derrick Rose or John Wall turn pro because you’ll bring in another hired gun anyway.
The other way is the one you see more often in sports. Generally, contenders learn hard lessons along the road to titles, and determined players push further each year until finally winning a championship.
The Chicago Bulls, with Michael Jordan, were the perfect example of a team that stumbled in the playoffs in the early years before continuing to add pieces and improve. Once they broke through, they rolled to six NBA titles.
Carolina endured the same process with Tyler Hansbrough. The Tar Heels suffered a brutal loss to Georgetown in the 2007 regional finals but reached the Final Four in 2008. That Final Four appearance ended abruptly with a horrible performance against Kansas.
But Carolina’s key players all returned and UNC reaped a decisive national title in 2009.
UNC is going through the same process now. The Kentucky loss was difficult, but the Wildcats made shots with the game on the line and earned the win. Carolina will return intact next season if Harrison Barnes, Tyler Zeller and John Henson return, and two key recruits also arrive. There are never any guarantees of national titles – just ask Carolina’s 1994 team – but UNC clearly would enter the upcoming season as the favorite.
Turning pro tends to be an individual decision. Gerald Henderson left a Duke team that went on to win the NCAA title, even though you knew that with Henderson the Blue Devils were a title contender. Jerry Stackhouse and Rasheed Wallace abandoned UNC after one Final Four appearance.
One of the rites of spring in the Triangle is that players turn pro. All throughout the winter, the top ACC players profess loyalty to their team and say they want to stay in school and earn their degree. Then the season ends, the weather turns warm and they start thinking, Wow, I could be rich. So you learn over time to listen to what they say during the season and shrug.
But this Carolina team, and the players on it, appear different. And they also have a clear example of what staying in school can mean from their predecessors in 2009. Of all the gifts that Hansbrough gave UNC, perhaps the most was his zeal for enjoying the college experience. Barnes and Zeller and Henson may turn pro anyway, but that 2009 team set a clear example about the benefits of staying on track, and what that can mean for a career.