Kobe Bryant spiced up a usual slow time for basketball news by mentioning in an interview that if he'd had to make a college choice at the time of his decision in the spring of 1996, he would've attended North Carolina. Because it's the offseason and because any Tar Heel hoops discussion is a good Tar Heel hoops discussion, here's one opinion (we want your opinions, too, so see the end of the story for how to submit them) on how that Kobe-inclusive 1996-97 Carolina team might have ranked among the "almost" Tar Heel teams in program history.
A couple quick rules: we're only allowing players to stay in school for one extra year (so no Stackhouse and Wallace on the potential '97 team), and because recruiting is an infinite series of might-have-beens, the only one we're including here is Kobe--since, you know, that's the reason why this story is being written.
1. 1995-96. Could've included: Jerry Stackhouse (NBA), Rasheed Wallace (NBA), Vince Carter (Fr.), Antawn Jamison (Fr.), Jeff McInnis (Jr.), Ademola Okulaja (Fr.), Shammond Williams (So.), Dante Calabria (Sr.). Much like the 1994-95 team, this wouldn't have been an especially deep team. But is depth really your primary issue when your starting lineup is McInnis, Stackhouse, Wallace, Jamison and Calabria, with a sixth and seventh man of Okulaja and Carter?
Let's admit right now that freshman year Carter was very different from junior year Carter. But freshman year Jamison was awesome, including when he got off the floor to hit this ridiculous buzzer-beater in overtime at Cole Field House:
And so you're telling me I can have that Jamison, plus a Wallace and Stackhouse who are one year older than '95? Do I really need to remind you about '95? OK:
2. 2005-06. Could've included: Sean May (NBA), Raymond Felton (NBA), Rashad McCants (NBA), Marvin Williams (NBA), Tyler Hansbrough (Fr.), Danny Green (Fr.), David Noel (Sr.), Reyshawn Terry (Jr.), Bobby Frasor (Fr.), Marcus Ginyard (Fr.), Wes Miller (Jr.). Despite losing four players to the NBA, it always seems like this team gets overlooked. But the 2006 team could've had four first-round NBA draft picks in addition to the freshman class of Tyler Hansbrough, Danny Green, Bobby Frasor and Marcus Ginyard, plus senior David Noel. They could have assembled two five-man teams that could've made a legitimate argument for finishing first and second in the ACC.
As it was, the actual 2006 team was one of the most fun to watch in the Williams era:
That win goes on the list for the top five wins of the Williams era.
You could've had a frontcourt of May, Hansbrough and Marvin Williams, with McCants and Felton in the backcourt. Wait a second: is this team too low? That's four of the starting five who have their jerseys in the rafters, and Marvin Williams might have joined them with another year. This probably has a lot to do with how old you are. If you were a student when they played, this team might go on the top of the list. But if you were a student when Carter was doing 360 dunks in the NCAA Tournament against UConn, it's just hard to beat that.
3. 1998-99. Could've included: Antawn Jamison (NBA), Vince Carter (NBA), plus Ademola Okulaja (Sr.), Ed Cota (Jr.), Brendan Haywood (Soph.), Jason Capel (Fr.), Kris Lang (Fr.), Ronald Curry (Fr.). I really wanted to put this team first. I have a theory that the 1997-98 Tar Heels are the favorite team ever of anyone between the ages of 33 and 38. In this scenario, the next year's squad would've gotten back Jamison, Carter and Cota for a second straight year of NBA Jam-type highlights. Seriously, you need to watch these:
I'm a little woozy.
But here's one problem: the 1999 team would have lost Shammond Williams, who was an underrated part of the '98 club because he could open up defenses with a few timely three-pointers. The underappreciated Okulaja had a great senior season and hit over 43 percent of his three-pointers, so maybe that would've been enough. And I'm tempted to say that this team wouldn't have attempted any three-pointers anyway, because they would've just dunked on everyone. But better than Stack, Sheed, Carter and Jamison all together? I couldn't go that far. And the 2005 team actually won the national title, so you're talking about a returning group of national champions. This team--I hate you, Utah!--can't say that.
4. 1996-97. Could've included: Kobe Bryant (NBA), McInnis (NBA), Jamison, Carter, Cota, Okulaja, Williams. The 1997 team was a strange club. They started 0-3 in the ACC and needed a miraculous comeback against NC State at the Smith Center to avoid 0-4, and there were serious rumblings that maybe Dean Smith had lost his touch (this really did happen). But then they became almost unbeatable and dashed off 16 wins in a row before falling to Arizona (Miles Simon, grrrr) in the Final Four.
Add Kobe to that mix and at the minimum--as with all these teams--you're talking about an overwhelming national championship favorite. But none of us really have any idea how Bryant's game would've played in college, because we never saw him. Remember, we're talking about college freshman Kobe (think about Carter as a freshman) and not the NBA veteran you see now. Would he have been able to fit into the Carolina family? It would've been fun to watch him try.
5. 2012-13. Could've included: Kendall Marshall (NBA), Harrison Barnes (NBA), John Henson (NBA), James Michael McAdoo (Soph.), P.J. Hairston (Soph.), Marcus Paige (Fr.), Reggie Bullock (Jr.), Dexter Strickland (Sr.).
Maybe this one is too recent to fairly judge. But with a healthy Marshall and Henson, you'll never convince me the 2012 team wouldn't have played Kentucky for a national title. And now this team gets both those players in an older, more experienced version, plus another year of Barnes. At minimum, you have to think this team would've challenged that 1998 team as a highlight factory, with Marshall throwing lobs to Henson, Barnes dunking over people, and Bullock free to bomb away from the outside against the opponent's second- or third-best perimeter defender rather than their lockdown guy.
Narrowly missed the cut: 1982-83 (add James Worthy), 1984-85 (add Michael Jordan).
What are your favorite might-have-been Tar Heel basketball teams? Let me know on Twitter and we'll post some of the best responses next week.
Adam Lucas is a GoHeels.com columnist.