By Adam Lucas
This one feels like it’s going to last.
It’s been three days since Carolina won the 2017 national championship—it still sounds glorious—and somehow, this one feels a little different.
This is how spoiled we are. We have national championship frames of reference. Now that there are going to be six NCAA championship banners hanging from the Smith Center ceiling/roof, it feels like we need to separate them. There are the first three, and then there are the most recent three.
Life is pretty good when you have enough championships to categorize them.
Of the most recent batch, this one was different. In both 2005 and 2009, you began the year absolutely certain Carolina had enough pieces to win the national title. There were a combined ten first-round NBA draft picks on those two squads. The 2009 team was preseason number-one.
This year’s team was never ranked higher than third, and dropped out of the top ten twice during the regular season. Let’s all be honest: when Villanova won the 2016 title, it felt like the Wildcats had also closed the UNC window of championship opportunity for at least a season.
That’s not to say this year’s team wasn’t going to be good. But this year felt different than 2005, 2009 or even 2012 (shakes fist in direction of Creighton). From the first day of practice in those seasons, you knew a great season would be winning the title.
But on the first day of this season, there was some uncertainty. Maybe—maybe—this team could get back to the Final Four? That’s if everything went right, of course. If the Tar Heels avoided injuries and Justin Jackson was an All-America every night and three-point shots fell and someone gobbled up all those rebounds Brice Johnson was leaving behind then…maybe.
But maybe is a long way from the certainty you felt in 2009, when it seemed pretty obvious that every single night the Tar Heels took the court, they would have the best players on the floor. That year, there was a cushion for off nights. This year, even after a dominant showing in Maui, it always felt like the Tar Heels would have to play well in order to win.
After all, shots had fallen at a torrential pace against Oklahoma State and Wisconsin. Carolina was 8-for-17 from the arc against the Cowboys, and shot 61 percent in the second half against the Badgers. That pace couldn’t continue.
After the Maui demolition, Jay Bilas opined Carolina looked like the best team in the country. I remember my exact insightful reaction: Huh. The best team. In the country. This year’s Tar Heels. Could that really be?
They could be, perhaps, if the incredible outside shooting continued. Here’s what happened: it didn’t. Over the final three NCAA Tournament games, Carolina made 15 of 63 three-point attempts (23.8 percent). It didn’t shoot above 50 percent from the field in any of those six halves.
And maybe they could be the best team, if they stayed healthy. Here’s what happened: they didn’t. Theo Pinson was hurt early, hurt again in the middle of the season, and then the Tar Heels lost Kenny Williams for the rest of the season.
At the time, the Williams injury felt like the sort of subtle difference-maker that might make the narrow difference in a close postseason game. Instead, in Williams’ absence, Justin Jackson suddenly turned into a ferocious defender, playing outstanding defense against some of the best perimeter players Carolina faced in the final weeks of the season. Joel Berry dealt with injuries to both ankles. Isaiah Hicks quietly soldiered through some late-season aches and never mentioned it.
And despite all of that, the Tar Heels won the national title, not against a decimated bracket while taking advantage of big upsets, but against one of the toughest possible draws it could face.
That team that dazzled outsiders in November isn’t the one that won the national title in April. That one was pretty. This one was gritty. That one made shots. This one rebounded missed shots. That one defended between highlight reel offensive possessions. This one defended continuously and aggressively.
This one posted the largest NCAA Tournament comeback in the shortest amount of time in recorded program history, then won a trip to the Final Four on a buzzer-beater by a reserve, then won a national semifinal with a key pair of offensive rebounds. If you’re wondering why you constantly felt short of breath during March and April, it’s not the pollen—it’s because this tournament run had four games decided by seven points or less; the previous two title runs combined had three games decided by seven points or less. Those four games the Tar Heels won by seven points or less are more than any other champion this century.
In four separate games, Carolina easily could have lost the game and ended the season much differently. In four separate games, the Tar Heels found a way to win, usually with a different hero each time.
Carolina hadn’t won back-to-back NCAA Tournament games by two points or less in the same tournament—as the Tar Heels did against Kentucky and Oregon—since 1969, when Roy Williams was a freshman at Carolina, Dean Smith was 38 years old, and Carmichael Auditorium was four years old.
The Tar Heels did more than just win a national title in 2017. They made one of the all-time great NCAA Tournament runs, against a deep field, while overcoming injuries and adversity. At the time they were doing it, we were so wrapped up in it that we didn't have time to appreciate what was happening. Whew, Arkansas...Luuuuuuuke...free throws...Zags. Any of those games, taken alone, would have been a season highlight in any other year. All of those happened in one single tournament. Now, looking back--how, honestly, did they do that?
My wife and older son were watching the final two minutes of the championship game yesterday as I was walking out the door. I had to stop and watch it with them. It was only a one-point game and I wasn’t sure Theo Pinson would make that pass again, or Justin Jackson would convert, or Isaiah Hicks would make that shot again, or Kennedy Meeks would get that block. Even while wearing the t-shirt and seeing the hat on the counter, it still seemed a little improbable.
Guess what: they did it, a team none of us will ever forget. But I still plan to watch a few more times, just to remember.
The official behind-the-scenes book on the 2017 national title, Redemption, is now available for preorder. Use promo code 01CHAMPS for a $5 discount.