The 2017 Final Four, overall, doesn’t lend itself to many historical comparisons. Gonzaga has never been here, and has only a few comparable teams. The last time Oregon was here, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was in his second of three presidential terms. The last time South Carolina was even remotely close to here was… well, never.
But North Carolina has been here. A lot. Twenty times now, to be exact. Now the historical comparisons can start to flow. And Roy Williams has been here a lot, too. Nine times, to be exact, and five since moving to Chapel Hill in 2003. He’s now taken eight of his 14 Tar Heel teams to the Elite Eight. So there’s plenty to pick and choose from.
We’ve done exactly that. We’ve picked, and we’ve chosen, and we’ve selected Williams’ seven best North Carolina teams. Then we’ve ordered them, one through seven, to see how this year’s team stacks up. Here are the rankings:
The first and second Hansbrough-Lawson-Ellington-Green teams were great. The third was an all-timer. Lawson was the most efficient offensive player in the country and ran one of the best fast breaks college basketball has seen. Green became a luxurious fourth option, and he, Lawson and Ellington all shot over 41 percent from deep. Hansbrough was… Hansbrough. The Tar Heels endured a somewhat bumpy start and finish to conference play, but the NCAA tournament was stunningly smooth. They rammed their way through anything in front of them, beating Gonzaga by 21, Oklahoma by 12, Villanova by 14 and Michigan State by 17 en route to the title. They weren’t Williams’ best Carolina team from start to finish; by the end of March, they were.
2. 2005 | Record: 33-4 | Won national championship
KenPom rank: 1 | Adjusted efficiency margin: 32.17
Key players: Sean May, Raymond Felton, Rashad McCants, Jawad Williams, Marvin Williams, Jackie Manuel, David Noel
Williams’ second North Carolina team was his first national championship team, and remains inarguably one of his two best since arriving in Chapel Hill. The 2005 tournament was far more eventful than the 2009 edition, though. The Tar Heels (with the help of a controversial late traveling call) overcame a scare from Villanova in the Sweet 16, then battled past Wisconsin to reach the Final Four. The semifinal victory over Michigan State was comfortable. The title game, a showdown with 37-1 Illinois, was memorable. Sean May was a monster all year and throughout the tournament. The May-Felton-McCants trio measures up to any group of three players Williams has had over his 14 seasons, including Hansbrough-Lawson-Ellington.
3. 2008 | Record: 36-3 | Lost in Final Four
KenPom rank: 3 | Adjusted efficiency margin: 29.56
Key players: Tyler Hansbrough, Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington, Danny Green, Marcus Ginyard, Deon Thompson
Hansbrough won player of the year, and the Tar Heels had won 15 in a row when they headed to San Antonio for the Final Four. Their matchup was with the second-best team of the KenPom era, the Mario Chalmers-led Kansas Jayhawks. And in 20 minutes on that Saturday night in Texas, a wonderful 36-2 season came crashing down. An early 25-2 Kansas run and a 40-12 deficit were both insurmountable and shocking. This was a great Carolina team that simply ran into a greater team and had a disastrous night; that shouldn’t overwhelmingly detract from the season it had. The majority of the players from the 2008 team would get their title the following year, but this group was almost as good.
4. 2016 | Record: 33-7 | NCAA tournament: Lost in national championship game
KenPom rank: 2 | Adjusted efficiency margin: 29.80
Key players: Brice Johnson, Justin Jackson, Marcus Paige, Joel Berry, Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Hicks, Theo Pinson
You surely know the story of last year’s team. With Marcus Paige finally healthy and in a groove in the tournament, North Carolina finally found its stride. It was winning with 2009 levels of ease — its closest game prior to the title game was a 14-point victory over Notre Dame in the Elite Eight. It had standout players in the backcourt, on the wing and down low. Then it met Villanova, the two played one of the most magnificent tournament games of all time, and Williams returned home without a third national title thanks to Kris Jenkins. Had The Shot gone awry, and had North Carolina won in overtime, it would be difficult to keep this team out of the top three.
5. 2012 | Record: 32-6 | NCAA tournament: Lost in Elite Eight
KenPom rank: 6 | Adjusted efficiency margin: 25.44
Key players: Tyler Zeller, Kendall Marshall, Harrison Barnes, John Henson, Reggie Bullock, James Michael McAdoo, P.J. Hairston, Dexter Strickland
By the numbers and by NCAA tournament results, this is the worst team of the seven. But neither of those two things tells the whole story. The whole story is this: North Carolina was rolling. Thirteen of its 14 ACC wins, including an 88-70 victory over Duke on the final Saturday of the regular season, came by nine points or more. The Tar Heels played at a relentless pace; Kendall Marshall’s absurd passing ability propelled a high-flying offense; John Henson was a game-changing shot-blocker; Tyler Zeller was the ACC player of the year. Harrison Barnes was a soon-to-be top 10 NBA draft pick. But in a second-round tournament game against Creighton, Marshall fractured a bone in his wrist; the injury fractured UNC’s title hopes. With Stilman White starting at point guard, the Tar Heels snuck past Ohio but succumbed to Kansas. A season that appeared destined for a place alongside 2005 and 2009 was cut short.
6. 2017 | Record: 31-7 | NCAA tournament: Playing in Final Four Saturday
KenPom rank: 3 | Adjusted efficiency margin: 27.91
Key players: Justin Jackson, Joel Berry, Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Hicks, Theo Pinson, Nate Britt, Luke Maye
This year’s team doesn’t have the third star that past Williams teams have had. That doesn’t mean North Carolina doesn’t have the most talent in the 2017 Final Four, but this iteration of the Tar Heels doesn’t have the individual talent to blow opponents away like the Hansbrough teams did, or even like the Marshall-Zeller-Barnes team did. The current squad has been as inconsistent as any great Tar Heel squad, and has looked vulnerable more often than any other team on this list. It can absolutely win a national championship, and if it does, it might have to jump a few spots. But up against past incarnations, this one is still slightly inferior.
7. 2007 | Record: 31-7 | Lost in Elite Eight
KenPom rank: 1 | Adjusted efficiency margin: 30.78
Key players: Tyler Hansbrough, Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington, Brandan Wright, Reyshawn Terry, Marcus Ginyard
In Hansbrough’s sophomore and Lawson’s freshman year, the Tar Heels surged back into the national championship hunt. They were just 11-5 in the ACC, but with Duke down, that was good enough for a share of the regular season title. An ACC tournament crown followed. An epic Elite Eight game ended in overtime, and with a loss to Georgetown, but the season as a whole was a sign of things to come. Wright was the only one-and-done. Hansbrough, Lawson and Ellington wouldn’t leave until they had a title under their belts.