UNC has taken an atypical approach to building a juggernaut modern college team, and it paid off in the Final Four against Syracuse on Saturday.
Get all of Pete Thamel’s columns as soon as they’re published. Download the new Sports Illustrated app (iOS or Android) and personalize your experience by following your favorite teams and SI writers.
HOUSTON — The last time Roy Williams and Jim Boeheim crossed paths on the court at the Final Four came in 2003, when Boeheim’s Syracuse team defeated Williams’s Kansas squad for the national title. Before that night, Williams and Boeheim were clustered together atop an elite but tortured group of coaches considered the best never to win a national title.
When they shook hands at the Superdome, Boeheim told Williams the same thing Bobby Knight told him after Indiana beat Syracuse there in the 1987 NCAA final: “You’re going to win one.”
Williams, of course, left Kansas soon after that game in 2003 and won national titles as North Carolina’s head coach in 2005 and '09. The eternally sarcastic Boeheim certainly noticed. “I hope I didn’t make him think he could get three,” he said.
After UNC dispatched an overmatched Syracuse team on Saturday night, 83–66, the Tar Heels find themselves one win away from Williams’s third national title and the sixth in program history.
No. 1 seeded UNC poked, prodded and eventually pounded its way through No. 10 seeded Syracuse to secure a Monday night date against Villanova, a No. 2 seed.
This would be the most unique of UNC championships. Carolina sits on the cusp of the national title both under the cloud of NCAA investigation into academic malfeasance and because of it. These Heels are the archetype of the slow burn method of building a modern basketball program, the anti-Kentucky. They have two senior stars, point guard Marcus Paige and power forward Brice Johnson, a term that is unheard of in some college basketball seasons. They are legitimately nine deep and experienced, with the most glaring trait perhaps being that no single UNC player projects as a first-round NBA draft pick.
“We still have some McDonald’s All-Americans and good players,” said UNC assistant C.B. McGrath. “But the sure-fire one-and-dones, we haven’t recruited. We have, actually. We just haven’t gotten any.”
This Carolina team has grown up together, and the game’s most critical flurry showcased what makes UNC the favorite on Monday night.
When a 10–0 Syracuse run cut UNC’s 17-point lead to seven midway through the second half, UNC didn’t flinch. Marcus Paige hit the Tar Heels’ first three-pointer of the game to bump the Tar Heels lead back to 60–50, snapping an 0-for-13 drought. On the next possession, Johnson got the ball deep in the low post and spun past Syracuse freshman Tyler Lydon for a vicious dunk he punctuated with an aggressive fist pump.
As he let out a primal scream in the vicinity of Lydon, the image of a senior posterizing a freshman in one of the game’s biggest moments resonated. These Heels simply overpowered one of the country’s most powerful programs, with Johnson’s 16 points leading the way. Justin Jackson added 16. Kennedy Meeks’s night unfolded like a GIF of point blank layups and dunks thanks to precision dissection of Syracuse’s 2-3 zone.
“They’ve got talent, they’ve got experience, they’ve got size,” Syracuse assistant coach Mike Hopkins said. “They’re just monsters on the glass. They’ll overpower you. They’re as good as you get.” Then he added, with the chuckle disbelief interrupting his sentences. “To have that depth and experience ... that just doesn’t happen.”
The specter of the NCAA investigation has hurt North Carolina in recruiting the dynamic one-and-done type players—an instate prospect like Duke’s Brandon Ingram comes to mind. Instead, Carolina has been shaped and molded together by the possibility of NCAA punishment. By not landing the best of the best, North Carolina has been afforded the opportunity in a down year in college basketball to develop into the best. The sum now appears greater than its parts, with the Heels rocketing into Monday night with a resounding victory.
Consider this Carolina team compared to Williams’s title teams in 2005 and '09. The '05 UNC team was so loaded that Marvin Williams, who became the No. 2 pick in the 2005 NBA draft, didn’t start. Three other Tar Heels went in the top 15 of that draft: Raymond Felton, Sean May and Rashad McCants. The 2009 North Carolina team featured three first-round picks: Tyler Hansbrough, Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellington.
“I think a lot of times, if you get really talented kids and get them to buy in, and they’re juniors and seniors, it helps,” McGrath said.
It was a Final Four game that doubled as an ode to survivors, two Hall of Fame coaches who’ve overcome health issues, NCAA investigations and the inherent volatility that comes with a combined 68 years as high-end Division I head coaches.
And for much of the first half on Saturday night, it felt like Syracuse was barely holding on. It shot 3 of 10 from the free throw line (finishing 4 of 13) and sputtered through an offensive performance that appeared as if its game plan revolved around pull-up 18-foot jump shots and one-dribble three-pointers. The Orange trailed 39–28 at the break, much because North Carolina missed all 10 of its three-point attempts. But the Tar Heels wisely shot just one three-pointer in the half’s final 9:29, instead pounding the ball on the interior and making passes to probe the soft spots of the Syracuse zone. The Tar Heels shot 17 for 25 from inside the arc, forcing Syracuse’s stars into foul trouble and discovering a blueprint for victory.
“I always felt like I don’t want to do what they want me to do,” Williams said. “They play zone and want me to shoot from the outside. We have to get the ball to the inside to our big guys and they’re pretty good.”
Lost in the glamor of Syracuse’s comeback wins against Gonzaga in the Sweet 16 and Virginia in the Elite Eight was that the Orange’s desperation press was needed because of a sputtering offense. That trend didn’t end against UNC, as the Orange shot just 35% in the first half and 41% for the game.
“Tonight we had a bad start,” Boeheim said. “We missed some free throws that we can't miss. We made a couple unforced errors in the first half. You can't do that against North Carolina. They're just too big and strong and good.”
UNC simply suffocated the Orange with the combination of its man-to-man defense and a patient offense. The Heels sealed the game by staving off Syracuse’s inevitable second-half run.
That brings North Carolina back to Monday night, and the game Williams once couldn’t win has suddenly turned into one he’s favored to capture for the third time. No one could have quite envisioned the script that got UNC here—the gritty, deep roster shaped by a scandal and years of uncertainty.
But for Williams and the Tar Heels, survive and advance has become more than a March cliché, it has become a way of life. And after a few trying years, Williams finds himself on the precipice of college basketball immortality.