20 Questions: Which Program Is In Best Shape The Next Five Years?

Posted by zhayes9 on October 28th, 2011

Zach Hayes is an editor, contributor and bracketologist for Rush the Court. You can find him on Twitter @zhayes9.

Which program is in the best shape to compete for national titles the next five years?

The components of a successful college basketball program mimic a virtuous cycle: find the solution to the initial problem and the issues that follow are infinitely easier to solve. Once a foundation of success is built, once winning evolves into an expectation rather than a wish, everything else falls into place. Locating that first transformational coach and winning that first national title is the most difficult part. Once winning on the biggest stage becomes a habit, players follow that want to live up to the expectations set by their predecessors. A history begins to build. A brand is established.  Aside from an occasional bump in the road, these esteemed programs inevitably become an unstoppable machine.

Unstoppable machine seems like an accurate way to describe the North Carolina Tar Heels over the next five years under Roy Williams.

Roy Williams will win another national title at Carolina

The hype surrounding this year’s team is both unmatched and totally justified. One required trait of a top-flight program is sustainability and Williams has successfully re-loaded not even three years since a Tyler Hansbrough-led Carolina juggernaut cut down the nets in Detroit. A fresh influx of young, talented and hungry stars have arrived antsy to match the accolades of their elders and continue the tradition established by Dean Smith. Expectations for 2011-12 are precisely where Williams and the Tar Heel faithful want them: national championship or bust.

The decisions by Harrison Barnes, John Henson and Tyler Zeller to bypass shaking David Stern’s hand last June generated an overwhelming wave of optimism and giddiness around the program, but it also creates a sense of urgency for 2011-12 knowing that passing up the first round for the second straight year – at least in the case of Barnes and Henson – is a long shot. Losing players of that caliber and ushering in a long rebuilding process would be considered downright frightening for most programs. North Carolina isn’t most programs.

Williams has built such an enviable collection of depth that “rebuild” can’t be found in the Carolina basketball lexicon. Sophomore Kendall Marshall is a pure point guard in every sense, a breed bordering on extinction at the high-major level. His qualities on the floor are absolutely immeasurable, evident by the fashion in which his insertion into the starting lineup last season completely transformed the sluggish Heels. James Michael McAdoo would start for about 340 Division I programs this season. McAdoo will be a future lottery pick, but his talent won’t be on full display until he’s a sophomore because of the absurd Carolina frontline Williams currently has in tow. Dexter Strickland, the best perimeter defender on the roster, is a junior. Leslie McDonald, an impact player down the road, will have two years of eligibility remaining after this season (given he opts to redshirt following a torn ACL). Sophomore Reggie Bullock and freshman P.J. Hairston are considered top-notch outside shooters. For programs the stature of North Carolina, reloading replaces rebuilding as the preferred terminology.

To nobody’s surprise, success has translated to the recruiting trail. Marcus Paige is Marshall’s heir apparent and a top point guard in the class of 2012. Athletic big men Brice Johnson and Joel James, both top 15 players at their position, have made their pledge to Williams, joined by J.P. Tokoto, one of the best prospects coming out of the Midwest. Don’t expect Williams and his staff to take their foot off the gas pedal; Carolina already has a commitment from 2013 five-star power forward Isaiah Hicks, while remaining hot on the trail of D.C. point guard Nate Britt and in-state center Kennedy Meeks, both potential McDonald’s All-Americans. Oh, by the way, they also have an offer out to the #1 player in the class, Chicago wing Jabari Parker.

The stability of the ACC has to comfort Williams and the Carolina brass. In today’s ever-shifting realignment era, a conference as esteemed as the hoops-centric Big East is vulnerable to destruction. Pro-active rather than reactive, the ACC scooped up Syracuse and Pittsburgh with more teams likely joining down the road, ensuring the league will have a monopoly on the East Coast and securing an invitation to the super-conference ball.

The stability of Williams is also comforting. A Carolina graduate and long-time Smith assistant, the Hall-of-Fame head coach’s next destination will be retirement years down the road. A program like Kentucky is set up to contend for national titles as long as John Calipari is roaming the sidelines, but what if the sudden urge to give the NBA another shot is too intriguing to reject? Connecticut and Syracuse boast legendary coaches that also happen to be in the last stage of their Hall-of-Fame careers. A program like Pittsburgh needs to break their Final Four glass ceiling before being mentioned in the same breath with Carolina. UCLA is in the midst of climbing their way back up the hill.

The only true contender to this claim is Duke. Coach K won’t roam the sidelines forever, but he’s a safe bet to continue coaching the next five years. He’s compiled an instructing and recruiting embarrassment of riches with Jeff Capel, Chris Collins and Steve Wojciekowski at his side. The intense Tobacco Road duels that define college basketball will only accelerate in fervor over the next five seasons.

But Carolina’s unstoppable machine trumps all fellow bluebloods. They’re in prime position to capture Williams’ third national title in nine seasons at the helm. The transition post-Hansbrough and Lawson wasn’t always smooth, but here we stand just three seasons later with the Tar Heels back where they belong, firmly atop the rankings, boasting a team eager to etch their name into Carolina lore.

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