Ed. Note: check the category team of the 2000s for our other entries in this feature.
And so we reach the pinnacle. Ladies and gentlemen, prep yourselves, as this will come as a complete shocker… but your #1 program of the last decade is the North Carolina Tar Heels. We know that you were probably thinking it was Gonzaga or Pittsburgh, but alas, the fine programs from Washington and Pennsylvania will have to wait another decade for the RTC Good Hoopskeeping seal of approval.
Be sure to check back Monday as we’ll do some clean-up on the series, including a look at some of the programs who just missed the top ten.
#1 – North Carolina
Overview. Maybe we should just call it the Decade of Roy Williams. After all, most of Carolina’s success in the 2000s is directly attributable to Ol’ Roy. If you consider his 111 more wins at Kansas, three more trips to the NCAA’s second weekend and two additional F4s in the decade, you’re looking at a coaching juggernaut. But Roy isn’t North Carolina and UNC isn’t Roy – it only feels that way. This is about UNC, and despite a one-season blip in 2001-02 that time has forgotten, mostly accounting for their relatively poor overall winning percentage, the Heels have the goods in almost every other way. Were they as consistent as Duke or Michigan State? Nope. Were they as much of a conference titan as KU or their hated rival in Durham? Nope again. But their numbers stack up very well in all categories across the board, and they’ve utterly dominated the second half of the 2000s in much the same way that Duke/Kentucky lorded over their respective halves of the 90s. From 2005-09, the Heels have won two national championships with completely different casts, went to another F4, lost in OT in an Elite Eight and lost in the second round against the biggest Cinderella of the last quarter-century. Not. Too. Shab. The Heels didn’t have as much success during the first half of the decade, but they still managed to tack on another F4 as an absurd #8 seed in 2000, as well as two other second round appearances and an NIT appearance. All the while continuing to produce a slew of all-americans and NBA draft picks. What separates Carolina in our eyes is the second championship that Roy hung next to the others in 2009. Florida’s 06/07 back-to-back was extremely impressive, because everyone knows just how difficult it is to repeat in college basketball. But in our view, it’s even more impressive to endure massive defections of NBA talent the likes of which UNC had from 2005-07 and still be able to climb the mountaintop a mere four years later. A reasonable argument could be made that UNC was the best team in the country in four of the last five seasons (2005, 2007, 2008, 2009), and it wouldn’t necessarily render you a nutjob to contemplate it. So North Carolina is our choice for the top program of the 2000s, and with the second championship currently shimmering in the Chapel Hill sunlight, we’re not convinced that any other school should be higher.
Pinnacle. The 2005 national championship. Just three short years removed from the worst Carolina season in modernity (more on this later), UNC was once again the king of the college basketball world. What seemed a million and one miles away under Matt Doherty’s tenure felt like a natural outcome under the coolest of cats, Roy Williams. One of the very proudest fanbases in America could once again claim basketball supremacy, and after what they had been through, it must have felt like raining gold coins from heaven. Carolina’s fourth national championship team was led by Sean May, Rashad McCants and Ray Felton, but it was a long, lean freshman by the name of Marvin Williams who saved the Heels from a trademarked (at the time) Roy collapse when he rebounded a wild reverse layup from the sometimes-erratic McCants and punched it back in for a 72-70 lead. A Felton steal later and several desperation three attempts by the Illini, and the monkey was most definitely off of Roy’s back. His back is so light right now that he turned around and did it again in 2009 and looks primed to have several more shots at it before he retires a Carolina hero.
Tailspin. Without question, the 2001-02 UNC team represents the worst season for a traditional powerhouse school in two decades. But just as Duke was Team of the 1990s despite the Pete Gaudet Incident; UNC made up for its one bad year with plenty of success the rest of the decade. In ACC circles, UNC’s record of 8-20 is still brought up as a euphemism for terrible. And that team was terrible – eight of their twenty losses were of the 20+ point variety as teams who had long been pushed around by UNC wasted no time in returning the favor, if only for a year. It began with three straight opening losses to the likes of Hampton, Davidson and Indiana, continued with a series of whippings by Kentucky, Maryland, Wake Forest, Duke and Ohio (at home), but the most embarrassing part of the entire season had to be the Heels’ last game of the year in the ACC Tournament. Deciding that UNC simply couldn’t stack up talent-wise with the defending national champion Blue Devils (who had defeated them by a total of 54 pts in their regular season meetings), Matt Doherty decided to slow the game down to a veritable crawl, holding the ball until under-ten on the shot clock before running a play. The typically entertaining and high-scoring Duke-Carolina showdown was bastardized into a 28-22 at the half Big Ten game. Doherty got one more year to turn the ship around, but a near-mutiny at the end of the 2002-03 season led to the Roy Williams era.
Outlook for 2010s: Grade: A+. Roy Williams is 59 years old and is showing no signs of slowing down. Unlike other coaches his age, he seems to embrace recruiting and it pays off year after year with NBA caliber talent coming through his program. By our count, Williams has recruited an absurd THIRTY McDonald’s All-Americans in his twenty-one years of coaching (average: 1.4 per year) at Kansas and UNC, and there are no signs of this receding (14 at Carolina already, including four incoming freshman for 2009-10). Duke is the only other program with thirty or more. Furthermore, there’s absolutely no chance of Williams taking any other job, NBA or college – he’ll be at UNC until retirement. We fully expect UNC to continue to make F4s and compete for championships throughout the next decade, and the Heels may be right here on top of this list again ten years from now.