Nine of the ten seasons since then have been successful in some important way. The 2012-13 season was certainly one of those. Recovering from staggering personnel losses and early season struggles that eventually led to a practically unprecedented change of playing style for a Roy Williams team, the Tar Heels of the second half of the season frequently played entertaining and successful basketball. In the process, they won 25 games, finished 3rd in the league (ahead of the preseason favorites), runner-up in the conference tournament, and comfortably earned an NCAA bid. They also got Williams his 700th win in college coaching in Friday's win over Villanova.
Equally important, the team developed a point guard, Marcus Paige, who made huge strides over the course of the year, and unlocked the talents of a budding major talent, P.J. Hairston. The team also got excellent leadership from Reggie Bullock and moments of brilliance or promise from no fewer than eleven players.
What this team didn't get, of course, was a signature win against an elite team. Carolina had three cracks at Miami, two at Duke, and one each against Indiana and Kansas. Three of those games (Indiana and one each against Miami and Duke) were disasters.
So was the second half Sunday in Kansas City against Kansas. But even in defeat Carolina had quite a bit to be proud of. An aggressive defensive strategy aimed at doubling down on Jeff Withey, plus an overall turbo-charged tempo, clearly rattled Kansas in the first half. With better shooting on the available looks in the first half, the Tar Heels might have built a huge halftime lead and perhaps induced the Jayhawks to panic.
Instead, Carolina went into the break ahead by nine points—still very good relative to pre-game expectations, but hardly insurmountable. As against Villanova on Friday night, Carolina allowed the lead to evaporate fairly quickly. Unlike Friday night, the Tar Heels had no meaningful response or second wind against Kansas. Once the shots started falling from outside and Withey re-found his comfort zone, Kansas looked like a typical No. 1 seed playing at home and Carolina looked like a typical No. 8 seed trying to keep pace.
Going small was clearly the right move for this team, and made the difference in making the year an overall success. But the Kansas game will probably reinforce Williams's view that it's awfully hard to beat elite teams, let alone win a championship, without a quality center-type player and without two quality bigs on the court for most of the game.
Carolina had no realistic chance of defending Withey straight up; by doubling down, you leave someone else open and gamble the opponent won't find him or the open man will miss. The strategy worked for a while, but against the best teams, it's not likely to work forever.
So whatever the personnel situation next year, the default assumption must be that Carolina is going to attempt to go big again, most of the time. Certainly, the Tar Heels are expected to have plenty of big bodies—the question is whether Joel James, Brice Johnson and Desmond Hubert can develop their games sufficiently to claim a regular role, or whether newcomers Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks might be ready to go directly into major roles.
Of course, no one is exactly sure who is going to be suiting up for the Tar Heels next year. Three players are thought likely to give at least some consideration to the NBA Draft: Bullock, James Michael McAdoo, and Hairston.
Of the three, Bullock's game is probably the closest to its fullest development. In a senior year, one can imagine continued incremental improvement but probably not major breakthroughs from the Kinston native. There is room to develop a more efficient in-between game, but basically the Reggie Bullock we see today is similar to the one likely to be seen playing professional basketball for years to come in the future.
Hairston still has quite a bit more to achieve in the college game—continuing to develop defensively and his overall floor game, and becoming not only a prolific but also a more efficient scorers. The way to do that is to continue to improve driving to the basket and also improve his ability to pull up and score in mid-range. In a junior year, Hairston would be a primary candidate for first team All-ACC and conceivably league MVP honors.
Of the three, it's McAdoo whose game needs the most work. An NBA-level face-the-basket forward needs to be able to convert stationary jump shots up to 17-18 feet, as well jump shots off one or two dribbles going in either direction, at a very high conversion rate. (For the better NBA forwards, these shots are practically automatic.) Such a forward also needs to shoot free throws at at least a 70-75 percent clip.
McAdoo is just not there yet, though at times late in the season he seemed to have really found a good stroke 12-15 feet from the basket. But against Kansas, as so often against the better quality opponents Carolina played this year, he too often seemed in a hurry and out of control taking it to the basket, as well as uncomfortable, rushed, and inaccurate on his jump shots. It's possible to shoot 5-for-19 just because all your shots are going in and out, but that's not the kind of 5-for-19 night McAdoo had Sunday.
McAdoo still has all the tools and potential to be a first-class pro. But the evidence of Sunday and of much of the season suggests he needs a lot more seasoning and a lot more improvement in his core offensive game before making the leap.
To be sure, as we all know players have to weigh many other circumstances beyond basketball in making the decision to leave early. In pure basketball terms, though, McAdoo's long-term career interests would almost certainly be better served by staying another year (or even two) in Chapel Hill, while continuing to work relentlessly on his core skill set.
One player who has definitely hung up the Tar Heel uniform for the last time is Dexter Strickland. Strickland is a throw-back player who probably would be perceived as far more valuable had he played in the pre-three-point era. A stellar defender, he excelled when driving to the basket and came to develop a quite reliable mid-range pull-up jumper. Despite not being a proficient shooter from deeper range, he made himself into a very valuable Tar Heel at both guard slots. Consider this improvement: as a freshman he had 71 assists against 62 turnovers; as a senior he finished with 146 assists against just 46 turnovers.
Strickland also dealt with more than his share of adversity: being a part of the 2009-10 team that fell apart and had to settle for the NIT; being a part of the 2010-11 team that overcame soap opera-worthy off-court drama and early struggles to win an ACC regular season title; losing the chance to be part of a potential Final Four team in his junior year due to injury, at a time he was playing sparkling basketball; and then the challenges of his senior season.
Through all the events of the last four years, the fact that Roy Williams could count on Strickland to play his butt off every single night has been one of the most constant facts about Carolina basketball. That's why his coaches and teammates respect him, and why it's likely in time he'll be recognized by the fan base as a somewhat underappreciated player.
Roy Williams likes to say you shouldn't have to coach effort. He certainly never had to with Dexter Strickland.
Thad is the author of "More Than a Game: Why North Carolina Basketball Means So Much To So Many" (now available to be read for free online here: More Than a Game - ONLINE). A Chapel Hill native, he operated the manual scoreboard formerly located at the end of the UNC bench between the 1982-83 and 1987-88 seasons in Carmichael and the Smith Center. Thad wrote regularly for Inside Carolina and UNCbasketball.com from 1995 to 2005. He's an associate professor of leadership studies at the University of Richmond.