By James Simpson – @JamesSimpsonII
Trying to examine who the best teams ever are in a particular sport or league can be a tricky proposition. It can prove to be a difficult task for fans across different generations because there are simply past teams that many didn’t see play. In a way, you can’t take certain observers seriously because they didn’t see such-and-such team play. Yet, that’s what makes this exercise complicated and fun.
In this case, the conversation is surrounded around the topic of the best men’s college hoops teams to ever step on the hardwood since 1939, the first year of the NCAA Tournament. A decade ago, one of the five best college basketball programs of all-time in North Carolina submitted a team worthy of being mentioned in the “best team ever” argument. I can attest to that claim because I watched this Tar Heel unit slice through teams with considerable ease and zest.
The 2009 North Carolina Tar Heels entered the 2008-09 campaign with nothing but soaring expectations on their shoulders. A big reason for that was because then sixth-year head coach, Roy Williams, was basically returning all his top players from the 2008 Final Four squad that finished 36-3, was the overall No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, won the ACC regular season title and the ACC Tournament.
Potential NBA high draft picks in juniors Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington and Danny Green all decided to return to school, along with 2008 reigning National Player of the Year Tyler Hansbrough for his senior year. After a disappointing loss in the national semifinal to eventual champion Kansas, this group had unfinished business. As soon as those four announced they were coming back, along with guys like Dion Thompson and Marcus Ginyard, there was a growing sense that this team could go down as an all-time team.
UNC became the first team in history to be voted as the unanimous #1 ranked team in the AP Preseason Poll. From there on it was championship or bust for them.
The talent on this team was evident from the beginning with Lawson (16.6 PPG, 6.6 APG, 2.1 SPG, 53.2 FG%) running the show and creating non-stop havoc. Ellington (15.8 PPG, 4.9 RPG, 2.7 APG, 48.3 FG%, 41.7 3P%) was a natural 6-foot-4 two-guard with a high appetite for putting the ball through the hoop and could shoot with the best of them. Green (13.1 PPG, 4.7 RPG, 1.8 SPG, 1.3 BPG) at 6-foot-5 was the do-it-all specialist that played many roles for the team and was arguably the Tar Heels best all-around player. The junior Thompson (10.6 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 1.1 BPG) at power forward never jumped out on the TV screen but had a solid post game, was crucial on the boards and was just a rock-solid contributor.
In the early stages of the one-and-done era, UNC had their own high-rated freshman in 6-foot-10 McDonald’s All-American Ed Davis (6.7 PPG, 6.6 RPG, 1.7 BPG) who served in the sixth man role. The ultra-athletic and long Davis was an energy booster off the bench who ran the floor well, rebounded, blocked shots, caught alley-oops, was a defensive presence and though unpolished at times in the interior, was a strong finisher around the basket. Other key reserves were senior point guard Bobby Frasor, freshman Larry Drew III, and the aforementioned senior Ginyard, a starter on the 2008 team and the ultimate glue guy who only played three games throughout the season due to a stress fracture he suffered in his left foot.
However, the thing that made this team truly special was the 6-foot-9 Hansbrough (20.7 PPG, 8.1 RPG, 51.4 FG%), an assertive stalwart in the paint. The senior center was the emotional and physical backbone of the 2009 team, who was known to play the game with passion, intensity and to give 100 percent effort on every possession.
Hansbrough was considered the best player in men’s college basketball, thogh some argue it was really future No. 1 NBA Draft pick and National Player of the Year, Oklahoma’s Blake Griffin. He was someone who received high praises from the media throughout his four collegiate years, because he was excellent at using his strength, drawing fouls (averaged eight free throw attempts per game), and was a force in the post. Hansbrough was effective facing up and nailing the 10-15 foot jump-shot, and his unorthodox game drove the opposition nuts. If Florida Gators quarterback Tim Tebow was the most celebrated and polarizing college athlete in his generation, then there’s no question “Psycho T” was in the running for second in that category.
Since his last few years coaching at Kansas, Williams’ ideal strategy has always been to play fast. After a missed shot, rebound and run. After a made basket, get out and go. His goal was to keep defenses on their backfoot before they were able to set-up in their half-court defense and utilize the level of speed and athletes he had at his disposal.
Just like Williams had in point guards Aaron Miles in his last run at Kansas and Raymond Felton at North Carolina for the 2005 national champs, he also had in Lawson. There was no team in the country better in transition in 2009 than UNC and I haven’t come across a better fast-breaking team in the last ten years.
The 5-foot-11 Lawson was the initiator of the whole thing and a total speed demon with the ball in his hands, attacking the rim with fervent. Ever the consummate playmaker, Lawson was a blur in the open court and a nightmare to stay in front of.
On the wings running with him were Green and Ellington, with Hansbrough turning into the perfect trail man. Once UNC was off and running, they were a delight to watch. Not only did it shine on the break, but overall offensively and on the backboards (ranked both second in the nation in scoring at 89.8 PPG and in rebounding at 42.0 RPG), and that resulted in them burying opponents. Its point differential per game was an imposing +17.8.
The star-studded batch started out 13-0, rolling through their nonconference schedule, winning the Maui Invitational in commanding fashion. After surprisingly dropping their first two games in conference play, the Tar Heels ran off ten straight wins and during the season even pulled off a season home-and-away sweep of their Tobacco Road rivals, Duke.
North Carolina clinched their third-straight ACC regular-season title and during the year Hansbrough became the all-time leading scorer in ACC history, passing Duke’s J.J. Reddick, a mark that still stands today.
Individual accolades came storming their way. Hansbrough was named First-Team All-American, First-Team All-ACC and finished as the conference’s second-leading scorer. Lawson took home ACC Player of the Year honors, was named Second-Team All-American, joined his teammate as a First-Team All-ACC performer, and led the conference in both assists and steals per game. Green was named to the All-ACC Third-Team, Ellington was voted as Honorable Mention and Davis made the All-ACC Freshman Team.
In the ACC Tournament, though, not only did North Carolina fall to Florida State in the semifinals, but their star point guard suffered a toe injury that ruled him questionable heading into the NCAA Tournament. As a No. 1 seed and the second overall ranked team in the country, the experienced and loaded Tar Heels headed into the Big Dance as the favorite. But there were other worthy contenders like top-ranked Louisville, Michigan State, Pittsburgh and Connecticut. However, many pundits believed it all hinged on Lawson’s toe being healthy.
In the first round, North Carolina steamrolled Hartford without Lawson. In the second round against a dangerous LSU team, Lawson returned but it took him the entire first half to find his footing. With the Tar Heels trailing the Tigers by five points midway through the second half, the Bob Cousy Award winner for the nation’s best point guard went into Beast Mode and scored 21 of his 23 points in the half to lift his crew to an 84-70 victory in a performance to remember.
From there on, UNC took it to Gonzaga in the Sweet 16 and was too much for a strong Oklahoma team led by Blake Griffin in the Elite 8. In the Final Four, the Tar Heels were at their apex, playing race-horse basketball better than any hoops team since Jerry Tarkanian’s UNLV Runnin’ Rebels were running and gunning through college basketball in the early ‘90s. The foursome of Hansbrough, Lawson, Ellington and Green was never better as UNC smoked Villanova in the semifinals and dismantled Michigan State in the final for the school’s fifth national title, with Ellington being named Final Four Most Outstanding Player.
The real legacy of this squad will always be linked to their supreme NCAA Tournament run, where they won all six games by double-digits, with an average margin of 19.8 points per game. Four of the six teams they defeated were ranked in the top 15 of the AP Poll.
UNC was a juggernaut, practically the best team from start to finish, the country’s most talented team (six players on the roster played in the NBA), and its most exciting team. While there have been some great teams in the last decade, I don’t think any of them ran through the rest of the field and looked as impressive doing so quite like that 2008-09 North Carolina Tar Heels.