As North Carolina collected the program’s fifth National Championship last night via a convincing 89-72 win over Michigan State, one theme seemed to resonate most among many potential storylines: teamwork.
The manner in which the Tar Heels played all season lent itself to using some of sports journalism most boring and repetitive clichés when analyzing why they were successful.
Truisms such as “the whole of Carolina’s team was greater than the sum of its parts” seem obvious because they have been said so many times before. Hearing Leninst ideals about “players sacrificing for the group making all the difference” can hold the same significance as worthless ideas about giving “110%”.
The twist is that this cliché, like most actually, is that its true.
Carolina was successful not because of one player’s staggering individual excellence or game-changing ability, but because of the collective talents of their entire roster. They found success via collectivism.
The Heels became champions in large part because they did not have a once-in-a-generation talent that their entire team’s success hinged upon. Though four of their players may be drafted to the NBA this June, only one is thought to be a lottery pick. Instead of having a solo marvel like Blake Griffin, they relied on a number of specialists, players who all had considerable ability but who alone could never have carried a team to this kind of success.
The almost predictable truth of course is that this ‘team-trumps-transcendent talent’ formula, this attitude of ‘many-over-one’ is something Carolina has used successfully before. Though it has produced arguably the most prolific set of individual NBA talent of any program in the country, the team has rarely achieved ultimate triumphs when it had its greatest individual stars.
Three of its four prior championships bare this out. For proof, one needs only to go back to 2005 to when the Tar Heels defeated Illinois for the national crown. Just as was the case this year, that roster was filled with blue-chip talent but was without an awe-inspiring superstar that was destined for further greatness.
If the 2009 Heels were lead to a large extent by Tyler Hansbrough, the 2005 squad was similarly guided by their own brawny big man, Sean May.
Both were First-team All-American during their time in Chapel Hill (Hansbrough was National Player of the Year last season as well) and more than capable of dominating in college, but neither was/is thought to have a triumphant pro career. Each of these big men were able to captain a highly talent roster towards great team success yet neither player’s game translates well towards the NBA.
The similarities between these rosters only continue when one considers the impact of each team’s dynamic, Ferrari-fast point guards, Ty Lawson and Ray Felton, respectively.
Lawson has the ability to score in traffic and became the emotional leader of his team this spring, just as Felton was similarly critical to the 2005 team’s success. While Lawson has emerged during the NCAA tournament as a viable NBA point guard, he has never been viewed as a star-in-the-making. The same was also true for Felton: he was universally praised as an excellent collegiate floor general but lacked the elite talents of his contemporary ACC rival, Chris Paul.
It was behind this set of little-big duos that each team was guided, in each case seeing one lean on the other to account for potential deficiencies in their own game.
Finally, the parallel between the rosters is not complete without mention of their prolific outside shooters with NBA-talent (Wayne Ellington and Rashad McCants) and do-everything dynamic swingmen with mountains of potential (Danny Green and Marvin Williams).
If we now look further back to Dean Smith’s second championship in 1993, we also see a team lead by excellent collegiate players who derived their strength from playing in harmony and balancing their individually assets into one unit.
That team was lead by Donald Williams, George Lynch and Eric Montross, none of whom rose to prominence as individuals, yet together they defeated the more individually talented Fab Five from Michigan, lead by future Hall of Famer Chris Webber.
This trend can be traced even further back to the Tar Heels first NCAA Championship in 1957 under coach Frank McGuire. That team was led by Lennie Rosenbluth. Rosenbluth lead an extremely athletic, offensively-balanced Carolina team to the title over none other than Wilt Chamberlain and the Kansas Jayhawks.
Rosenbluth was comparable to Hansbrough: he was named National Player of the Year as well as ACC Player of the Year in the same season, yet he only ever went on to have a brief professional career (82 total games) with the Philadelphia Warriors, averaging a mere 4.2 points a game.
Another approach to examining the level of success that team-oriented Carolina team that are balanced in talent throughout the roster is to consider the catalog of star players that did not win a championship while in Chapel Hill.
Phil Ford was National Player of the Year in 1978 and a three-time All-American, yet never won a ring. Antawn Jamison’s collegiate resume is similarly impressive with having won both the Naismith and Wooden awards, yet he was also denied a championship. So too was National Player of the Year Kenny Smith.
Other notable Tar Heel players, including many first-team All-Americans, saw great individual success without winning a championship. That incredible register of players includes Billy Cunningham, Bob McAdoo, Bobby Jones, Jerry Stackhouse, Rasheed Wallace, Jeff McInnis, Vince Carter, and J.R. Reid.
The only true notable exception to the idea that only collectivist Carolina teams are successful is the most obvious and probably the best team UNC has ever produced: the 1982 NCAA Champions.
That team had National Player of the Year and future Hall of Famer James Worthy, as well as future NBA champ Sam Perkins… and some scrawny freshman from Wilmington by the name of Michael Jordan.
As always, Jordan is the exception that proves the rule: a sole Superman talent seems hurts Carolina’s chances when it comes to raising another banner in the Dean Dome.
Whether or not a collaborative unit always serves Carolina best is a thought for another day though. Today, this team, this allied group, has their one shining moment.