North Carolina basketball is on a path no elite program would willingly follow. However, going it alone is not unprecedented for the Tar Heels, at least on the court, where they were distinguished by frequent deployment of a “Four Corners” offense prior to the 1987 advent of the college shot clock. That alignment aptly mirrors the school’s response to its self-inflicted predicament, which set it on that off-court path in the first place.
Adapted by Dean Smith from similar schemes used previously by John McLendon at N.C. Central and Babe McCarthy at Mississippi State, Four Corners was a scheme to spread the court, highlighting adept ballhandling and making it difficult for opponents to double-team or help defensively. Smith often employed the strategy to nurture leads or to burn time while protecting a player in foul trouble. “When it works – about 90 percent of the time – you are a genius,” he said in 1978, a year after the strategy backfired in the NCAA final against Marquette. “When it fails, you’re a bum.”
Certainly few tactics were as universally despised, or as likely to elicit boos from rival fans. Smith even taught his players to smile while running “4C,” the better to express confidence and irritate opponents.
Decades later, UNC has similarly adopted delay as an institutional strategy, spending millions of dollars to avoid its own foul trouble with the NCAA. Stalling has drawn out the process of appealing alleged rules violations involving North Carolina’s athletic program. The delay also has the effect of distracting critics, cooling passions, making the NCAA look more feckless than usual, and deferring whatever appropriate punishment is due. The lingering taint, described as “junk” by Roy Williams, clouds Carolina’s reputation and handicapped recruiting of the high-quality athletes customarily attracted to Chapel Hill.
Yet, counter-intuitively, the dampening influence seemingly worked to UNC’s basketball benefit, helping the Tar Heels achieve a rare level of roster stability. That, and Williams’ frequently undervalued coaching, gradually revived the consistent excellence long a hallmark of the program. At least for now.
Consider that North Carolina’s current run of consecutive Final Fours was accomplished by veterans recruited after the story began unspooling about paper classes in the university’s African and Afro-American Studies program. So far that core remains intact, even as comparable programs experience frequent transfers and early departures for the pros.
In part this reflects UNC’s narrowed recruiting options, caused by the specter of probation. One NBA scout leaving the Smith Center earlier this season marveled at the stepdown in talent from as recently as 2012, when four Tar Heels were taken among the top 17 in the draft, led by Harrison Barnes at No. 7. Not that players who are well-rounded on and off the court won’t come to Chapel Hill. But the fact remains only Justin Jackson among recent Heels is a top-10 recruit.
High-profile prospects tend to fancy themselves single-season collegians, their oh-so-brief careers reducible by even minor injury or the normal distractions that freshmen endure – living away from home, struggling academically or socially, or blending in a team concept. The ephemeral tenures of top talents, and a national climate fostering transfers, make experience an increasingly coveted commodity at the upper echelons of Division I. UNC has it: The six upperclass regulars on this season’s squad played at least 15 minutes per game last year and average 19 minutes or more in 2017. Senior Kennedy Meeks is a holdover starter, as are juniors Joel Berry and Jackson, the first ACC player of the year from Carolina since Tyler Zeller in 2012.
Even as infusions of talented prospects landed with one foot already out the door at Duke, Florida State, Louisville and Syracuse, UNC lost just four players since Zeller’s time. Reggie Bullock, James Michael McAdoo and J.P. Tokoto departed with eligibility remaining, as did trouble-plagued P.J. Hairston, cut loose in 2013-14.
Duke has been both blessed and cursed by its ability to assemble rarefied talent. The Devils lost a destabilizing seven freshmen to the NBA in the last four years alone, including Harry Giles and Jayson Tatum this spring. Transfers from Duke’s crowded bench have been an issue as well. Since 2014 Mike Krzyzewski’s program gathered four top-10 recruiting classes, Louisville three, according to 247 Sports.com. The Tar Heels had one, this season’s juniors. Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson, last year’s key seniors, and Tokoto comprised another top-10 class that matriculated as the school’s athletic-oriented academic manipulations unfolded.
Still, Duke has successfully navigated the shifting tides of player fealty, just as UNC’s court fortunes have surmounted its NCAA woes. Among ACC programs only the Blue Devils and Tar Heels appeared in every one of the last seven NCAA tournaments. Over the past four seasons, only Virginia matched them. (To be fair, recent ACC entrants Louisville and Syracuse interrupted NCAA runs to voluntarily sit out a year of postseason competition in anticipation of NCAA probation. Carolina’s leaders apparently are betting they can avoid punishment if they fight with sufficient craft and brazenness.)
Overshadowed by Duke’s 2010 and 2015 national titles, lately Carolina has resumed a comparable perch in the neighborhood battle for preeminence, becoming the first ACC program since Williams’ 2008 and 2009 teams to make consecutive trips to the Final Four.
During this decade, besides its two NCAA championships Duke reached the regional finals in 2013, and got to the Sweet 16 both last year and in 2011. But the Devils also stumbled badly in 2012 and 2014, eliminated immediately by teams seeded 14th and 15th, respectively. They were comparably toothless this March, going 1-1 in the NCAAs.
Meanwhile, North Carolina bested all ACC programs by going to the Sweet 16 or beyond five times in the last seven years – two Final Four appearances, two regional finals (2011, 2012), and a regional semifinal in 2015. Go back to 2007, and UNC has reached the Elite Eight or better seven times in 11 seasons, encompassing Final Fours and the 2009 NCAA title.
Since the scandal broke over phantom classes, Williams’ clubs hardly missed a beat during the regular season, either. They’ve finished third or higher all but once since 2012, placing fifth in a 15-member league in 2015. The past two seasons the Heels came in first. Carolina reached the ACC tournament final in four of the past six years, more than any other school, winning in 2016.
Without a valedictory national title, at first blush the two most recent squads don’t qualify among the best in UNC history. The ’17 group pales in popular esteem even compared with last year, when the team came endearingly close to winning the NCAA championship. These Heels further lack a posterboy like Paige – conveniently displayed by administrators to illustrate the quality of UNC’s student-athletes when violation-induced flak was heaviest – or a dominant player with an outsized persona like Brice Johnson, whose intimidating, scream-punctuated blocks remain vividly etched in Williams’ memory.
You could argue, though, that perhaps more than any Tar Heel contingent since the 1993 national champs, the current unit, with its record-setting dominance of the boards, its balanced, uptempo attack and solid defense, best exemplifies its coach’s vision. That it must do so with underwhelming glitz and arguably-limited talent, and as a national symbol of the conditional ethics of big-time sports, makes its on court achievements no less remarkable.