If you had been wise enough to let history be your guide, you would have taken a look at North Carolina’s roster and known to pencil them in as the 2017 NCAA Tournament champions before filling out the rest of your bracket.
If not, it may have only occurred to you as the Tar Heels were putting the finishing touches on Monday night’s 71-65 win over Gonzaga in the national title game that there is a blueprint for a Roy Williams championship team. And that this UNC squad fit that description.
It starts with the “Big Three.”
They are the point guard, the wing scorer, and the rugged big man.
They are all veterans, either juniors or seniors, somewhat rare birds in the “one-and-done era” of college basketball.
And they have all gone through some kind of negative experience together at UNC that not only forged a bond, but created a sickness in their collective gut that could only be calmed by winning a championship together.
Not coincidentally, all three of Williams’ national title teams at UNC – half of the school’s six total national titles – were built this way.
In 2005, the Big Three was point guard Ray Felton, shooting guard Rashad McCants and power forward Sean May. They endured the rare UNC coaching change, from Matt Doherty to Williams, missing the NCAA Tournament as freshmen (another rarity in Chapel Hill) before winning it all as juniors.
In 2009, it was junior point guard Ty Lawson, junior shooting guard Wayne Ellington and senior power forward Tyler Hansbrough. They made it to the Final Four the previous year, only to get blasted by Kansas. They came back the next year and won it all.
In 2017, it was junior point guard Joel Berry II, junior small forward Justin Jackson and senior center Kennedy Meeks. They made it all the way to the national title game last year, only to suffer through a heartbreaker – losing on Kris Jenkins’ forever-famous buzzer-beater for Villanova.
The UNC Big Three came back this year, and they won it all.
This trio shared some similarities with their title-winning predecessors. Berry wears jersey No. 2 like Felton once did. Jackson was named ACC Player of the Year like Hansbrough and Lawson once were. Meeks looks and plays like he could be May’s little brother.
But in many ways, this trio was unique.
Jackson is as just prolific at pouring in points as McCants and Ellington were, but those two were smooth athletes with pretty jump shots whom you might describe as pure shooters or scorers. Jackson’s game is kind of awkward-looking. He had the look of a three-and-D type of role player for the Tar Heels when he arrived as a freshman, but he’s worked to improve his offensive skill set and molded himself into a legit go-to guy.
After scoring 22 points and hitting four threes in the national semifinal against Oregon, Jackson’s jump shot deserted him in the Arizona desert on Monday; he missed all nine of his three-point attempts. But he managed to grind out 16 points, including the go-ahead and-one with about a minute and a half to go, and the breakaway dunk in the final seconds that sealed UNC’s victory.
Berry is, like Felton and Lawson in their championship seasons, one of the best point guards in college basketball. Berry is one of five finalists for the Bob Cousy Award – which Felton won in 2005, and Lawson won in 2009.
Unlike Felton and Lawson, Berry is not a speed demon who is a blur with the basketball. Berry’s game is slower, more calculated, more reliant on his outside shot. He was named Final Four MOP after putting up 22 points and six assists against Gonzaga while playing on two sprained ankles.
Meeks, like May and Hansbrough, is a strong presence under the basket. Once he has you boxed out, he’s harder to budge than a Trump supporter’s bigoted opinion. But he is not as decorated as his low-post predecessors. May was a Final Four MOP and an All-American. Hansbrough was a national Player of the Year and three-time All-American.
Meeks doesn’t have those accolades, but he was the heart and soul of this UNC championship squad – not to mention the guy who hung 25 points and 14 boards on Oregon in the semifinal, and 17 boards and four blocks on Kentucky in the Elite Eight.
Foul trouble limited Meeks to just 22 minutes on Monday, but he finished with seven points and 10 rebounds and was a force on defense. Meeks helped hold Gonzaga’s star big man Przemek Karnowski to 1-of-8 shooting, and his blocked shot with 15 seconds to go and UNC up by three set up Jackson’s dagger dunk.
North Carolina’s win over Gonzaga was not an appeasing work of art.
The Tar Heels were behind most of the time. They shot 4-of-27 (14 percent) from three-point range. The team whose biggest strength going in was supposed to be rebounding got outrebounded by the Zags. They committed egregious basketball sins, such as fouling jump shooters and missing free throws in crunch time. And, yes, the refs called a few too many fouls.
But the game was actually the perfect script for this particular group to earn the redemption that had been talked about so much during the tournament.
UNC had to come back. They had to dig in. They had to learn from their mistakes. They had to make stops when their opponent had opportunities to hit big shots.
And each member of the Big Three had at least one shining moment at the end to help clinch the championship that they fought together to earn.
That is apparently how they draw things up at North Carolina.