Team of the decade. The title alone brims with controversy.
There are quite a number of factors that can go into determining the best college team of the past ten years: national championships, Final Four appearances, conference titles, total number of wins, All-Americans, players to go pro, really you can use almost any set of criteria to come up with some sort of answer.
What can make this a particularly challenging task is the sometimes fickle nature of the game. Unlike the NBA where a franchises can establish themselves for decades at a time given the right personnel, the college game has a complete turnover every four years, and that isn’t taking into consideration the endless number of players who leave school early for any number of reasons. Despite this, certain schools always manage to rise above the fray and continue to be among the nation’s elite year in and year out. While there are several programs that deserve to have their name mentioned in the discussion for the best of the last 10 years, only North Carolina can truly say that it is deserving of this label.
What makes the Tar Heels so undeniably great is that no matter what criteria is used when determining the top college team of the decade, they are always at or near the top of the discussion, something no other school save for maybe Kansas can say. Not even including the two national titles Carolina has taken home since — a total that ties them with Florida for the most this decade – few teams can compare with the famed Tar Heel blue on a consistent basis.
Save for a two year dry spell at the beginning of the decade, Chapel Hill has been rocking well into the month of March every year. Including the 2000 season, Carolina has won six regular season ACC titles, two conference tournaments, appeared in eight NCAA Tournaments, five Sweet Sixteen’s, five Elite Eights, and four Final Four’s — more than any other team in the country during that same stretch. The individual awards have stacked up as well with UNC personnel earning two National Coach of the Year awards, two National Player of the Year honors, three ACC POY awards and four ACC ROY awards.
Florida may have won an equal number of national championships, but they did it with the same group of players. Roy Williams managed to win two titles with completely different squads, a testament both to his abilities on the sideline and the enormous wealth of talent that has suited up in the Dean Dome.
Few teams can spot a list of ex-players as daunting as UNC can. A total of 13 former players have been selected in the NBA draft since 2001, with the two national championship teams in 2005 and 2009 each producing four pro players. When looking at the other teams who have been among the elite in the 2000s, it becomes very clear that only North Carolina can lay claim to being one of the elite in every standard of measuring greatness.
Eight teams have won national championships this decade including two each previously mentioned by UNC and Florida. Of the other six teams though, Maryland and Syracuse have been too inconsistent to be considered the best team of the last 10 years. The Gators have been down somewhat in the last two seasons, leaving only Duke, Connecticut, Kansas and Michigan State as the other programs that have stayed consistently near the top of the national spectrum.
National championships are hard to come by though and require a certain degree of luck. There have been plenty of great teams that have made consistent trips to the Final Four only to see their dreams of taking home a title dashed in one way or another. The Tar Heels lead all teams with four appearances this decade, with Kansas, Michigan State and Florida all reaching the final weekend of the season three times each.
Certainly though the ability to stay at or near the top of one’s conference on an annual basis also tells a great deal about a program, it shows prolonged success rather than sometimes well timed spurts in the postseason. In this sense, Kansas and North Carolina were seemingly leaps and bounds ahead of the competition, taking home seven and five regular season titles respectively, though Duke has been the gold standard in conference tournaments, having won the ACC six times, but the program has not had much postseason success since winning the 2001 national championship.
Maybe this column seems too rigid, too formulaic — and I would agree with you. The beauty of sports is the ability to always debate and argue the great teams of the past. Maybe in a head-to-head matchup there are teams that would have beaten the 2005 or 2009 Carolina teams. Maybe ‘Melo and the rest of the 2003 Syracuse squad was good enough to pull off the win, maybe that 2007 Florida team could do it too. There will always be those who will argue the negative in this debate, hold the two year tournament absence against the Tar Heels or point to some other potential flaw in the argument.
No matter how you choose to break it down though, be it wins, awards, titles or personalities, no one can stand up to the indomitable force that is North Carolina. The school that has helped to define success throughout college basketball history has put its stamp on the first decade of the new millennium and done it in a big way.
For more Decade Awards, check out the archive.