They were buried from the start.
As the confetti fell down in Houston, the 2016 UNC men's basketball team was on the wrong side of history, Villanova instead seizing the spotlight. Then, the next season, the Tar Heels did what their predecessors couldn’t, and their shortcomings were forgotten.
Now, two years after that championship and a week after the Wildcats' second in three years, the story of this era will be another program’s ascension and dominance, not UNC’s consistency.
And that ’16 team will just be a footnote.
Sure, the shot will be played in March Madness promos forever and the game will be remembered as one of the greatest in finals history. But the team that lost will be remembered for just that: losing.
It won’t be remembered for the savvy seniors or the deep bench or the All-Americans. No, it will be the team that lost to the dominant program of its time, the first victim of Villanova's rise to prominence.
And that’s too bad. Because, man, that 2016 squad was something.
There were the Brice Johnson slams and screams and the never-ending Marcus Paige treys and the Joel James celebrations on the bench. There was the ACC regular-season title and the conference tournament run that culminated with the instant-classic win over Virginia in the final — in Washington, D.C., no less.
And, of course, there was the NCAA Tournament. The one in which Carolina seemed destined to deliver Roy Williams his third championship and send its beloved upperclassmen out on top, where they belonged.
After all, UNC wasn’t challenged in those first five games.
Sure, Providence hung around for a while and Indiana started hot and Notre Dame made a late run in the second half, but was anyone ever worried?
Because even if the outcome was in doubt, someone was going to step up. It didn’t even have to be Marcus or Brice — budding stars Joel Berry and Justin Jackson could hit big shots, or old-reliables Isaiah Hicks and Kennedy Meeks could get a timely offensive rebound and put-back.
Point was, we weren’t worried in that fateful game. Not when Villanova slowly built a second-half lead or when Brice couldn’t get going or when Joel disappeared after a scorching first half. It didn’t matter, because someone was going to come to the rescue.
And, sure enough, someone did.
Somehow, Marcus’ shot wasn’t surprising. The Tar Heels were the best team in the country, so they were going to win the championship.
But sometimes sports isn’t fair. Two full college basketball seasons have been played since then, and, even with the redemptive championship, re-living that game and that team still stings.
If Villanova hadn’t won the championship this season, maybe the past three seasons would have been remembered differently.
The 2016 team would have been remembered as the one to lay the groundwork and provide the fuel for the program’s sixth NCAA championship in its return to the pedestal of college basketball’s elite. The narrative would’ve been Carolina’s dominant three-year (and counting) run as one of the best among all sports.
But Villanova’s win over Michigan means that storyline has been snuffed out and the “most dominant program” title now resides in Philadelphia, not Chapel Hill. The Wildcats have wrestled glory away from the Tar Heels once again, and, with it, they’ve buried the memory of the 2016 team from the nation’s consciousness.
But not from ours. We will remember that team, one of Roy Williams’ best, even if no one else does.
And that’s all that really matters.