Yeah, like most everyone else, we’re equally in awe of what Carolina has been able to do thus far in the season. We are on record saying that the Heels wouldn’t be able to get through a pretty tough first month of the season without taking an L due to the loss of Marcus Ginyard and Tyler Hansbrough to injuries, and we couldn’t have been more wrong. The Heels have been nothing short of awesome through the first quarter of the regular season, beating eight opponents (two of which were in the preseason top 10) by an average of 30.4 points per game.
Their offensive and defensive stats are through the roof thus far. They average nearly 100 pts per game (97.0), shooting 51% from the field and 41% from three. They are #2 nationally in points per possession (1.207) and percentage of trips where they score at least a point (59.7%). They share the ball amazingly well (#2 nationally in assists – 21.7) and have a preposterous nearly 2:1 assist-to-turnover ratio (1.87). The Heels also rebound with the best of the country (#8 nationally) and play defense with abandon (holding opponents to 37.3% shooting and forcing 19 turnovers per game – 14th nationally). Put simply, this team is playing GREAT basketball.
photo credit: Jim Hawkins/AP
So the question is begged – why do we need to finish out the season if we know that Carolina is far-and-away the best team? Well… because it’s still early. December 5th is a light year away from April 6th in college basketball time, and a lot can and will happen in the interim. Other teams will improve, and UNC, while looking indomitable at this point, could eventually suffer from the fatigue of increasing pressure to win every game and/or simply a rough night in March. That’s the beauty of our game. Short of a major injury, we can rest assured that the Lakers and Celtics will more than likely be back in the NBA Finals due to the sport’s seven-game series playoff format. But in a one-game situation in the NCAA Tournament, much like the World Cup and NFL Playoffs, an inspired underdog can accomplish the unthinkable and take down the seemingly unbeatable favorite (witness last year’s Super Bowl for just such a recent example).
For proof of this, let’s take a walk down memory lane for a brief history lesson. Below are a handful of teams who, like this year’s Tarheels, were seemingly invincible for the entire season. That is, until they ran into a plucky team who had enough heart and made just enough plays in the right moments to block the favorite’s manifest destiny.
- 1984 UNC (28-3, 15-1 ACC) - We can start with a former version of the Heels. Bob Knight’s Indiana team shot 65% from the field (69% in the second half) to take down Michael Jordan and Sam Perkins’ Heels in the second round of the NCAAs. To this day, old-time Heels fans lament an injury to Kenny Smith’s wrist that limited his effectiveness in the postseason. UNC had only a 1-pt loss at Arkansas and a 2-pt loss to Duke in the ACC Tourney prior to the NCAAs. Of the 28 victories, only four were by single-digit margins. This team was nasty.
- 1985 Georgetown (35-3, 17-2 Big East) – We still can’t fathom how this absolute beast of a defending national champion with Patrick Ewing and Reggie Williams lost to Villanova in the greatest upset in NCAA Tournament history. Still, they did, as Villanova hit a ridiculous 79% from the field against a defensive dynamo that regularly held teams well under 40%.
- 1987 UNC (32-4, 16-1 ACC) - UNC, led by all-american Kenny Smith and super-frosh JR Reid, lost in the regional finals to Syracuse by 4 pts, in a game where Derrick Coleman and Rony Seikaly destroyed the Heels on the boards to eke out the victory. Their only other losses were at UCLA (5 pts), at Notre Dame (2 pts) and in the finals of the ACC Tourney vs. NC State (1 pt). While not as dominant as the 1984 version, this team was everyone’s choice to win the national title.
- 1991 UNLV (34-1, 20-0 Big West) - The best team we’ve ever seen that didn’t win the national title. Simply an astonishing combination of talent and experience on the cusp of the early-entry era. Duke, who had lost by 30 in the NCAA Final to this same team one year prior, became Duke on this night – roaring back behind Mr. March, Christian Laettner, to win the game in the final minutes 79-77. UNLV, who placed all five starters on the all-Big West team (four 1st teamers), had beaten its opponents by an average of 27.5 pts per game coming into the national semis, including a whipping of #2 Arkansas at the old Barnhill Arena by a score of 112-105 (the final was much closer than the game actually was).
- 1997 Kansas (34-2, 18-1 Big 12) – We still contend that this was Roy Williams’ best team (even better than the 2005 UNC national champions). A two-pt double-OT loss at Missouri was the only blemish on a near-perfect season until upstart and eventual national champion Arizona, led by Mike Bibby and Miles Simon, pulled off an 85-82 upset in the regional semifinals of the NCAAs. Raef Lafrentz, Paul Pierce and Jacque Vaughn led a balanced attack that absolutely devastated most of its oppenents, many of whom were ranked (9-1).
- 1999 Duke (37-2, 19-0 ACC) – With the possible exception of 2006 UConn (who we find overrated), this was the last college team that was absolutely loaded with A-grade NBA talent. The lineup featured two NPOYs (Elton Brand, Shane Battier) in addition to draftees Will Avery, Trajan Langdon and Chris Carrawell. Future all-star Corey Maggette came off the bench. Only four teams all season were able to stay within 10 pts of the Devils, who crushed teams by an average of 24.6 points per game. Had this team won the title game against UConn, it would have been on the short list of greatest teams in the modern era.
- 2002 Duke (31-4, 16-3 ACC) - This team didn’t have the outrageous statistical profile of its predecessor three years prior, but it was the defending national champs and boasted Jason Williams, Mike Dunleavy Jr. and Carlos Boozer in a balanced attack that seemed destined for back-to-back titles. That is, until this team’s only bugaboo, FT shooting (68.9%) popped up to bite them in the Sweet 16 against Indiana. Two one-pt losses, a three-pt loss and a 14-pt loss to national champion Maryland were the only blemishes on this team’s resume.
So there you have it. Our memories don’t go back further than the 80s, but we’re sure there are probably some other great historical examples of this phenomenon. Leave them in the comments if you wish. Of course, there are just as many (if not more) dominant teams that actually got it done and won the national title – which one will the 2008-09 Tarheels become? To answer that question is why we will continue to watch.