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THF Countdown #12: 1986

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Season: 1985-86
Record: 28-6 overall, 10-4 ACC(3rd place)
ACC Tournament: Lost to Maryland in quarterfinals
NCAA Tournament: Lost to Louisville in the Sweet Sixteen

Roster: Steve Bucknall, Brad Daugherty, James Daye, Steve Hale, Curtis Hunter, Jeff Lebo, Kevin Madden, Warren Martin, Michael Norwood, Dave Popson, Kenny Smith, Ranzino Smith, Joe Wolf.

Source: UNC Media Guide

I moved this team all around the rankings and finally decided that this version of the Tar Heels was a darn good team that ran into a bad stretch at the wrong time i.e. the end of the season.  The 1986 team started the season 21-0 and ascended to #1 in the poll(from #2) near the end of November and held the ranking, even after losing a game, all the way until March when the wheels officially came off.

Prior to that, this team did some serious damage to quite a few teams in opening the season 21-0.  UNC broke 100 points seven times posting scores of 107, 110, 114, 104, 129, 115 and 109.  The last four came in consecutive games.  UNC finished the season shooting 55% from the floor and averaging 86 ppg.  They were an absolute juggernaut and with Duke playing at much the same level, it was looking like Duke and UNC could end up playing three or four times before it was all said and done.

Something happened on the way to the party however.  After reaching 21-0, UNC went to Charlottesville and lost to UVa which was not that shocking.  UVa routinely put good teams on the court in the 1980s and losing in Charlottesville was not uncommon.  On top of that, it was really one of those "due for a loss" games.  The Heels rebounded and won four straight after that loss including beating #2 Georgia Tech in Atlanta.  Yes, you read that correctly, UNC beat Georgia Tech in Atlanta and in a 1-2 matchup no less.  What followed after that was one of the most frustrating conclusions to a season in recent memory.

The Heels had opened the Dean Smith Center earlier in the year by beating Duke and remained spotless in the new building until February 20th when Maryland came to visit.  UNC controlled the game and led by eight with about two minutes left when Maryland's Len Bias went nuts, score two quick baskets and put the Terps back in the game.  Maryland finished crawling all the way back into it to force OT and handed the Heels their first loss at the Dean Dome. And while the loss itself was not really that big of a deal, the rash of injuries starting with Steve Hale's collapsed lung and ending with Warren Martin and Joe Wolf spraining ankles really destroyed any hope this team had.  Life went from great to downright depressing inside of two weeks with a loss to NC State and then Duke followed by a quarterfinals exit from the ACC Tournament against Maryland.

From SI.com on March 17th, 1986:

Inevitably, the six ACC teams that had won 18 games or more were rewarded with invitations to the NCAA tournament. For Duke , Georgia Tech , Virginia , N.C. State and Maryland it is a new spring; for crippled North Carolina the question is no longer whether the Tar Heels can win the national championship but whether they might win a rematch with Brown (which they beat 115-63 in December). Alas, Carolina has to play Utah in the first round.

Beleaguered coach Dean Smith might have been excused if he had packed it in for the ACCs to give his Heels a chance to heal in time for the NCAAs . After Steve Hale (partially collapsed lung) and Warren Martin (sprained foot) went out, the Heels reeled into Greensboro , losers of three of their last four games. Carolina avoided total depression only when Virginia Beach high school phenom J.R. Reid announced he would sign on for the future.

Late most every season somebody gets hurt for Carolina—Phil Ford and Walter Davis in 1977, Kenny Smith in '84, Hale last year. Sure enough, just as soon as Hale appeared hearty last week against Maryland , 6'10" forward Joe Wolf crashed to the court early in the first half and had to be carried away with a sprained ankle.

Though the Tar Heels led Maryland at the half 34-28, the numbers of the Terps' Bias were more meaningful: two baskets, five turnovers; pennies from heaven for Carolina. Soon, without Wolf, the Tar Heels could not guard Bias—he had 13 points and 10 rebounds after intermission—nor play their high-low double-post offense with Daugherty alone. Maryland scored 18 of the first 21 points in the second half for a 46-37 lead and later outran the losers 20-4, as Terp guards Keith Gatlin and Jeff Baxter lit up the Carolina backcourt for 39 points. A helpless Daugherty did not score a field goal for a stretch of 16 minutes in the 85-75 Maryland victory. "Wonder if J.R. saw this one," Maryland coach Lefty Driesell chortled. Daugherty did find time to interrupt some standard Terrapin taunting and prevent a fight.

"I just told Bias," said Daugherty , "to tell his guys to shut up because they won't play that way tomorrow."

In other words, it simply was not meant to be.  The losses and resulting injuries drop UNC down to a #3 seed in the NCAA Tournament with a closing stretch that looked very similar to what happend in 2001 sans players screaming at each other on the court.  In 2001 it was chemistry, 1986 on the other was done in by the injury bug leaving us all to wonder what might have happened had Hale, Martin and Wolf stayed healthy.  The Heels managed their way to the Sweet Sixteen where they were totally throttled by Pervis Ellison and Louisville.  The Cardinals ended up beating a 37-2 Duke team to win the national title but somehow you cannot help but think what might have happened had UNC found a way to be opposite Duke that night in Dallas.

1986 was a missed opportunity to be sure maybe even more so than 1984 and 1987 mainly because the injuries never afforded them a fair chance to see if they could continue the success that marked the first three months of the season.  Instead the memory of this team is largely derived from the fact they lost five of their final eight games.  Such is nature of history and unfortunate for a team that was so very good for much of the year.

Countdown So Far

13. 1994
14. 1983
15. 1989
16. 1988
17. 1985
18. 2006
19. 2001
20. 1992
21. 1996
22. 1999
23. 2000
24. 2004
25. 1990
26. 2003
27. 2002