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THF Countdown #8: 1987

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Season: 1986-87
Record: 32-4 overall, 14-0 ACC(1st place)
ACC Tournament: Lost in finals to NC State and I am still not over that one either.
NCAA Tournament: Lost to Syracuse in the Elite Eight

Roster: Steve Bucknall, Jeff Denny, Marty Hensley, Curtis Hunter, Rodney Hyatt, Jeff Lebo, Michael Norwood, Dave Popson, J.R. Reid, Kenny Smith, Ranzino Smith, Scott Williams, Joe Wolf.

Source: UNC Media Guide

Where this season is concerned I offer up three names that may as well as pass as curse words in Tar Heel Nation:

Digger Phelps
Vinny Del Negro
Rony Seikaly

UNC lost a total of four times during this season making them easily a top ten team for this countdown and along with 1984 one of the two best UNC teams not to make a Final Four.  The interesting note on this version is that the roster does not represent a group of players with tremendous stardom written all over them.  Kenny Smith and Scott Williams are the only two players on this team to make a significant splash in the NBA with both winning NBA titles as role players Houston and Chicago respectively.  JR Reid was pretty much a bust in the pros and Joe Wolf is the only other player on this roster that spent any real time in the NBA.  In this respect they were as true a Dean Smith system team as any and the result was a cohesive unit that had a good chance to win the national title except the best team does not always do so.

Like the 1984 team UNC went through the ACC undefeated at 14-0 and aside from an OT win over UVa in Chapel Hill was never really challenged.  The Heels then needed double OT to dispatch the Cavaliers in the ACC Tournament setting up what stands as one the most annoying and infuriating upsets ever suffered by a UNC team.  And yes, that includes Weber State.

The 1987 ACC Championship was supposed to be a foregone conclusion.  NCSU had gone 6-8 in the ACC regular season and was 17-14 entering the ACC Tournament.  The Heels had beaten the pack by 17 and 18 during the regular season and came in averaging 91 ppg.  Somehow the Heels only score 25 in the first half, allow NCSU to shoot 56% from the floor and end up losing.  How bad was this loss?  It was so bad that Dean Smith was walking to the locker room after the game and put his hand up to cover the camera that was filming him.  Needless to say it was a fairly miserable loss. Pretty much like losing to Notre Dame in South Bend which included the fans there throwing objects on the court despite the fact they were winning.

The loss in the East Regional Final to Syracuse goes down as one of the more disappointing eliminations from the NCAA Tournament and in my mind seems to fit right in with the 2007 team's loss to Georgetown.  In fact if you count 1987, 1994 and 2007 Big East teams have been a pain in UNC's rear end more than once.  UNC has little problem winning regional finals played in Syracuse but not against Syracuse.  It turns out that it was not meant to be especially with Jeff Lebo ending up with the flu and UNC unable to do much with Rony Seikaly.  Syracuse went on to loss on Keith Smart's jumper in the title game and the Heels were left wondering why 1987 ended the same way as 1984 with a body of regular season glory followed by heartbreaking losses in tournament play.

Of course it is funny how much we frame these discussions on the losses when this team blew the doors off the ACC in 1987 and save one bad Sunday afternoon could have completed the full sweep of the conference.  This team also holds the school record for points per game and is second in three point shooting percentage meaning they were an offensively explosive team to watch.  With Kenny Smith running the point as a senior would you expect anything less?

Countdown So Far

9. 1997
10. 1991
11. 2007

12. 1986
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