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THF Countdown #9: 1997

Season: 1996-97
Record: 28-7 overall, 11-5 ACC(2nd place tie)
ACC Tournament: Won Championship
NCAA Tournament: Lost to Arizona in the Final Four

Roster: Vince Carter, Ed Cota, Vasco Evtimov, Brad Frederick, Antawn Jamison, Charlie McNairy, Makhtar Ndiaye, Terrence Newby, Ademola Okulaja, Ryan Sullivan, Webb Tyndall, Shammond Williams, Serge Zwikker.

Source: UNC Media Guide

Dean Smith's last season except we did not know it would be his last season.  As it turns out it may have been one of his greater triumphs as a coach despite the bookend losses to Arizona.  Following the season opening loss to the Wildcats, the Heels were so obviously not as good as we thought they were going to be.  In fact I recall the third game of the season versus Pitt in which the Heels trailed early and eventually got it together to end up winning by 21.  However there was evidence that UNC had not quite shaken itself out of the funk it got itself into starting with the 2nd half of the ACC schedule in 1996.

Still, UNC was 9-1 by the time ACC play opened on January 4th at Wake Forest and seemingly things went straight to hell in a handbasket from.  A week later UNC had a players only meeting in the locker room at Charlottesville after falling to 0-3 in the ACC to start the conference season, something that had never happened in school history.  The Heels avoided 0-4 with a win versus NC State by three at home, went 2-2 to finish the first half of the ACC season at 3-5.  Then the beast awoke and what we witnessed was one of the greatest stretch runs UNC has ever put together.

Starting with a 50 point pummeling of Middle Tennessee State the Heels captured lightning in a bottle and ripped through the ACC's 2nd half at 8-0.  The final four games of the regular season saw UNC beat #4 Wake Forest at home, #14 Maryland and #12 Clemson on the road followed by a six point win over #7 Duke in Chapel Hill in a game that included Dean and Mike Krzyzewski exchanging words.  And there were not kind words.

At this point the Heels were smoking hot and basically rolled right through the ACC Tournament winning the championship for the fourth time in the 1990s.  The win also put Dean Smith one short of tying Adolph Rupp for most wins all time and two from breaking the record which came the following Saturday as the Heels dispatched Colorado to secure a berth in the Sweet Sixteen.  From there the Heels took care of business in the regional rounds earning them a trip to the Final Four in Indianopolis which along with San Antonio is considered by Tar Heel fans to be the most accursed of Final Four sites.

The Heels ended the season the way they began it: Losing to Arizona.  Now let me state for the record that I carry some serious distaste for Lute Olsen and Arizona that predates the sweep in 1997.  Lute Olsen built a successful program at Arizona but it always seemed like they were a paper tiger.  In fact when UNC faced Arizona in the Final Four, the Wildcats were a #4 seed that made it that far by knocking off Roy Williams' best Kansas team ever and saving us a 3rd UNC-KU Final Four matchup.  Still, it seemed like UNC should have handled Arizona but once again the we saw UNC national title hopes go up in a flames amid some horrid long range shooting like 1991, 1995, 1998 and 2008 for that matter.  Shammond Williams in this Final Four and the one in 1998 could not have hit a basket if it were five feet tall and six feet in front of him.  Serge Zwikker and Ed Cota were not much better leaving Antawn Jamison and Vince Carter carrying most of the load which turned out to be a little short versus Miles Simon and Arizona.

Man, word and proper decorum cannot possibly convey how much I disliked that guy.

Countdown So Far

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