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The Best That Never Was?

The 1983-84 Tar Heels were likely Dean Smith's best team at Carolina but untimely losses in both the ACC and NCAA tournaments have prevented this squad from being recognized as one of the truly dominant teams in UNC history.

Before he was playing in old-timers games, Kenny Smith led the 1984 Heels to a 28-3 record
Before he was playing in old-timers games, Kenny Smith led the 1984 Heels to a 28-3 record

Nearly three decades before Ethan Wragge, there was John Tudor.

Thirty years ago this week, the North Carolina Tar Heels were ranked #1 in the country and had rarely been challenged in opening the season 21-0. In a late January game against Louisiana State, Carolina was up 7 points late in the second half when freshman point guard Kenny Smith stepped in front of a pass intended for the Tigers' Tudor and took off for a wide-open layup. Tudor hammered the airborne Smith, who fell and broke his wrist. UNC would go on to win 90-79, and win its next four games before falling on the road to Eddie Sutton and Arkansas, 65-64.

The Tar Heels responded to the loss by finishing off the regular season with five straight wins, including a 96-83 double overtime thriller against Duke in the season finale, which marked Smith's return after a nine-game absence. UNC finished the regular season 26-1, 14-0 in the ACC, and ranked #1 in both the AP and Coaches polls. Carolina rolled past Clemson but then fell to Duke 77-75 in the semifinals of the ACC tournament in a game Mike Krzyzewski has called the beginning of Duke's ascension to the place in college basketball it still enjoys 30 years later.

Despite the loss, UNC earned the top seed in the NCAA's east region and after a first-round bye, beat Temple before facing Indiana in the round of 16. In an all-too-familiar scenario for UNC fans, the Tar Heels were ice-cold from the field and Michael Jordan battled both a nagging finger injury and foul trouble en route to a pedestrian 13-point performance and Carolina fell to the Hoosiers 72-68 (And nearly 30 years later, Dan Dakich still brags about shutting down Jordan).

The 1984 Tar Heels were arguably the best team Dean Smith put on the floor in his 36 years in Chapel Hill. That UNC team featured five first-round NBA draft picks. four first-team All-Americans, and the national player of the year in Jordan. The starting lineup featured Smith at the point, Jordan and Matt Doherty on the wings, and Sam Perkins and Brad Daugherty inside. Capable role players Buzz Peterson, Curtis Hunter, Steve Hale, and Joe Wolf filled out the rotation. Carolina finished the 1984 season 28-3, with the three losses by a combined seven points; 24 of the 28 wins were by 10+ points. Even Coach Smith said this was one of the few of his own teams he felt was the best in the country.

The conventional narrative has been that Tudor's foul, like Wragge's foul on Kendall Marshall against Creighton that derailed the 2012 Heels, kept a very good UNC team from a legitimate shot at the national title. Steve Hale capably stepped in for Smith but, the story goes, when Smith returned, the chemistry was never the same and the team stumbled down the stretch. This is an oversimplistic narrative that provides a convenient excuse but may or may not be what actually happened. Hale more than admirably stepped in for Smith, as the team went 8-1 while Smith was out, with the only loss coming at Arkansas and average margin of victory was over 16 points with Hale at the helm. Smith returned to a pair of double-digit wins before the self-described program-defining game versus Duke (who had guys named Bilas, Dawkins, and Amaker on that team). Then in the kind of game that makes the NCAA tournament what it is, Indiana, behind 26 points from its own freshman superstar point guard, Steve Alford, also shot 65 percent from the floor in the upset of top-ranked Carolina.

Unfortunately the fact that the '84 team didn't win the ACC Tournament or even make the Final Four has somewhat consigned this team to the scrapheap of UNC basketball history despite the gaudy numbers and individual and team achievements. Jordan was the consensus player of the year and left UNC after the '84 season, his junior year. Perkins would end his UNC career first in rebounds and second in scoring, and would join Jordan on both the 1984 Olympic team and in the NBA. Daugherty and Smith would both be named first-team All-Americans while in Chapel Hill and would be first-round NBA draft picks, as would Joe Wolf. Some of the luster of the '84 team may be lost given that the 1987 team, in Smith and Wolf's senior season, would put up similar numbers, going 32-4, 14-0 in the ACC with the four losses by a combined 12 points. But UNC lost in the ACC Tournament finals by one point to NC State and in the Elite Eight by four points to eventual national champion runner-up Syracuse. Still given the sheer star power of the '84 team and its dominance in its wins, it very well may be the best UNC team that never was.