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Ranking the Tar Heels’ best basketball starters of all time

An attempt at ranking the long list of amazing men’s basketball players to wear Carolina blue.

Iowa v North Carolina Photo by Lance King/Getty Images

The University of North Carolina has seen its fair share of great basketball players come through its historic program. Just look up at the rafters inside the Dean Dome. There are 49 jerseys hanging up there (soon to be 51 with the addition of Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson). Forty-nine jerseys. That means 49 players were either first or second team All-Americans, ACC Player of the Year, MOP of NCAA Final Four, MOP of NCAA championship team, or an Olympic gold medalist. There is so much greatness and lore within those rafters and within the Tar Heel program. So let’s try and put together an all-time starting five.

Point Guard

Phil Ford (1974-1978)

Phil Ford embodied UNC basketball. Ford was the first freshman to start under Dean Smith. The 6’2 point guard from Rocky Mount, North Carolina, ran the four corners offense to perfection during his four years in Chapel Hill. While playing for UNC, Ford averaged 18.6 points and 6.1 assists per game, earning two ACC Player of the Year awards, first-team All-American status three times, and winning the 1978 National Player of the Year award. Ford also was a starter and won a gold medal in the 1976 Olympics. He finished his career as the all-time leading scorer in UNC history with 2,290 points (later surpassed by Tyler Hansbrough).

Honorable mention:

Kenny Smith (1983-1987)

Smith was a true point guard averaging 6.1 assists per game in his college career, earning first-team All-American status in 1987. Smith is 2nd all-time in UNC history for assists, and fourth in steals.

Ed Cota (1996-2000)

Ed Cota was a pass-first point guard that played solid defense, ranking fifth all-time at UNC in steals. Over his time in Chapel Hill, Cota averaged 7.46 assists per game (third highest in ACC history) during his career, landing him as the top assist man in UNC history, 262 assists ahead of Kenny Smith.

Shooting Guard

Michael Jordan (1981-1984)

Obviously. As a freshman, he hit the game-winning shot in the 1982 National Championship game, “where Mike Jordan became Michael Jordan,” as he said during the 2015 National Championship game. In his next two seasons, he earned first-team All-American honors. Jordan was also ACC Player of the Year, National Player of the Year, and a gold medalist in the Olympics in 1984.

Honorable mention:

Al Wood (1977-1981)

Al Wood led North Carolina in scoring three different seasons and is 5th all-time in scoring at UNC.

Jerry Stackhouse (1993-1995)

Stackhouse was a first-team All-American and player of the year in 1995.

Small Forward

Lennie Rosenbluth (1954-1957)

The leader of the 1957 undefeated national champion squad. Lennie holds the record at North Carolina for highest single season average of points (28.0) and highest average points in a career (26.9). He is currently fourth on the all-time UNC scoring list. He’s one of four players all-time to win ACC Player of the Year, ACC tournament MVP, NCAA Regional MVP, and National Player of the Year all in the same year.

Honorable mention:

Vince Carter (1995-1998)

Arguably the greatest dunker of all-time. Vince Carter was more than just a dunker and a man of great nicknames during his days at Carolina. Half Man, Half Amazing was a first-team All-American selection his final year at UNC. Vinsanity also led UNC to two Final Fours and two ACC championships in his sophomore and junior years.

Charles Scott (1967-1970)

Helped lead North Carolina to back-to-back ACC championships and Final Fours. Scott was also a first-team All-American during these two seasons and won a gold medal in 1968.

Power Forward

James Worthy (1979-1982)

Big Game James is one of those players that people from all over the country think of when they think of North Carolina basketball. Worthy led the Heels to a national championship in 1982. He was a two-time first-team All-American selection and National Player of the Year in 1982.

Honorable mention:

Billy Cunningham (1962-1965)

Kangaroo. Kid. Billy Cunningham averaged 24.8 points and 15.4 rebounds per game. During his time at UNC Cunningham was ACC player of the year, a three-time All-ACC selection, and a first-team All-American.

Antawn Jamison (1995-1998)

Like Lennie Rosenbluth, Jamison is one of four players all-time to win ACC Player of the Year, ACC tournament MVP, NCAA Regional MVP, and National Player of the Year all in the same year. Even with this stat, he still doesn’t top the list at power forward. That’s how deep Carolina’s basketball history is.


Tyler Hansbrough (2005-2009)

Tyler Hansbrough tops this list. One of the greatest players to ever put on a Tar Heel uniform, he is first all-time in UNC history in points (2,872) and rebounds (1,219). He earned first-team All-American and first-team All-ACC in all four of his seasons at UNC- the only player to ever do so. On top of all of this, he was the 2008 National Player of the Year, and he never experienced the feeling of losing inside Cameron.

Honorable mention:

Sam Perkins (1980-1984)

Perkins is 3rd all-time in scoring and 2nd all-time in rebounding at UNC. That alone puts him high up on this list. He was a three-time first-team All-American and led the Tar Heels to the Final Four in 1981 and a championship in 1982.

Brad Daugherty (1982-1986)

Daugherty is top-10 all-time in UNC history in field goal percentage, points, rebounding, and blocks.