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The 2017 Tar Heels are reminiscent of the 1993 Championship team

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The 1993 Championship team cemented Dean Smith’s legacy. This team can do the same for Roy.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-South Regional-Kentucky vs North Carolina Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Every time UNC makes a run to the Final Four, fans and media start debating where that particular team ranks among the now 20 UNC teams that have advanced to the Final Four. It’s still too early to say where this year’s team will end up among the pantheon of great Tar Heel teams. However, there is one team that it bears a striking resemblance to - the 1993 NCAA National Champions.

Some teams are led by multiple future lottery picks, such as in 1982, 2005, 2009. Others caught fire at just the right time and produced some magical memories, like Bill Guthridge’s last hurrah in 2000. Of course, some teams don’t quite reach the promised land, no matter how talented (1998) or beloved (2016) they may have been. However, through it all, one team has always seemed to be an outlier among all other UNC teams.

The 1993 NCAA Champions have always held a special place in UNC fan’s hearts. It was Dean’s second title. It put an end to Duke’s back-to-back title run, and returned the trophy to Chapel Hill. The squad was made up good but not quite great players. They understood their roles and were better than the sum of their parts. Fueled by a loss in the Final Four in 1991, they never placed personal ambition above the team.

Led by a deep rotation where eight players averaged more than 10 minutes per game, every game was a complete team effort. Does that sounds familiar? Much like this year, with no true star power, their cohesion and chemistry helped them overcome any personal shortcomings. No other game exemplified that more than the you-had-to-see-it-to-believe-it comeback victory against Florida State. Most importantly, nobody cared who received credit for jobs well done.

That’s not to say that the team didn’t rely on certain players. Eric Montross, arguably that team’s best player, was “only” a 2nd-Team All-American. George Lynch, undoubtedly the heart and soul of those Heels, averaged 14 and 9 as he laid the groundwork to a long and productive NBA career. Derrick Phelps continued the tradition of tough, gritty, and injured UNC point guards carrying the team to the highest of heights. It should be noted that Lynch and Montross were the only two players on that team who were eventually drafted by an NBA team.

Yet, even with only four losses (yes, they split the season series with Duke), that team always was underestimated. Just three years removed from the flash and sizzle of the UNLV Runnin’ Rebs, the nation had become enamored with the Fab Five from Michigan. As they marched toward redemption after losing in the championship game the previous year, most had considered a national title for the Wolverines a foregone conclusion. Over two decades later some teams are still expected to win championships solely on the backs of young, super talented recruiting classes. Even then, youth and entertainment garnered more attention than the old boring storyline of experienced veterans.

That season also seemed to finally validate Coach Smith on the national scene as “one of the greatest ever”.

That may seem laughable now, but from 1983-1990, UNC failed to make a single Final Four. Some untimely injuries and an odd stretch of losing to three eventual national champions in the tournament made for a frustrating decade. Thank God that social media did not exist or Coach Smith may not have survived the 1980s. That eight-year drought was finally broken in 1991, where UNC promptly lost to Smith’s up-and-coming protege, Roy Williams. Then Coach K finally broke through, and won not one, but two titles. The whispers began, “Duke has surpassed UNC. How long until Roy comes home?”

Recruiting also had supposedly suffered a “dramatic” decline.

While the 1990 freshman class boasted three McDonald’s All-American in Eric Montross, Brian Reese, and Derrick Phelps, the recruiting talent seemingly dropped off with “only” two McD’s AA’s the following two years. Donald Williams was the program’s only recruit in 1991. Serge Zwikker signed in 1992, only to be redshirted during that championship season. Talent had “stopped” coming to Chapel Hill.

The game, perceivably, had passed the great UNC legend by without so much as a passing wave of the hand and a wink of the eye.

That 1993 season helped re-write the narrative of a career and program. Buoyed by that national title, the Heels returned to the Final Four in four of the next seven seasons - two for Smith and two for Guthridge. Elite talent “returned” as Rasheed Wallace, Jerry Stackhouse, Antawn Jamison, and Vince Carter brought some swagger back to the Dean Dome. For those of us who were alive for that decade, Tar Heel success on the basketball court was an unmitigated expectation. Saying some fans felt entitled is an understatement.

It was a special time for UNC basketball that I firmly believe was made possible by that team. Now, 24 years later, there’s a case to be made that we are watching Roy’s version of those 1993 champions.

Not unlike that ‘93 squad using their 1991 loss to Kansas as motivation, these Heels have been on a mission to atone for last season’s heartbreak. Previous UNC teams have tried to do the same, most notably in 1998, and have failed. For some reason, this team and season just have a different feel to it.

Like in 1993, led by a stellar junior class boasting three McDonald’s All-Americans in Joel Berry II, Theo Pinson, and Justin Jackson, these Heels have also relied on the sum of their parts. Luke Maye did his best Donald Williams impersonation on his way to winning the MOP award in the South Region. Stilman White (who also was on that 1993 team) had no reasonable expectation to play against Kentucky, yet earned two quick fouls De’Aaron Fox and still managed to drive past Malik Monk for a reverse lay-up. Nate Britt continues to fill whatever role is asked of him while being the team’s most consistent on-the-ball defender.

Currently, at best, these Heels might have two NBA lottery picks in Justin Jackson and Tony Bradley. Maybe. Possibly. Perhaps.

Not to mention, the healthy lack of respect the Heels have received in some media outlets. Yes, many pundits and fans picked UNC to win it all. While understandable, a surprising amount had them losing to Kentucky (Seth Davis). Or clamored that Duke was better or more deserving of a 1-seed. Or didn’t pick them in the Final Four at all (Seth Greenberg). Or went so far as to suggest that UNC was “lucky” to be playing, due to the NCAA’s never ending story (Stewart Mandel). Currently, Gonzaga is the flavor of the day.

To be fair, North Carolina may not win another game all season, but the amount of doubt and uncertainty to this point has been surprising for a team that won the ACC by two full games. I’m sure the 1993 team can relate.

Oh, and that Final Four drought Coach Smith experienced? Before last season, Williams had experienced his own six year hiatus from the sport’s main event. A few untimely injuries, much like the 1980’s, hindered the Heel’s efforts to return to glory. Some early, unplanned entries to the NBA became a minor obstacle as Reggie Bullock, James Michael McAdoo, and PJ Hairston bolted for money and freedom. Unfortunately, social media does exist now, and with each passing year the criticism grew louder. Analytics and instant analysis have made everyone a basketball genius.

That doesn’t even factor the “drop off” in recruiting. After that 2014 class of Berry, Pinson, and Jackson the Heels “only” picked up two recruits in 2015. Neither Kenny WIlliams (this team’s most consistent perimeter defender before a knee injury) or Luke Maye were highly regarded. Tony Bradley was the “only” McDonald’s All-American in the 2016 class. Considering the uncertainty with the NCAA investigation, that kind of recruiting haul over three years is ludicrous.

Regardless, the whispers turned into shouting. “Roy can’t get top talent anymore. The game has passed him by. When is he going to retire? Who’s is going to replace him?”

If the success after the 1993 title are any indication, hopefully he doesn’t leave anytime soon. Few schools get the chance to claim a single legend as their basketball coach. North Carolina can reasonably claim two.

I’d like to enjoy that realization for as long as possible.