This week, all the leagues around SB Nation are looking back at the teams that were the best to never win a title. We kick our coverage of that topic off with 1998.
One of the (many) ways that the Tar Heel fan base is spoiled when a simple question is posed: what was the best team to never win a national title?
Evan has written before about the 1976-77 team that famously lost to the McGuire Miracle Marquette team. Others will talk wistfully about 1984, or 1987...1991...2012...and those are just the easy ones to name.
But to me, there’s no team that exemplifies this idea of the best team to never win a title than the 1997-98 UNC squad. It could be as simple this was the squad that was on campus when I first entered Carolina, it could be the fact that this squad had Dean Smith retire on them right before the season started and them capping it off with a win would have been a perfect cherry on top, or it could be that there really wasn’t any other really dominant team in college basketball that season.
Honestly, all of that is true, but it really boils down to this: the team was loaded.
Seriously, take a look at this roster. You had the stars in Antawn Jamison and Vince Carter, both juniors who could have gone to the NBA after 1997 but came back for one more crack at the title. You had a freshman in Brendan Haywood, who would go on to have a solid career in the NBA, just stepping onto campus and soaking everything in. Silky smooth Ed Cota was the man in control at point, only a sophomore, and would eventually be one of the few Tar Heels to say he went to the Final Four three times in his career. The wing man was Shammond Williams, a great shooter in the Donald Williams mold who took advantage of the attention the defense had to put on the men down low. Ademola Okulaja was your Swiss-or in this case German-army knife who could slide around in all sorts of places. In short, your glue guy that every great Tar Heel team had. Finally, to clean up down low when Jamison drew all of the attention, you had Makhtar N’Diaye, who had a mean streak and wouldn't take any talk from anyone. It got him in trouble, sure, but sometimes you need someone who’s willing to throw down.
A quick peek at Sports Reference shows that five players on that team played in the NBA, and four of them were upperclassmen by that point. The closest comparison you could make would be with the 1982 team, in both actual depth and those who made the NBA team, of course the biggest difference being that two players have their jerseys retired from that squad, whereas only one, Jamison, has his hanging amongst the front row with the retired numbers. The other difference? 1982 won a title.
The ‘97-’98 squad is unique in a lot of ways. It’s right around the time high schoolers started declaring for the NBA draft, and this Tar Heel squad was one of the last that would have to have significant NBA talent stay through three years. Others before and since would at least have one title they could claim. It was also one of only three squads to be fully coached by Bill Guthridge, who ascended to the coaching chair when Dean Smith suddenly retired right before the start of the season, and that combined with the squad coming up short in 1997 made this team feel like it was on a mission to take it all down in San Antonio.
I was a freshman that year, and needless to say, going to the Smith Center was a ton of fun. The squad only lost three times in the regular season, two times on the road, and only to NC State in Chapel Hill. I also got to experience my first Duke/UNC game in person and the subsequent Franklin Street rush as the Tar Heels completely dominated the Blue Devils and won by 24 points. While the Tar Heels stumbled going into the ACC Tournament, they focused and steamrolled Duke again to win the title. The tournament was in Greensboro, which coincidentally was the home of the East Regional that season, and it was well established that whomever won the ACC would get the cherry placement of playing in Greensboro for the right to head to San Antonio. Sure enough, Duke was sent to Tampa instead, and couldn’t get past Kentucky to try and get a fourth meeting with the Tar Heels.
The closest team to come to beating Carolina in the NCAA Tournament was UConn in the East Regional Final, but even then the Tar Heels won by double digits. The bracket even swung favorably for them, as the defending national champion Arizona Wildcats had been upended by the third-seeded Utes of Utah, and Carolina would be the only top seed to make it to San Antonio. Needless to say, everyone felt pretty confident going forward.
So what happened?
Perhaps the biggest criticism one could lay at the result was in Coach Gut’s “Starting Six.” Jamison, Carter, N’Diaye, Okulaja, Williams, and Cota all deserved the start, per Gut, so throughout the season he would rotate who actually would be on the floor. For the Final Four game, that meant Shammond Williams was on the bench to start the game, and N’Diaye was in. N’Diaye couldn’t stay out of foul trouble, a cold Williams couldn't hit from outside, only going 1-9 from three in the Alamodome, and Utah was able to control the pace, as well as go 12-22 from the free throw line while Carolina only attempted seven free throws, only making two.
Carter and Jamison did what they could. Carter led the team with 21 points in his final game wearing the uniform and Jamison had another double double with 14 points and 12 boards. The problem was they just couldn’t get consistent scoring from anyone else, and even though Utah shot just 44% from the floor, the Heels were a worse 39%, and by the end Jamison was kissing center court, a sure sign he had played his last college game.
What burns so much is that unlike so many other teams that you could name, you can’t point to just a singular reason. You can’t point to an injury earlier in the year, or to a coaching decision at the end of the game that is the main reason why the team lost. Yes, the Starting Six was probably a mistake, but even if Williams didn't come off the bench, would he have shot better than 1-9 from three? Jamison was one of the best to ever wear a Tar Heel uniform, but he could only get 14 points? Only seven trips to the free throw line? It was just a perfect stew that defies an easy explanation.
In short, more than any other team, the 1998 squad had it all set up for them: the field had been cleared, they had the best talent, the most experience, and the motivation to see it through to the end. Yet, just like the year before, they came up short, and you really can’t point to a single reason why. Somehow, though, when the “best teams” discussion comes up, this squad is hardly ever mentioned.
That loss was such a key turning point for Carolina Basketball, too. There’s been speculation that had that team won, Guthridge would have joined Smith in retirement. Then Roy Williams, who was not getting along well with his Athletic Director at the time, would have made the move over to Chapel Hill, creating a smooth transition. Instead, Guthridge decided he wanted a couple more cracks at it He would get to the NCAA Tournament again in ‘99 and the Final Four in 2000. However, because it wasn’t known how long he would actually lead the team, he was unable to recruit young talent, and that would eventually lead to the 2001-02 season being so rough. It also allowed Williams to get more comfortable at Kansas, leading to the embarrassing coaching search that resulted in Matt Doherty before the 2000-01 season.
Other titles would have been great, but no other team that failed to win a title has this combination of “how did that happen?” with “what would have happened?” It’s why that loss still stings to this day, and why when I go to the Smith Center and see “33” and “15” fluttering in the rafters, I feel sad that they were never able to hold that trophy. That was a fun squad, in style and attitude. They deserved better.