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One of the Best Teams to Never Win it: The 1968 Tar Heels

In the midst of three consecutive Final Fours, the ‘68 Heels were the NCAA Runner-Up.

North Carolina Tar Heels
Charles “Charlie” Scott #33
Photo by Collegiate Images via Getty Images

In 1968, 68 teams did not make the NCAA Tournament.

Before 1975, just one team per conference, almost always the conference champions, were invited to the NCAA Tournament. For the ACC, starting in the 1961-62 season, the conference tournament champions were the official conference champion and the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.

Some great ACC teams were not able to compete for an NCAA title back in those days. And the creation of at-large bids as we know it today was because of the ACC.

For example, the 1970-71 Tar Heels were the ACC regular-season champions but lost in the ACC Tournament final to South Carolina. Carolina, not allowed in the NCAA Tournament, went on to win the 1971 NIT.

The final straw for the NCAA was the 1974 ACC season. During the ACC Tournament, Carolina was ranked sixth in the nation, Maryland was fourth, and NC State was first. The overtime thriller in the ACC Tournament final between eventual winner NC State and Maryland is one of the greatest games in conference history.

That stacked Maryland team and a Bobby Jones-led UNC squad that finished with a final AP ranking of eighth were denied entry to the NCAA Tournament. The next season, at-large teams were placed in the tournament.

This history is critical to understanding how good the North Carolina Tar Heels were in the late 1960s.

In the 1960s, the ACC, in contrast to other conferences at the time, was not dominated by one or two teams. In the first 13 seasons of the ACC Tournament through the 1966 season, five different teams won the conference.

Each of those tournaments had at least one nationally ranked team, with seven ACC Tournaments having more than one team ranked. In 1956 and 1958, four ACC teams were nationally ranked during the ACC Tournament.

All this to say that an ACC Tournament crown, and therefore a bid to the NCAA Tournament, was no easy task.

When Coach Dean Smith won the first of his 13 ACC Tournaments, it was the beginning of a streak that remains impressive today.

NCAA Photos Archive

The streak was three consecutive seasons as the ACC Regular Season and ACC Tournament Champion and participant in the Final Four. This is the only time this has occurred in ACC history.

These teams had some of the iconic names in Carolina lore. The next time we can gather in the Smith Center for a game, look to the rafters and find their jerseys.

Bob Lewis, a senior in 1967 who still holds the UNC single-game scoring record with 49 points, averaged 18.5 points that year. Remember- freshmen could not play on the varsity squad back in those days. Rusty Clark, in his first year of eligibility as a sophomore, averaged 14 points and ten rebounds.

The 1968-69 team, certainly the most seasoned and perhaps the most talented of the three, had four scorers average double digits that year. If Dick Grubar did not receive his season-ending knee injury in the 1969 ACC Tournament final against Duke, a rematch against UCLA in 1969 was a definite possibility.

Although each of those three teams could have made this list, the 1967-68 team stands above the other two due to their appearance in the National Championship game.

UNC Basketball 1967-68 Roster and Overall Stats

Player Class Pos Height Summary
Player Class Pos Height Summary
Larry Miller SR F 6-4 22.4 Pts, 8.1 Reb
Charlie Scott SO G 6-5 17.6 Pts, 6.0 Reb
Rusty Clark JR C 6-10 15.8 Pts, 11.0 Reb
Dick Grubar JR G 6-4 8.1 Pts, 3.0 Reb
Bill Bunting JR F 6-8 7.9 Pts, 6.0 Reb
Joe Brown JR F 6-5 6.3 Pts, 4.1 Reb
Eddie Fogler SO G 5-11 2.2 Pts, 1.1 Reb
Gerald Tuttle JR G 6-0 1.7 Pts, 0.7 Reb
Ralph Fletcher SR F 6-5 1.8 Pts, 1.3 Reb
Jim Delany SO G 6-0 1.4 Pts, 0.3 Reb
Jim Frye SR F 6-5 1.5 Pts, 0.5 Reb
Gra Whitehead SO G 6-4 0.3 Pts, 0.1 Reb
Ricky Webb SO G 6-3 0.3 Pts, 0.3 Reb

Larry Miller, a senior in 1968, was one of the most important recruits of Smith’s career. From Woody Durham, Voice of the Tar Heels, in Carolina Basketball: A Century of Excellence:

The Miller recruitment was when everybody started believing, “Hey, this guy can coach and he can recruit.”

The book describes the importance of those mid-60s recruits:

Smith also found success on the recruiting trail, wrestling Larry Miller away from Duke in the first big recruiting victory of his tenure ... Although Miller was a marquee addition, Smith’s first signature recruiting class came before the 1967 season, when he landed guard Dick Grubar and post man Rusty Clark - one of the first true big men to pick the Tar Heels under Smith. Clark’s addition transformed Carolina from a scrappy, undersized team to a group with good size at every position.

Miller, Rusty Clark, and sophomore Charles Scott led the team. Each averaged double figures in points throughout the entire season, with Clark averaging a double-double on the year.

University of North Carolina Tar Heels
January 6, 1968 - Rusty Clark and No. 3 UNC versus Duke at Carmichael Auditorium. UNC wins 75–72.
Photo by North Carolina/Collegiate Images via Getty Images

In a tale that is as old as time, Carolina had a tough schedule that season. In the first seven games of the season, four opponents were ranked in the AP Top 10. UNC won three of those four games.

After a loss in the third game of the season in a true road game against eighth-ranked Vanderbilt, the Tar Heels went on a 20-game winning streak.

UNC Basketball 1967-68 Regular Season Results

Date Opponent Conference Result UNC Opponent OT Streak UNC AP Rank Location Notes
Date Opponent Conference Result UNC Opponent OT Streak UNC AP Rank Location Notes
Sat, Dec 2, 1967 Virginia Tech Ind. W 89 76 W 1 4 Chapel Hill, NC
Wed, Dec 6, 1967 Kent State MAC W 107 83 W 2 5 Chapel Hill, NC
Sat, Dec 9, 1967 No. 8 Vanderbilt SEC L 76 89 L 1 5 Nashville, TN
Tue, Dec 12, 1967 No. 4 Kentucky SEC W 84 77 W 1 5 Greensboro, NC
Sat, Dec 16, 1967 No. 10 Princeton Ivy W 71 63 W 2 7 Greensboro, NC
Thu, Dec 28, 1967 Stanford AAWU W 87 78 W 3 5 Far West Classic, Portland, OR
Fri, Dec 29, 1967 No. 7 Utah WAC W 86 84 W 4 5 Far West Classic, Portland, OR
Sat, Dec 30, 1967 Oregon State AAWU W 68 61 W 5 5 Far West Classic, Portland, OR
Wed, Jan 3, 1968 Wake Forest ACC W 74 62 W 6 3 Chapel Hill, NC
Sat, Jan 6, 1968 Duke ACC W 75 72 W 7 3 Chapel Hill, NC
Wed, Jan 10, 1968 North Carolina State ACC W 68 66 W 8 3 Raleigh, NC
Sat, Jan 13, 1968 Clemson ACC W 115 83 W 9 3 Clemson, SC
Sat, Jan 27, 1968 Georgia Tech Ind. W 82 54 W 10 3 Charlotte, NC
Thu, Feb 1, 1968 Florida State Ind. W 86 80 W 11 3 Chapel Hill, NC
Sat, Feb 3, 1968 Maryland ACC W 73 67 W 12 3 College Park, MD
Tue, Feb 6, 1968 Virginia ACC W 108 64 W 13 3 Chapel Hill, NC
Thu, Feb 8, 1968 Wake Forest ACC W 80 60 W 14 3 Winston-Salem, NC
Sat, Feb 10, 1968 Virginia Tech Ind. W 80 70 W 15 3 Blacksburg, VA
Mon, Feb 12, 1968 North Carolina State ACC W 96 84 W 16 3 Chapel Hill, NC
Fri, Feb 16, 1968 Clemson ACC W 96 74 W 17 3 North-South Doubleheader, Charlotte, NC
Sat, Feb 17, 1968 South Carolina ACC W 84 80 W 18 3 North-South Doubleheader, Charlotte, NC
Wed, Feb 21, 1968 Maryland ACC W 83 60 W 19 3 Chapel Hill, NC
Sat, Feb 24, 1968 Virginia ACC W 92 74 W 20 3 Charlottesville, VA
Wed, Feb 28, 1968 South Carolina ACC L 86 87 L 1 3 Chapel Hill, NC
Sat, Mar 2, 1968 No. 10 Duke ACC L 86 87 3OT L 2 3 Durham, NC

The Tar Heels stumbled in the final two games, losing by a margin of two combined points. In the triple-overtime regular-season finale against Duke, Miller played all 55 minutes for UNC. This was not the way Carolina wanted to enter the pivotal ACC Tournament.

The 1968 ACC Tournament was the first held in Charlotte. But more notably, that year’s tournament likely stands out to longtime ACC fans as the one with the infamous 12-10 NC State victory over Duke in the semifinals.

After handling Wake Forest in the quarterfinals, the top-seeded Tar Heels faced off against a familiar face in Frank McGuire and South Carolina. The Gamecocks were victorious against Carolina just over a week prior.

In the semifinals, Carolina was able to sneak by South Carolina 82-79 in overtime. This victory set up UNC versus NC State in the ACC Tournament final.

Smith describes that ACC Tournament final game in his book The Carolina Way:

In the 1968 ACC championship game against NC State in the Charlotte Coliseum, we led at halftime by a few points but had played well below our standards. I thought we had played tentatively and tight. A repeat performance in the second half could have cost us the game and a trip to the NCAA Tournament, even though we had won the ACC regular-season championship. There was a lot of pressure on the players. I didn’t spend much time in the locker room during that halftime. “I know you guys can play better,” I said. “It’s your team, so sit in here for the rest of halftime and decide how you’re going to do it and how badly you want to do it.” I left. We played a sensational second half and won, 87-50. I later was told that two of our players, senior Larry Miller and junior Franklin Clark, led the halftime discussion and got our team fired up and ready to go.

The 87-50 victory over NC State remains the largest margin of victory in ACC championship game history.

University of North Carolina Tar Heels
Rusty Clark cuts the nets for the Tar Heels in 1968.
Photo by North Carolina/Collegiate Images via Getty Images

After a second-straight ACC Championship, the Tar Heels were on another trip to the NCAA Tournament. However, another oddity in the mid-century version of March Madness put more pressure on the Tar Heels.

The 23-team NCAA Tournament was divided into four regions: East, Mideast, Midwest, and West. Prior to the season, first-round seedings were predetermined. Before the first game of the regular season, the NCAA decided that the ACC Champions would play an independent team from the East Coast.

The No. 4 Tar Heels were to face an independent school in their first game. UNC drew No. 3 and undefeated St. Bonaventure in the East Region Semifinals.

Fortunately, UNC was able to slow down, but not stop, future first overall draft pick and Hall of Famer Bob Lanier. The dominant center scored 23 points and took down nine rebounds against Carolina.

Yet, Miller was better that day. The senior scored 27 points and pulled down 16 rebounds. Both Scott and Clark went 9-13 from the floor. Scott scored 21 while Clark recorded a double-double with 18 points and ten rebounds.

The East Regional Final was an intriguing match up. Sophomore Scott, in his first year on the court, faced off against the team and coach to which he initially committed.

Perhaps the flip of Scott by Smith from Davidson head coach Lefty Driesell was the first galvanizing moment of what became a decades-long rivalry.

North Carolina Tar Heels
Charlie Scott #33
Photo by Collegiate Images via Getty Images

Davidson, to the delight of Driesell, came out firing against the Tar Heels. The Wildcats led UNC by six at the half.

Carolina was much better on offense in the second half, led by Clark’s 22 points and 17 rebounds. UNC won 70-66, and Miller earned the East Region MVP.

The 1968 Final Four in Los Angeles featured Carolina, Ohio State, Houston, and UCLA.

All eyes were on the national semifinal game between UCLA and Houston. On January 20, 1968, the two teams faced off in what became known as the Game of the Century.

UCLA was ranked atop the AP Poll and riding a 47-game winning streak. The No. 2 Cougars were the host of the first prime time, nationwide broadcast of an NCAA regular-season game. Houston won 71-69 in a thriller in the Astrodome.

But the Tar Heels needed to focus on the Buckeyes. The Tar Heels had a balanced attack with each of their starters, Miller, Clark, Scott, Grubar, and Bill Bunting, scoring in double figures. UNC took a seven-point halftime lead and turned it into a resounding 80-66 victory.

After the victory, Smith allowed the team to watch the UCLA-Houston game. Smith admitted, “it was the only time I ever let our players scout an opponent in person.”

UCLA dominated Houston 101-69 to advance to their fourth national championship game in five years.

There is no better recap of that 1968 National Championship game than from Smith in his book A Coach’s Life:

The well-coached Bruins had a complete team: offense, defense, rebounding. What’s more, we would have to play them before a packed crowd in the L.A. Sports Arena, which was really like a home game for them since their fans had virtually all of the tickets. I decided our best chance to win would be to shorten the game. I’m sure it wasn’t a popular decision among our confident players, but it was still our best chance to win against a truly great UCLA team. We successfully started out in the Four Corners. We slowed the pace, and they went to a 1-3-1 trap defense, which was perfect for us. Unfortunately, the “one” under the basket was [Lew] Alcindor. He scored 34 points, hitting 17 of 21 from the field. He was also an intimidating force under the basket, making it hard for us to get any uncontested shots within ten feet of the basket. Along with that, he had most of the defensive rebounds. We played excellent defense on their great guards. In the second half, we abandoned the Four Corners, which may have been a mistake on my part, but UCLA had the talent and coaching to answer any challenge. The final score was 78-55, and afterward I said: “UCLA has to be the best basketball team ever assembled.”

After the game, Miller was the only non-UCLA player named to the NCAA All-Tournament team. He was able to put that on his trophy shelf with his back-to-back ACC Player of the Year and ACC Tournament MVP awards.

In 1977 or 2012, critical injuries derailed title hopes. In 1984 or 1998, a bad game at the wrong moment took down the best team in the country.

The 1968 team is not like some of those other “almost” teams in UNC history. The teams from 1966 to 1969 provided the collegiate basketball landscape the first peek at the greatest of Smith. These teams were balanced and were composed of legendary players.

The 1968 was deserving of the chance to play for a national title. Unfortunately, all of college basketball was in the middle of one of the greatest dynasties in sports history. If only this team was in another spot on the timeline, or a recruit committed somewhere else, or the ball bounced the other direction...