The past week our staff has looked at some of the best UNC teams that fell short of winning a national championship. There are plenty of good options, which is a blessing and curse of being a UNC fan.
Over the past 60 years of UNC basketball, each decade has a close-but-no-cigar team.
1967-68? Yup. Evan covered that one on Friday.
1977 against Marquette? Dean himself never fully got over that loss.
1998? Still stings.
2008? I was there in San Antonio. To this day I’m not sure what I truly witnessed.
2012? Stilman White almost became a March Madness legend.
2016? Made 2012 seem like child’s play.
But the 80’s? Oh the 80’s. A plethora of choices. If not for the 1982 title, the national runner-ups in 1981, and Elite Eight losses in 1985, 1987, and 1988 would make this seem like a lost decade.
And yet, in the sea of disappointing season endings, one stands above them all.
There may be few debates in UNC lore that describe the generational gap among fans than the 1984 team. Now 36 years removed from that early March exit, it is always mentioned. With each passing year, though, the impact and true understanding of that season becomes a slightly more distant memory. So, here’s the context.
This team rolled to a 16 game win streak to open the season, before starting freshman point guard Kenny Smith broke his wrist against LSU. He ultimately missed nine games, not returning until the regular season finale against Duke. In those nine games, the Heels ran their record to 21-0 before falling to Arkansas. They regrouped, and finished the season with five more wins.
They entered the postseason with a 26-1 record, 14-0 in the ACC, and #1 in the Coaches and AP polls. (For the young kids, this was well before advanced metrics, KenPom, or the RPI). That was all followed by a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. These numbers gave an aura and media scrutiny to this specific UNC team that is saved only for the greats. Think 2015 Kentucky. 2019 Duke. Maybe 2005 Illinois. You get the point.
Alas, a ACC semi-final loss to Duke and March Madness-style loss to Indiana in what is now known as the Sweet 16, ended the Heels’ season. The loss to Duke has been credited as the spark that turned the Blue Devils into a dynasty. To that point, Dean was 8-1 against Coach K and owned a six game win streak in the rivalry.
Meanwhile, a Sweet 16 flameout was caused by some cold shooting by the Heels, foul trouble for Michael Jordan, and 27 points from Hoosier freshman Steve Alford. Indiana hit 64.9% of their shots, while UNC only shot 41.9% from the floor. Jordan was limited to 26 minutes of action and only dropped 13 points. The 72-68 loss brought a screeching halt to Jordan’s and Sam Perkin’s college careers. (This was before the three-point line was used in the NCAA Tournament).
The season ended with zero tournament titles despite a 28-3 record. So what made this the greatest UNC team to never win a championship?
First and foremost, the star power on this team has rarely been matched on any college program, much less at UNC. They started five McDonald’s All-Americans and had four more on the bench. Three starters had also started on the 1982 title team. This was not like today’s star-studded teams that fall short in a single season before heading to the NBA. These Heels had talent and depth that was rare, even for that time period. Consider this:
- Michael Jordan was the 1984 National Player of the Year.
- Jordan and Sam Perkins were selected with the #3 and #4 picks in the 1984 Draft. Both won a gold medal at the 1984 Summer Olympics.
- Brad Daugherty, then a sophomore, was the #1 overall pick in the 1986 draft
- Kenny Smith (#6) and Joe Wolf (#13) were first-round NBA Draft selections in 1987
- Dave Popson played four years for the Detroit Pistons
- Jordan, Perkins, Daugherty, Smith, and Wolf all earned 1st-Team All-American honors while at Chapel Hill
- Jordan (Chicago Bulls) and Smith (Houston Rockets) won a combined eight NBA titles from 91-98.
- Daugherty, Jordan, and Perkins were named to the ACC 50th Anniversary team in 2002. Only 1982 had as many selections for UNC teams.
In total, there were eight NBA titles, two Olympic gold medals, five first-round NBA draft picks, six NBA players, and seven All-American selections throughout their college careers. That doesn’t include NBA All-Rookie teams and All-Star selections. Few teams can boast that level of college and pro success. This was much more than just Michael Jordan carrying a roster of scrubs.
If this was a situation of overwhelming talent wearing a jersey that never fully gelled, then a lot of this angst would be easier to shrug off. UNC isn’t immune to those seasons. 1994 is often used a prime example. 1984 was different.
This team was good. Arguably, historically good.
Their point differential for the season was +15.3. Only 10 other teams in UNC history were more dominant from a scoring perspective. Three of those won titles (1993, 2005, and 2009). Six of them had a three-point line, shorter shot-clock, or both (1986, 1987, 1991, 1998, 2007, and 2008). Four reached the Final Four (1972, 1991, 1998, and 2008).
That dominance was enhanced by lockdown defense. Teams averaged just 69.8 points against the Heels that season, good for seventh best in UNC history. That number hasn’t been matched by a Tar Heel team since that season.
And that 28-3 record? Good for a 90.3% winning percentage. That’s also seventh best in UNC history, trailing the following juggernauts:
- 1924, 26-0, 100%
- 1957, 32-0, 100%
- 1982, 32-2, 94.1%
- 1923, 15-1, 93.2%
- 2008, 36-3, 92.3%
- 1935, 23-2, 92%
That list is composed of three title teams, four teams before 1960, and 2008. (1987 fell just short with a 32-4 record and 88.9%, good for 13th best).
And those 3 losses? They were by a combined seven points.
Oh, and that 14-0 ACC record? Just one of three UNC teams to go undefeated in ACC play. The 1957 title team and 1987 Elite Eight team also matched that feat.
A few seasons can make a claim as the best team to never win the title. The 1981, 2008, and 2016 squads all eased their pain with a title the following years. The pain of 1991 was eased in 1993. 2012 has a case, but historically speaking, they don’t quite add up to the greats. 1998 and 1987 will always be mentioned, but fall just short. I honestly will always despise Marquette for 1977, and I wasn’t even alive. How do you get mad at 1968 losing to Kareem and Wooden in the midst of their game-altering dynasty?
Truthfully, none of those teams encapsulated all the elements that defined that 1984 team. Dean Smith often said this team was one of the very few he actually believed was the best team in the country, which is hard to say for most of UNC’s other disappointing endings. 1984 was the whole package of greatness being denied.
Talent, depth, future NBA stars, previous championship experience, winning percentage, conference success, and a key injury all came together for one of most emotional “what-if” seasons in UNC history.