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UNC Basketball: The best 1970s and 80s teams that never existed

UNC has a long list of “what if” teams that never materialized.

Buffalo Braves vs. Boston Celtics Photo by Dick Raphael/NBAE via Getty Images

Last week, SBN ran a “What If” theme week. The premise was “what if” specific events in UNC sports history had, or had not, happened. If you missed it, check these links:

Truthfully, we could run an entire month’s worth of material using that prompt. While that idea is not in the plans, I’m going to expand on that theme in a three part series.

Early entrants to the NBA from college have been a part of UNC basketball since the 1970s. Every decade has at least one team that fans can’t help but wonder “what if” a certain player, or players, had come back for just one more year. As I researched the most potent hypothetical team, I realized that UNC actually had teams in every decade since the 1970s that could stake a claim for that distinction.

As such, I’ve broken down the teams-that-never-were into three groups. Part one will cover the 1970s and 80s. Part two touches on the 1990s and 2000s. Part three covers the past 2011-Present.

To be clear, there are a few rules.

  • Recruiting “misses” or impact on recruit commitments are not factored. (So, no, we aren’t retroactively adding Kevin Durant or Brandon Ingram to a roster).
  • Positional backlogs and scholarship limits are irrelevant
  • Injuries never happened. For instance, Kenny Smith never suffered a broken wrist.
  • Early departures can only impact one future team. Joseph Forte technically had two years of eligibility remaining when he left in 2001, but I only take into account a hypothetical 2001-02 junior season. Not a senior year.
  • Teams that were impacted by a national title combined with a mass exodus of players are not listed (2006 and 2010).
  • However, if a title team only lost one or two players, and those players would have significantly impacted the following season, then that player is mentioned (1983 and 2018).

So, with that said, let us begin!


Missing player: Bob McAdoo

The 1971-72 squad fell to Florida State in the Final Four, before defeating Louisville in the now defunct consolation game. Boasting five players who averaged double-digits the ’72 team still looked to return three future NBA draftees in juniors Bob McAdoo and George Karl and sophomore Bobby Jones. Instead, after averaging 19.5 points and 10.1 rebounds, McAdoo departed UNC after just one season. (He originally had transferred from what is now known as Vincennes University, a junior college in Indiana).

The ’73 team finished with a 25-8 record (8-4 ACC), but missed the NCAA tournament. In those days, only the conference tournament champion went to the NCAAT. N.C. State won both the regular season and ACCT in 1973, but was banned from the post season due to violations during David Thompson’s recruiting. Maryland, who finished behind UNC in the regular season but faced State in the ACCT championship, received the bid.

UNC lost a 54-52 overtime contest to Wake Forest in the first round of the ACCT, relegating them to the NIT. In a preview of future ACC match-ups, the Heels fell to Notre Dame in the semi-finals. The Fighting Irish, in turn, fell to Virginia Tech in that title game.

Bob McAdoo went on to win the NBA Rookie of the Year award.


Missing player: James Worthy

UNC had the chance to return four starters from the 1982 champions, with only starting point guard Jimmy Black scheduled to graduate. James Worthy ended that dream when he declared for the NBA draft after his junior season. The decision was validated when the Los Angeles Lakers selected him with the #1 overall pick.

The 1983 team, led by sophomore Michael Jordan and junior Sam Perkins, finished 28-8 (12-2 ACC). However, they ultimately fell to Georgia in what is now known as the Elite Eight. March Madness is aptly named for a reason, and this was the beginning of cruel post-season fortunes for the 1980’s Heels.

A freshman Brad Daugherty averaged an admirable 8.2 points and 5.2 rebounds for the season, but nobody replicated what a senior Worthy would have provided. Worthy was eventually named to the NBA All-Rookie team.


Missing player: Michael Jordan

See above. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

National Player of the Year and two time consensus All-American, Michael Jordan, led the 1984 squad to a 28-3 record (14-0 ACC), but flamed out in the Sweet 16 to Bob Knight’s Indiana Hoosiers. (Last month, I made the argument that the 1984 squad was UNC’s best team to never win a title).

Had Jordan returned for a senior season, the 1984-85 team could have been just as competitive. Sam Perkins graduated, but a sophomore Kenny Smith (12.3 pts, 6.5 ast), and a junior Brad Daugherty (17.3 pts, 9.7 reb) still led UNC to a 27-9 record (9-5 ACC) and an Elite Eight appearance, but the team lacked a true perimeter scoring threat. Jordan would have cured that after averaging 19.6 points as junior. The heels eventually fell to Villanova, who defeated Georgetown in the national title game.

Michael Jordan was named the NBA’s Rookie of the Year and made Second-Team All-NBA.


Missing player: J.R. Reid

Three starters from the 1987-88 team moved on to the NBA, but one of them did so voluntarily. J.R. Reid was the #5 overall pick by the Charlotte Hornets after averaging 15.9 points and 6.3 rebounds as a junior. His inside presence was missed in the 1989-90 season. Though the Heels earned an impressive 29-8 overall record, they struggled to just 9-5 in the ACC, which was good enough for a three-way tie for second and a #4 seed in the ACCT.

That regular season performance earned them a #8 seed in the NCAAT, where Rick Fox’s memorable baseline runner against #1 seeded Oklahoma to send the Heels to the Sweet 16 salvaged a frustrating season. Those Heels had enough offensive firepower in the post with Pete Chilcutt, George Lynch, and Scott Williams, but they struggled on the boards. Williams was the leading rebounder with just 7.3 per game.

Reid, meanwhile, would make the NBA All-Rookie Second Team after averaging 11.1 pts and 8.4 rebounds.