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Tar Heel Firsts: Dean Smith’s first NCAA Tournament

Long before winning national titles or getting an arena named after him, Dean Smith was a sixth year coach taking a team to the NCAA Tournament for the first time.

North Carolina Tar Heels Championship Welcome Rally Photo by Sara D. Davis/Getty Images

The university had already won a NCAA Tournament championship when North Carolina began play for the 1966-67 basketball season, but the program was in an interesting place.

A couple years prior, Frank McGuire had been forced out as Carolina head coach following a recruiting scandal, and his assistant Dean Smith was hired. The first couple years of his tenure didn’t produce immediate results and he was famously hung in effigy following a loss to Wake Forest. His Tar Heel team finished that season and the next one with winning records, but they had yet to play, let alone have any sort of success, in the postseason. They appeared going in the right direction, but considering the amount of heat he was under not long before that, there were no guarantees about Smith having long term success in Chapel Hill.

The 1966-67 season ensured that there all those questions vanished and never reappeared again.

The Tar Heels returned star players Larry Miller and Bob Lewis from the previous year’s team that went 16-11, while Rusty Clark, Dick Grubar, and Bill Bunting back eligible, as we were still in the time when freshman couldn’t play.

Those factors brought some high expectations, as UNC went into the season ranked #9 in the preseason AP Poll. Those expectations only rose when the Heels started the season 9-0. Those nine included a home win over Clemson (remember when those used to happen) and a big victory on the road at then #4 Kentucky.

The first setback came on January 2nd, when the Heels lost by 10 at home to Princeton. However, they followed that with a seven-game winning streak, that saw the Heels move all the way up to second in the AP Poll. The only team they were behind was John Wooden’s UCLA, who were led by some guy named Lew Alcindor.

They would drop three more in the regular season, but still won most of their games down the stretch. UNC finished the regular season with a 21-4 record and 12-2, which was good for first in the ACC. However despite all the good that happened, this was still the era where only conference champions went to the NCAA Tournament, and the ACC crowned their champion via the conference tournament. That meant that despite the strong record and high ranking, their NCAA Tournament hopes still came down to three neutral site games.

Their first opponent was NC State, who finished dead last in the conference, and got swept by UNC in the regular season. One of their matchups was close, but the other was a blowout win for the Tar Heels. Despite the gap, the Wolfpack played them right down to the wire. The game was tied at the half before Carolina finally pulled out a three-point win.

UNC actually trailed at the half in the semifinals before rallying to beat Wake Forest by 10. In order to complete the tournament win, the Heels would have to face off against another in-state team, as Duke was waiting for them. There finally wouldn’t be much dramatics as UNC mostly handled the Blue Devils, eventually winning by nine to get an NCAA Tournament bid.

The restrictive nature of those early NCAA Tournaments meant that the nearly every matchup was tricky. Plus back then, the geographical regions were pretty strictly adhered to. That means that UNC faced an extremely difficult East Region in the 1967 NCAA Tournament. Despite going in ranked #4 in the country, their opening opponent was the #5 Princeton team that beat them earlier that season.

The two teams were close all night, with UNC leading by one at the half, and the game eventually going into overtime. They eventually pulled away in the extra period, winning by eight. Their reward for beating a top five team in their first game? An Elite Eight matchup against a top 10 team.

Coached by Celtics legend Bob Cousy, Boston College were 21-2 going into their game against UNC. The Eagles were led by forward Steve Adelman, who was averaging 19 points and seven rebounds.

Against UNC bigs, Adelman scored just nine points on 4-12 shooting. The game was close at the half, but the Tar Heels blew out BC in the second, winning by 16. Miller scored 22 points, while Clark had 18 and 18 rebounds. Carolina advanced all the way to the Final Four in their first NCAA Tournament appearance since their 1957 championship.

Things didn’t go as well at the Final Four, as they lost to Dayton, and then also fell in the third place game back when that was still a thing. However, any season that ends in a Final Four is a pretty good one, and as a whole, it represented a turning point.

From that point forward only four of Smith’s UNC teams didn’t play in the NCAA Tournament. After the field was expanded to include non-conference champions in 1975, he led them there every season, winning two national championships.

Considering his records, it’s safe to say that Smith would have had plenty of success. However, if things go differently in this season, who know the butterfly effect that happens after that. Maybe, he never gets the chance to prove how good he was.