No team in the history of college basketball has defeated more #1s than North Carolina. Twelve. That's how many times a top-ranked team has met its demise at the hands of the Heels. Twelve. That's how many times UNC students have flooded onto Franklin Street to celebrate another giant laid low. Some matchups have been classic battles to the wire, like the 1992 upset of Laettner and undefeated Duke. Others have been beatdowns, like the 1998 evisceration of the Blue Devils at the hands of Jamison and Carter. And others have just been a really dadgum good performance.
For Roy Williams, these wins have been something more: A launching pad. Three times Roy's Boys have taken down #1 and three times players that did so have gone on to win a National Championship. Not the same year, sometimes not even the year after that, but each time, these upsets by young Tar Heel squads have paved the way for them to hang banners as veterans.
2004: #9 UNC- 86, #1 UCONN- 83
This was Roy Williams' first signature win as the Head Coach of North Carolina. Having left Kansas to take over the job from a beleaguered Matt Doherty, Roy inherited a team that had previously gone 8-20 and 19-16, missing the NCAA Tournament both years. The team had plenty of talent, to be sure, but the firing of Doherty and the circumstances in which it happened had caused the team to be labeled coach-killers by the media. The question was whether Roy could mold them into a unit.
The ninth-ranked Tar Heels had showed promise in the early part of the season, with wins over Illinois and Georgia Tech, but they had already lost three close games (a theme for the Heels that year) and they were facing the UConn Huskies, led by All-Americans Emeka Okafor and Ben Gordon. The eventual National Champions were riding an 11-game win streak and looked unstoppable.
The game played out like a heavyweight fight, with both teams going toe-to-toe. Okafor was sensational, going for 29 and 13, blocking six shots, and holding Sean May to 3-14 shooting. But Carolina hounded the Huskies into 21 turnovers and made 20 free throws to UConn's eight.
The hero of the game was a certain swingman wearing #32, whose name I will omit because profanity is not permitted on this site. Suffice to say, he had a very good game, scoring 27 points and hitting the game-winning three.
This was a great win for the Tar Heels because they passed the eye test. UConn was a great team, and Carolina went blow for blow with them. The Huskies didn't play badly and the Heels didn't do anything crazy to win. They showed that they had the potential to be a great team. The following year, that potential was realized when that same core of players won it all.
2006: #15 UNC- 83, #1 Duke- 76
I really don't have to explain why this one was sweet. Redick's Senior Night. The opening of Hansbrough Indoor Stadium. Psycho T's 3. "Disbelief on the Duke bench..."
Outside of the Marvin Williams Game, this is probably every Tar Heel fan's favorite regular season Roy win. In fact, if you're one of those schadenfreude types, this might be #1. This game, much like the entire 2006 season, was like finding money in the dryer. Absolutely no one expected the Heels to come into Cameron and get a W, not against THAT Duke team.
Carolina had lost its seven leading scorers from the 2005 Championship team and had started the season unranked. Duke was preseason #1 and featured not only Redick, the NPOY, but also Sheldon Williams, a first-team All-American. Redick's shots and Sheldon's blocks ruled the ACC that year. UNC had played them tough the previous month in Chapel Hill but Duke had escaped with a W. Most believed that had been Carolina's chance.
But the Tar Heels had come on strong late in the year and, led by Tyler Hansbrough's 27 points, they stunned the Blue Devils. Marcus Ginyard, Danny Green, and captain David Noel dogged the Blue Devils defensively. Ginyard in particular played brilliantly on Redick, holding him to just 5-21 shooting. Williams played well, and Duke made a late charge to try to salvage their senior night, but Carolina held on and iced the game at the foul line.
The winning Tar Heels featured four freshmen; Hansbrough, Green, Ginyard, and Bobby Fraser, who would go on to win the National Championship and finished undefeated in Cameron (except for Ginyard, who redshirted and lost there in 2010). As they walked of the court that night, Dick Vitale declared "They have the makings of a great team."
2013: UNC- 79, #1 Michigan State- 65
The whackiest win of one of the whackiest seasons in Carolina history. The 2013-14 UNC season began as the story of who wasn't playing rather than who was. The suspensions of PJ Hairston and Leslie McDonald (McDonald would rejoin the lineup later in the year) dominated the storylines in Chapel Hill for the first few months of the year.
The other story was how the Tar Heels just couldn't seem to decide if they were a great team or a terrible one. The Heels had tremendous potential, but couldn't shoot consistently and couldn't hit free throws at all. They lost a shocking game to Belmont at home, then followed it up by beating third-ranked, defending champion Louisville two weeks later. The following week, they lost a shocker to UAB, a game where Roy Williams said his team didn't even compete.
Three days later, the Heels were in East Lansing, set to take on the top-ranked Spartans. The sensible expectation was that the Heels would get walloped, but sense was not a word that applied to that team.
From tap to buzzer, the Heels out-hustled, out-muscled, and out-fought a veteran Spartan playing on its home court. Carolina had five players score in double figures, won the rebounding battle 49-38, and even (gasp) out-shot the Spartans at the line, going 19-27. (Seriously, if you think of that season, you remember two things: 1) Marcus Paige turning into Steph Curry during the second half of conference play and 2) The absolute terror of watching that team shoot free throws)
This massive win was the high point of a season with a preposterous number of peaks and valleys. The rest of the year consisted of huge wins against Kentucky and Duke, a 1-4 start to ACC play, a subsequent 11-game win streak, and a gut-wrenching tourney loss to Iowa State. Championship glory would not be in the cards for this particular team.
But top performers that day included Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson, who captained the team to the National Championship game in 2016, and Nate Britt and Kennedy Meeks, who (along with Isaiah Hicks) would captain the team that finished the job in 2017. All four players scored in double figures and showed that, despite their youth and inconsistency, they were capable of playing and beating college basketball's very best. As Roy told the players in the locker room following the victory: "Doesn't get any better than that, boys."