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UNC basketball: Looking back on the Tar Heels’ previous title defense seasons

The Tar Heels have never repeated as NCAA champions. How have they performed in previous years defending the title?

North Carolina Tar Heels v Duke Blue Devils Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

For the sixth time since the first NCAA men’s basketball tournament, the North Carolina Tar Heels will enter the season as defending champions. UNC has never repeated as a champion in its history, and the last time any team did it was when the Florida Gators accomplished it in 2006 and 2007.

With some significant roster turnover at key positions (goodbye Justin Jackson, Isaiah Hicks, Kennedy Meeks, and Tony Bradley), the Heels will not necessarily be favored to repeat. New pieces (hello Jalek Felton, Cameron Johnson, Garrison Brooks, and Sterling Manley) will at the very least put the Tar Heels in the national conversation.

In the past, though, how have the Heels performed in the seasons they have donned their title belt? Let’s go through them in chronological order and see if any trends pop up.

1956-57 season

Who won the belt? Led by small forward Lennie Rosenbluth and coach Frank McGuire, the Heels went 32-0 and won their first title of the tournament era by defeating Wilt Chamberlain’s Kansas team in a triple-overtime thriller.

Key departures: Rosenbluth and his 28 points per game (still a UNC record) graduated. The team also graduated rotational players Tony Radovich (3.9 ppg) and Bob Young (1.9 ppg), but no one’s departure was felt more than Rosenbluth’s.

Key returns: A pair of juniors, Pete Brennan and Tommy Kearns, were second and third respectively in points per game during the title season. As seniors, they were first and second respectively, with 21.3 ppg and 14.9 ppg. Brennan, in fact, averaged a double-double with 11.7 rebounds. Kearns, however, was the one who eventually got to see his #40 raised into the rafters.

Key additions: As you may or may not know, freshmen were not permitted to play varsity basketball at this point in NCAA history. So UNC’s key additions were actually sophomores. Forward Lee Shaffer and guard Harvey Salz each averaged double-digit points per game in their maiden seasons with the varsity team.

How did the title defense go? Not well. Without Rosenbluth, the team dropped from 79 to 72 points per game, although they did improve their points allowed per game by a fraction of a point. The loss of offense was enough to drop the team from undefeated the year before to a 19-7 record. The season ended in the ACC Tournament Final against Maryland 86-74, a game the Heels needed to make the NCAA Tournament. That loss kept the Heels from even being able to defend their title at all.

1982-83 season

Who won the belt?

Key departures: James Worthy could have potentially returned for the chance to win back-to-back titles, but he elected to enter the NBA Draft at the peak of his abilities, where he was drafted #1 overall by the Lakers. Jimmy Black, who started at point guard for the National Championship team, graduated.

Key returns: Michael Jordan (13.5 ppg as a freshman) could have potentially been one of the first one-and-dones, but he returned for his sophomore season. Sam Perkins (led the title team in rebounding) and Matt Doherty (9/3/3 splits) returned for their junior years.

Key additions: The big addition (in more ways than one) was center Brad Daugherty. The seven-footer was a bona fide center—something the title team lacked, as their tallest player with any consistent time was Perkins at six-foot-nine. Daugherty averaged 14 points and nine rebounds every 40 minutes, and played four years at Carolina until he was taken #1 overall by the Cleveland Cavaliers in 1986. Other new faces included guard Steve Hale and forward Curtis Hunter, both of whom saw the court little as freshman but would see their roles increase as they grew older.

How did the title defense go? It started off poorly with the Heels losing their first two games to St. John’s and Missouri. There were some growing pains involved with changing the offense to accommodate a true center. However, the Heels rattled off 18 straight wins later in the season and finished a respectable 28-8, which was only a four-game drop in terms of performance from the title year.

It just wasn’t meant to be come tournament time, though. In the ACC Tournament the Heels lost in overtime to NC State. Of course, State went on to win the title as a #6 seed. UNC bowed out to Georgia in the Sweet 16. Michael Jordan fouled out of his last game as a Tar Heel with 26 points, and the rest is history.

EDIT: Somehow I forgot Michael Jordan’s junior season entirely. Whoops!

1993-94 season

Who won the belt? A gritty team led by junior Eric Montross (15.8 ppg), senior George Lynch (14.7), and sophomore Donald Williams (14.3) tore through the NCAA, going 32-4 and scoring 86 points a game as a team. Of course, the end is what makes the story, and Dean Smith won his second title when they met the Fab Five of Michigan, and Chris Webber called an unfortunate and nonexistent timeout.

Key departures: This team was honestly built largely around youth. Only two players who saw significant playing time graduated: Lynch and current coach of the German national basketball team Henrik Rödl. No players forfeited any eligibility to enter the draft. The team only had to replace 24 points per game.

Key returns: Montross and Williams returned for their senior and junior seasons, respectively. Williams had actually won Most Outstanding Player for the title team and, in fact, averaged exactly as many points per game in his junior season as he did in his sophomore season. Montross’ average went down but he still performed well enough to get drafted by the Celtics and carve out a decent pro career.

Key additions: Here’s where the What Ifs start buzzing. Two freshmen averaged over twenty minutes a game: Jerry Stackhouse and Rasheed Wallace. The team brought back most of its talent and added two of the most promising freshmen in the history of the program. Stack and Sheed ended up in the Final Four their sophomore season, and then both declared for the 1995 NBA draft, going 3rd and 4th respectively.

How did the title defense go? The Heels didn’t have as strong a regular season as they did in the title year, slipping to 28-7, but they were ranked in the top 5 of the AP Poll every week in the regular season, finished as the #1 ranked team, earned a #1 seed in the NCAA tournament, and then things went east.

I say east because the Tar Heels did not even make it out of the first weekend of the East regional. The Heels were ousted by 9th-seeded Boston College 75-72, the key statistic being the Eagles sinking 12 three-pointers to UNC’s four. The Eagles made it to the Elite Eight before falling to Florida, and the Heels were left to wonder what could have been.

2005-06 season

Who won the belt? A loss in the first game to unheralded Santa Clara didn’t rattle these Heels. Although their pro careers turned out to be of varying lengths and qualities, there’s no doubt that Raymond Felton, Sean May, Marvin Williams, and Rashad McCants were an unstoppable force when they were all playing at their best. That team beat a Deron Williams-led Illinois team 75-70 to give Roy Williams his first championship. And then...

Key departures: Practically everyone left. Felton, May, and McCants were juniors and Marvin Williams was a freshman. All four declared for the draft and all four went in the lottery. The Heels also saw seniors Jawad Williams, Jackie Manuel, and Melvin Scott graduate. Over 80% of the Heels’ point production (77.5 out of 88, which led the entire NCAA in 2004-05) either graduated or left for the draft.

Key returns: That left rising senior David Noel as the leading scorer to return, with a whopping 3.9 points per game in 16.9 minutes per game. Some other key cogs who would go on to play larger roles for the Heels would be Wes Miller and Reyshawn Terry.

Key additions: Despite turning over almost their entire team, these Heels were STACKED with top-level recruits. Marcus Ginyard was a defensive menace, Danny Green was a sharpshooting maestro who could play the 2 or the 3, and Bobby Frasor was a highly regarded combo guard. But there was also one of the most highly touted recruits in Carolina history: Tyler Hansborough. Hold these thoughts.

How did the title defense go? For a team that was employing so many freshmen in significant roles, thing turned out pretty decent. 23-8 was a marked drop-off from 33-4, but the Heels showed a ton of promise for the future even though it didn’t all come together right away. Hansborough won ACC Rookie of the year and was named 1st team All-ACC. The season peaked with an emotional win in the regular season finale in Cameron Indoor Stadium against #1-ranked Duke.

Unfortunately,, another early exit against Boston College derailed the season, although this one came in the ACC Tournament and not the NCAA Tournament. But this wasn’t the year for Carolina, period. They earned a 3-seed but were victimized in the first weekend by the 11-seed George Mason Patriots on their Cinderella run to the Final Four.

2009-10 season

Who won the belt? Remember those four guys who joined that title defense team as star freshmen? They stuck around for a while. In their senior season, helped out by juniors like Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellington as well as some freshmen like Larry Drew, Tyler Zeller, and Ed Davis, the Heels posted one of the most dominating NCAA Tournament performances of all time, winning every single game by double digits.

Key departures: As it turns out, seniors graduate. Lawson and Ellington also declared for the draft, and UNC yet again faced the task of having to rebuild and lean heavily on youth.

Key returns: That youth turned out pretty alright, though. Drew, Zeller, and Davis all returned for their sophomore years, already with a championship experience under their belts. Deon Thompson also returned for his senior year. It wasn’t quite so dour a situation as having to replace four fifths of the production.

Key arrivals: There were some more highly touted freshmen to come in and ease the load. The most notable of these freshmen was power forward John Henson, but he was followed to Chapel Hill by shooting guards Dexter Strickland and Leslie McDonald. The Wear twins from California also decided to stop by Chapel Hill for a visit.

How did the title defense go? Well, the Heels almost won a title. It just wasn’t the title. It was a rough, rough year for UNC, going 20-17 and a horrendous 5-11 in conference play. It was second only to the 8-20 year of 2001-02 in terms of poor performance. Then, after a first-round exit in the ACC Tournament, things seemed to come together.

The Heels were invited to the NIT after missing out on the NCAA Tournament (let’s not talk about the 2010 NCAA Tournament at all, in fact). There, they put together a nice winning streak before falling to the Dayton Fliers in the final.

What does this all tell us?

Five seasons is a small sample size to draw from, but we do notice some things. In recent years, the Heels have had to replace a lot of production, while in the more distant past they actually reloaded already strong returning rosters. The furthest the Heels have went in the NCAA Tournament in a title defense season is the Sweet 16, and it only happened once. The Heels failed to make it out of the first weekend two other times and failed to make the tournament at all in the other two.

The biggest dropoff in terms of wins was from 2009 to 2010, when the Heels dropped from 34 to 20. In all five title defense seasons, the Heels still had the coach who led them to the title they were defending. Of the four Heels to win MOP in their title years (Worthy, Williams, May, Ellington), only one (Williams) was still with the team the next year. Wilt Chamberlain was named MOP in 1957 despite playing for the losing team.

Overall, previous UNC teams have performed admirably in the regular season following their national titles despite a perhaps-expected dropoff in play. When March rolls around, teams generally fail to meet expectations. Hopefully this year will be the exception!