With the high drama of the 2008 Final Four ended, North Carolina, Duke and Maryland were three of only six programs in America (along with Florida, Michigan State and Kansas) with both an NCAA title and multiple Final Four appearances since 1999.
By Al Featherston
April 8, 2008
North Carolina's basketball program has established an unparalleled record of consistency over the last half-century.
Ever since coach Frank McGuire's "Four Catholics and a Jew" first cracked the national rankings in the second week of the 1955-56 season, the Tar Heels have been a fixture in the Associated Press poll and on the national scene. UNC has appeared in the rankings at some point in 50 of the last 53 seasons and finished in the final AP poll 43 times in those 53 years.
No other program has been ranked as often in the last half-century.
Yet for all of North Carolina's sustained success, the Tar Heels don't have a decade they can call their own. Pick a 10-year period at random, since the mid-point in the last century, and Carolina is certain to belong among the elite teams for that 10-year period elite, yes, but never quite at the top.
That could be about to change.
As the first decade of the 21st century nears its end, UNC is positioned to challenge for the title of "Team of the Decade." The Tar Heels arrived at the 2008 Final Four in San Antonio hot on the heels of Florida for all-decade honors. Regardless of the Heels' national semifinal loss to Kansas, the race will not be settled until after the 2009 Final Four next spring in Detroit.
UNC is not the only program chasing the Gators for "Team of the Decade" honors. Duke, despite its recent disappointments on the national level, remains very much on the hunt, along with the Big Ten's most consistent power and contenders from the Big East, Pac-10 and Big 12.
Florida, trying to cling to a slim lead in the competition after its back-to-back national titles in 2006 and 2007, certainly has a chance to polish its résumé in the last season of the decade as well.
TEAM OF DECADE DEFINITION
Obviously, picking a "Team of the Decade" is an arbitrary exercise. You might just as easily designate the dominant team in seven-year segments, or pick the 10-year span between years ending with "3."
But "Team of the Decade" fits the way most of us think. We like to view history in neat packages. Looking at past events by decades is certainly a reasonable way to order events.
It's not as simple to define the qualities that we're looking for in our "Team of the Decade." There's no tournament to decide things on the court and no end-of-decade poll to light the way. Hey, we're doing this for fun, so let's have fun. Let's look back over recent history and make our own judgments.
National championships, obviously, play a huge role in our deliberations. After all, that's the goal that every team strives for every season. It's the ultimate achievement for any player or coach.
For example, just to look at a single season: Would anybody trade the kind of year Houston had in 1983 (31-3 record, No. 1 nationally in the final AP poll) with N.C. State's 1983 season (26-10, No. 16 in the final poll)?
Of course we would because we know the Cardiac Pack beat the more accomplished Cougars in the national title game. State had the better season.
In broader terms, that translates into decades, too. Championships matter a lot.
But even the trophies can't be the be-all and end-all of our deliberations. Sustained success in this case, meaning consistency over a 10-year period matters, too. It may take a lot of Final Four appearances and/or No. 1 poll finishes to overcome a national title, but it can be done.
Let's look at two teams from the 1990s UNLV and Kansas. Which had the better decade?
Well, UNLV started strong, winning the 1990 national title and dominating the 1991 season until the Final Four. The Rebels were unbeaten and ranked No. 1 that year until they were upset by Duke in the NCAA semifinals. But UNLV, rocked by probation and the departure of coach Jerry Tarkanian, dropped off the face of the basketball world after 1991. After losing to the Blue Devils in Indianapolis, the Runnin' Rebels didn't return to the NCAA Tournament until the next decade.
In contrast, Kansas didn't win a national title in the 1990s. The Jayhawks made two Final Four appearances, losing to Duke in the 1991 title game and to UNC in the 1993 semifinals. But under coach Roy Williams, Kansas was one of the most consistent programs in the decade. The Jayhawks won more games than any other program in the 1990s and finished ranked in the Top 25 every year seven times in the top 10, including a No. 1 finish in 1997 and two No. 2s.
So which team had the better decade?
Although neither UNLV nor Kansas figures as the "Team of the Decade" for the 1990s, it seems quite clear that the Jayhawks deserve to rank higher than the Rebels. A championship is a great achievement, but by itself it can't carry a program for an entire decade.
When we look back at the teams that have earned "Team of the Decade" honors in the past, we see that all of them did, in fact, win championships. In fact, every honored team won at least two NCAA titles in its decade of greatness.
The 1950s: Kentucky won national titles in 1951 and 1958, and the Wildcats also finished as the nation's No. 1-ranked team four times, plus three other seasons in the top three in the final AP poll.
The 1960s: UCLA won five national titles in 1964, 1965, 1967, 1968 and 1969. The Bruins also played in the 1962 Final Four. Amazingly, UCLA was ranked No. 1 in the final AP poll just three times in the decade.
The 1970s: UCLA again won five national titles 1970, 1971, 1972, 1973 and 1975. The Bruins also appeared in the 1974 and 1976 Final Fours. The pollsters still had trouble keeping up with coach John Wooden's dynasty, rewarding the Bruins with just four No. 1 finishes.
The 1980s: Louisville won national titles in 1980 and 1986, also reaching the Final Four in 1982 and 1983. The Cardinals never finished No. 1 in the polls (No. 2 twice).
The 1990s: Duke won national titles in 1991 and 1992 and played in the title game three other times in 1990, 1994 and 1999. That tournament success was enough to offset a mid-decade blip, when the Devils posted back-to-back seasons of 13-18 and 18-13 in the midst of all that greatness.
CONSISTENCY VS. EXCELLENCE
Duke's mid-decade struggles in the 1990s offer an interesting commentary on UNC's struggles in the early part of this decade.
It would be ironic if the nation's most consistent program would finally achieve "Team of the Decade" status in its least consistent 10-year period. But that could very well happen.
UNC started the decade strong, with a Final Four appearance under coach Bill Guthridge in 2000, and achieved a No. 1 national ranking midway through the 2001 season under new coach Matt Doherty. But the Tar Heels slumped badly late in that season and made a quick NCAA Tournament exit.
Worse was to follow. Doherty's second team collapsed in 2002, finishing a dreadful 8-20. Not only was that UNC's first losing season since an 8-9 finish in 1962, it also was the first non-20-win season for the Heels since the 1970 UNC team flamed out at 18-9.
Carolina struggled through two mediocre (in UNC terms) seasons in Doherty's last year (19-16 with an NIT trip) and in the first season under Williams (19-11 with a second-round NCAA loss), then roared back to the top of the national scene with a national championship in 2005. The Tar Heels have been contenders ever since.
Still, that raises the question: Can a team with an 8-20 season on its résumé claim "Team of the Decade" status?
There's no definitive answer to that inquiry, other than to assert that such a season is a blemish that must be overcome. When you look at the totality of the team's resume, are there enough achievements to overcome that one terrible year?
Clearly, there were such factors in Duke's case a decade earlier. The Blue Devils might have had a 13-18 season to deal with (followed by an 18-13 season), but Duke also played in the national title game in five of the decade's 10 years and finished the 1990s with more NCAA Tournament wins than any other program.
It also helped Duke that its strongest contender for "Team of the Decade" honors also had its own blip. Kentucky, the only other program to win two national titles in the 1990s, started the decade with a 14-14 record, as it recovered from probation. It's also interesting to note that the Kentucky team that earned "Team of the Decade" honors in the 1950s sat out the entire 1953 season (not just the tournament, the entire season!) under NCAA sanctions, then turned down an NIT bid in 1954 to show its displeasure with the NCAA.
The UNC-Duke situation in the last two decades offers some amazing parallels.
Back in the 1990s, North Carolina was the nation's most consistent program. The Tar Heels' worst seasons in the decade were a 21-13 record in 1990 and a 21-11 year in 1996. UNC won four ACC titles and averaged 27 wins per season in the 1990s.
The Tar Heels actually matched "Team of the Decade" Duke in wins and in Final Four appearances. The difference between them? UNC was a mere 1-4 in NCAA semifinal games, while Duke was 5-0 in such games, giving the Blue Devils five chances to play for the national title.
Fast forward to the first decade of the 21st century.
This time it's Duke that offers the greatest consistency. The Blue Devils' worst season this decade was in 2007, when they finished 22-11. Every other team this decade has won at least 27 games. Duke has averaged 29 wins per season. The Devils have made more Sweet 16 appearances in this decade than another other school.
But the big flaw in the Duke résumé is a 2-5 record in Sweet 16 games. Flip that number around, and Duke might be the frontrunner for a second straight "Team of the Decade" award. Instead, the Devils are merely outside contenders, needing a spectacular 2009 season to overtake teams such as Florida, UNC and now Kansas.
UNC, DUKE TOP CONTENDERS
How does the race stand with one year to go?
Well, at least three of the four teams that gathered in San Antonio were legitimate "Team of the Decade" candidates. While the outcome of the weekend's three games didn't end the race, they may be decisive in the long run.
Let's rank the contenders after Kansas defeated Memphis for the NCAA title:
- FLORIDA: Strengths two national titles (2006, 2007), plus the 2000 Final Four. A total of 20 NCAA Tournament wins. The fourth-most overall wins in the decade.
Flaws Missed the NCAA field in 2008.
Summary Still the frontrunner, after UNC failed to win the 2008 title. Nobody has more Final Fours, and those two titles are twice as many as anybody else. This year's tournament miss hurt, but Florida did reach the NIT Final Four. That's not the prize it once was, but it's still an accomplishment.
Even if Carolina had won it all in San Antonio, the Gators still would have had a chance to claim "Team of the Decade" honors with a strong 2009 finish. Coach Billy Donavan, riding a 12-game NCAA Tournament winning streak, re-stocked his roster this season with some talented young players and ought to be back in the NCAA field next year.
- KANSAS: Strengths The 2008 national title and two additional Final Four appearances (2002, 2003) and five Sweet 16s. A decade-best 23 NCAA Tournament wins. Nine top-25 finishes, including five in the top 10. Second to Duke in overall wins for the decade.
Flaws Back-to-back first-round NCAA flameouts to Bucknell and Bradley in 2005 and 2006.
Summary Very much like Kansas in the 1990s, meaning always there but never at the top. The Jayhawks need at least one and maybe two titles to overcome Florida in the "Team of the Decade" race. If Kansas won in San Antonio, the Jayhawks vaulted up there with UNC as a prime contender to the Gators. And, as with the Tar Heels, it would take a fantastic 2009 season to make a case for the title. Coach Bill Self's team faces some serious graduation losses (Russell Robinson, Sasha Kaun, Darnell Jackson), plus there's a major danger of early NBA draft defections by junior Brandon Rush and sophomore Darrell Arthur. It's going to be tough, but not impossible, for Kansas to make another strong title run in 2009.
- NORTH CAROLINA: Strengths Three Final Fours and the 2005 national title. Matches Florida's 20 NCAA Tournament wins. Five top-10 AP poll finishes, including a No. 1 in 2008.
Flaws That 8-20 horror in 2002, followed by two 19-win seasons. Merely 12th in total victories for the decade.
Summary The 2008 NCAA title would have given UNC an amazingly similar resume to Florida's, going into the decade's final year. It would have been so close that the team that finished strongest in the decade's last year almost certainly would earn the crown. The Tar Heels' loss in San Antonio kept them behind the Gators and now the Jayhawks, but still positioned to catch them in 2009. However, that would require at least another Final Four run for UNC, if not the 2009 title.
UNC could be good enough to accomplish that kind of goal, depending on the decisions by stars Tyler Hansbrough, Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellington to return. Graduation will claim only backup point guard Quentin Thomas. If everybody else returns (appears unlikely), the Tar Heels will be the nation's preseason No. 1 team.
- DUKE: Strengths The 2001 national title and another Final Four trip in 2004. More overall wins in the decade than any other program. More Sweet 16 appearances than any other program. A total of 21 NCAA Tournament wins, second only to Kansas. Eight top-10 finishes in the final AP poll, including four No.1 finishes.
Flaws Little NCAA success beyond the Sweet 16.
Summary Recent NCAA disappointments make it easy to forget that Duke has been the decade's most consistent program. All things being equal and "all things" meaning national titles it would be hard to deny Duke "Team of the Decade" honors. The Blue Devils, losing just senior All-ACC guard DeMarcus Nelson to graduation, ought to be a very good team again in 2009, but without the addition of a significant big man, can they really hope to contend for a national title? It seems like a longshot, but if Coach K can pull off an unexpected title in 2009, the Devils' decade-long consistency would vault them to No. 1.
- MICHIGAN STATE: Strengths The 2000 NCAA title and Final Four appearances in 2001 and 2005. A total of 20 NCAA Tournament wins and five Sweet 16s.
Flaws Erratic regular-season success. Missed the final AP rankings in four of nine years and finished in the top 10 just twice. Tied with UNC for 12th in overall wins in the decade.
Summary Started the decade strong, but has faded a bit since a 2005 Final Four appearance. Still, the résumé is strong enough that the Spartans could move to the top of the list by winning the 2009 national title. The departure of senior sparkplug Drew Neitzel will hurt, but almost everybody else will be back off a team that made it to the Sweet 16 this season. Overall, the Spartans are in very much the same situation as Duke.
- UCLA: Strengths Three Final Four appearances (2006-08), six Sweet 16s, and 19 NCAA Tournament wins.
Flaws No national titles and an ugly 2004 season under coach Steve Lavin. Just three top-10 finishes and just four finishes in the Top 25.
Summary Finishing the decade strong, but needed a couple of titles to get into the argument for "Team of the Decade." A championship in San Antonio would have brought the Bruins up to Kansas and UNC's level, but still behind the Gators. Coach Ben Howland has done a great job in Westwood, but he needs a strong finishing season in the decade to contend for this title. All of the key players off this year's Final Four team are eligible to return, but as with UNC and others, the question is whether the top stars will return or jump to the NBA.
MARYLAND AMONG LONGSHOTS
Every team with a national title to its credit already has to be considered for "Team of the Decade" honors. After all, any of them could make an unexpected run in 2009 and match Florida's two titles.
As unlikely as that seems, would two titles be enough to turn Maryland, Syracuse or Connecticut into the decade's best team? Let's look at their résumés:
Maryland The 2002 NCAA champion also made a Final Four appearance in 2001. But after a Sweet 16 run in 2003, the Terps haven't made it out of the second round of the NCAA Tournament since. Coach Gary Williams' team has missed the NCAA Tournament in three of the last four years. A 2009 title run seems farfetched, with the graduation of this year's top two big men, but even if the Terps were to pull a 1983-like miracle out of the hat, it's hard to argue that their decade-long resume would be better than Florida's.
Syracuse The 2003 NCAA title is just about the lone NCAA bright spot for the Orange in this decade. Coach Jim Boeheim's team has three Sweet 16 appearances, or the same number of times it has missed the NCAA field (including the last two years). Even with another title in 2009, the Orange would have fewer Final Fours and fewer NCAA wins than Florida. And how likely is another title in 2009?
Connecticut The 2004 NCAA title is UConn's only Final Four appearance in this decade, although the 2002 Huskies did reach the regional final before losing to eventual champ Maryland, and the 2006 Huskies reached the Elite Eight before falling to George Mason. There's not a lot there beyond those three years. Of the three longshots, the Huskies appear to have the best chance to make a significant NCAA run in 2009 (depending on the return of coach Jim Calhoun's young big men), but even a 2009 national title couldn't quite match Florida's resume for the decade.
Just one more team deserves mention. Memphis was the fourth team in San Antonio, and it advanced to the title game against Kansas. With a championship, the Tigers could have forced their way into the discussion. A one-loss national title in 2008 would have been the most impressive single season in the decade, albeit completed against inferior conference competition. But Memphis was not a player in the first half of the decade, missing the tournament three times before coach John Calipari got his program rolling.
STILL TIME FOR FINAL SPRINT
So the race basically boils down to Florida and the 2008 and 2009 national champions. Nobody can better the Gators' résumé without one more title. And just a handful of teams reached this year's season finale with a chance to catch the Gators.
UCLA was eliminated in San Antonio. Kansas won the 2008 title to establish itself as another serious contender for our "Team of the Decade" honors. That said, KU is unlikely to get that second championship, because chances are several players will depart early for the NBA.
Duke and Michigan State didn't make it to the 2008 Final Four, so their fortunes are easy to forecast. Both have strong resumes and almost certainly will finish in the top five on the decade honors list. A 2009 NCAA title would give either a strong argument as the decade's best team. But it's going to take a title; even a Final Four run in 2009 would not lift the Blue Devils or the Spartans past the Gators.
That leaves UNC even after its disappointing defeat in San Antonio as one of the strongest challengers to Florida's dominance. The 2008 national title would have turned the race into nearly a dead heat and set the stage for a dramatic stretch run in 2009. But even without the 2008 title, the Tar Heels will enter the final sprint just a step behind the front-running Gators.
It figures to be a terrifically entertaining finish to the first decade of the new century. The nation's media might not be aware of the race, but those of us in the know can celebrate the last year of competition to determine "The Team of the Decade."
TEAM OF THE DECADE
1. Florida - 2
2. Connecticut, Duke, Kansas, Maryland, Michigan State, North Carolina, Syracuse - 1
UCLA - 3
6. Duke, Maryland - 2
1. Duke - 7
2. UCLA - 6
3. Kansas, Michigan State, Texas - 5
6. Connecticut, Kentucky, North Carolina - 4
NCAA Tournament Wins
1. Kansas - 23
2. Duke - 21
3. Florida, Michigan State, North Carolina - 20
6. UCLA - 19
7. Connecticut - 16
1. Duke - 261
2. Kansas - 254
3. Gonzaga - 236
4. Florida, Memphis - 234
6. Illinois, Texas - 227
8. Connecticut, Pittsburgh, Syracuse - 221
11. Utah State - 219
12. Michigan State, North Carolina - 217
1. Duke (4) - 8
2. Arizona, North Carolina (1) - 5
4. Kansas, Kentucky (1) - 4
6. Connecticut, Florida, Gonzaga, Ohio State (1), Stanford (1), Texas - 3
Note: No. 1 finishes in parentheses.
Al Featherston, formerly of the Durham (N.C.) Herald-Sun, has covered ACC basketball for 38 years. He is a regular contributor to the ACC Sports Journal and the author of the 2007 release "Tobacco Road: Duke, Carolina, N.C. State, Wake Forest, and the History of the Most Intense Backyard Rivalries in Sports," which is available in bookstores and at Amazon.com.