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A Look Back: The Acc In The Ncaa Tournament: Smith's Second Title Represented True Work Of Art

Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Accsports Staff

By Dave Glenn, ACC Sports Journal
March 24, 2003

Criticized by many as a coach who had plenty of talent but not enough national championships, UNC's Dean Smith put together a 1993 team that lacked a future NBA superstar but came to be defined by several other qualities that had become trademarks of Smith-coached teams: selflessness, intelligence, poise, determination, resiliency. CHAPEL HILL — Looking back, it's ludicrous. After winning the 1993 NCAA championship, North Carolina's Dean Smith finished 12th in the Associated Press voting for national coach of the year. Former Smith assistant Eddie Fogler of Vanderbilt captured the award, marking the second year in a row a former Smith aide received the honor. Roy Williams of Kansas won in 1992.

The premise that kept Smith from the award was the same as in seasons past and future: It's easy to win with all that talent. In many of those same years, critics said the Carolina coach had plenty of All-Americans and future first-round draft picks but not enough NCAA titles to show for it.

In 1993, the Tar Heels won their third national championship of the modern era, their second under Smith. Looking back, it's hard to see “all that talent,” even compared to other contemporary NCAA winners. Only two Tar Heels, junior center Eric Montross and senior forward George Lynch, were among the 15 ACC players selected to the league's three-tiered all-conference team that year. (Both were first-team selections.) They also were the only players on the roster who became NBA draft picks.

Examine the NCAA champions from the five years before and the five years after 1993, and UNC's title team looks a little bit out of place. The Tar Heels didn't have a player as talented as Danny Manning (Kansas), Glen Rice (Michigan), Larry Johnson (UNLV) or Antoine Walker (Kentucky). They didn't have a Christian Laettner, Grant Hill or Bobby Hurley, as Duke did in its back-to-back title campaigns of 1991 and 1992.

Heck, the 1993 Heels didn't even have a first-team AP All-American. What they had was Smith and a malleable group of very good players, good players and decent players.

“Say we're lucky, yes. Say we're fortunate, yes,” Smith said after UNC's 77-71 championship game victory over Michigan. “But it still says we're NCAA champions.”

Michelangelo Masterpiece

Mixing players to find the right chemistry is like mixing paint to find the right color. Add of little of this, and it changes that. Add more of that, and it changes this. Many times the painter comes real close, but perfection remains a shade away.

The mix for the Tar Heels in 1993 combined considerable experience with a roster full of role players, along with a sense of desire and heart that had not been seen in light blue for a while. Missing in the end were players' egos, making the mix all the smoother.

It was Smith's kind of team — long on experience and passion, short on uncertainty and selfishness — and he's been labeled the Michelangelo of coaches. Yet it didn't start that way in fall 1992.

Before preseason practice began, word reached Smith that the players' pick-up games were degenerating into sloppy run-and-gun fiascos. Smith, not permitted to coach until Nov. 1 under the NCAA rules in place at the time, let his opinion be known: Four-on-four half-court games would be much more productive and helpful than the players' preferred (five-on-five full-court) style.

When Smith's input reached the players, many grumbled. Some complained about the coach's dictatorial approach, especially during the offseason. A few were so rankled that they stopped going to the Smith Center for games.

The seniors — Lynch and backup guard Henrik Rodl, plus the little-used trio of guard Scott Cherry, forward Travis Stephenson and center Matt Wenstrom — then met with Smith about the rule. Smith explained the potential he saw for the group, and he voiced his concerns about lack of defense, too much dunking, too many behind-the-back passes, etc. In effect, Smith wanted his players to embrace the idea of substance over style, even during pick-up games. The seniors weren't thrilled after their meeting with the coach, but they conceded his point and immediately implemented his ideas.

In return, Smith made a concession of his own: the Tar Heel Tipoff. At UNC's version of Midnight Madness, an event that was soaring in popularity across the nation at the time, the Heels were introduced before a Blue-White scrimmage to a throng of UNC fans wearing Halloween masks.

At his turn with the microphone, with his German accent hanging on every word, Rodl told the crowd: “If this team plays up to its capabilities, it could be scaaaaaaary.”

Later that day, Smith did something that didn't fit his usual one-day-at-a-time philosophy. He gave each player two photos of the basketball court at the Louisiana Superdome, that season's Final Four site, complete with the words “1993 NCAA Champions North Carolina.” The players were asked to keep one in their Smith Center locker and one at home, to remind them of their ultimate goal during the upcoming season.

The Experimental Easel

One unique thing about the 1993 UNC team was the trust factor, in both directions.

It's not uncommon to hear stories about players willing to run through walls for their coaches. But sometimes, accusations fly that the coach has lost it, that he's out of touch with today's game, today's players, today's something. Some wondered whether Smith, a living legend with a building named after him, was being left behind by the way the game was being played in the 1990s.

But with the photos he passed out, Smith dangled a carrot in front of the players, and the players' willingness to change their preseason workouts showed their absolute faith that Smith would somehow lead them to the carrot in the end.

It worked the other way, too. Smith trusted the team, especially the veterans, and allowed the players leeway he hadn't given other teams. For example, the coach restored the tired signal, a long-time UNC staple he had discontinued a few years before, when clearly fatigued players refused to signal the bench for a substitute.

Smith also abolished his system of traffic lights on the court. When the three-point shot was first introduced in 1983, Smith created a system in which good shooters were given the “green light” to shoot it. Other shooters had a “yellow light,” meaning they could shoot a three-pointer only under specified circumstances. Others had a “red light,” meaning a long-range attempt would be quickly followed by a seat on the bench.

The coach sometimes expanded his system to other shots from the floor, especially when he worked with more inexperienced teams, such as the 1990-91 group. That was the year the Tar Heels made extensive use of the nation's top-ranked recruiting class, which consisted of Montross, point guard Derrick Phelps, forward Brian Reese, forward Clifford Rozier and forward Pat Sullivan.

“ëRed light-green light' was making me more hesitant,” Reese said. “(In 1993) there was no light, and the team was more comfortable with its shots. Coach Smith knew that a team of juniors and seniors wasn't going to try anything wild.”

The trust factor represented a comfort level between the team and the coaching staff. With the 1992-93 roster dominated by five seniors and five juniors, the players understood what the coach — renowned for his particular ways — wanted to see, and they almost always delivered the goods.

In February 1993, Smith met individually with the players, as was UNC custom. In those meetings, he wanted to go over offensive roles, since the Heels had sputtered in back-to-back defeats. As always, he let the players speak first. One by one, they described their roles for Smith in their own words. One by one, they said almost exactly what the coach had in mind.

Blending That Paint

If one could create the prototype player for the Smith system, the work would be named George Lynch — strong, fast, respectful, humble, unselfish, with the heart of a lion. Sports Illustrated may have said it best: Lynch may not be a player around whom you build a team, but he is the kind of player around whom a team is built.

Entering his senior year in 1992-93, Lynch was ready to change the atmosphere in the Triangle area of North Carolina, even if it meant significant personal sacrifice.

“By Duke being next door, you ride down the road, you see signs saying two straight national championships,” Lynch said. “You see T-shirts. You see those guys all the time. It gets under my skin a little. I'll be a liar if I tell you it didn't.”

The senior from Roanoke, Va., had been used for three years as a power forward, even though — standing only 6-7 — he had wanted to play small forward, where he thought he'd have to play in the NBA. As a senior, he didn't pout about playing inside against seven-footers. On a team with five seniors, he was the quiet but undisputed leader.

“Sometimes George just motivates you by the way he works,” Reese said. “You see him go after an offensive rebound two, three, four times before he puts the ball back in, then he just turns and heads down the court, business as usual.”

Lynch ended his career with a national championship and a claim only Laettner of Duke could match in the ACC at the time: more than 1,500 points, 1,000 rebounds, 200 steals and 200 assists. The role Lynch played — not only as a senior, but as a power forward who was expected to only defend, rebound and score off rebounds (read: score without set plays) — was typical of the team. Each player knew and understood his role and played only that role.

Montross was the pillar inside, and the offense revolved around the seven-footer. Another somewhat mechanical big man who blossomed under Smith and long-time assistant Bill Guthridge, Montross led the team in scoring and shot better than 60 percent from the field. As a junior, he provided a toughness and improved aggressiveness that came through in the team's personality.

Phelps was the perfect point guard for Carolina's system under Smith: a long-armed, spider-like, disruptive defender and rock-solid passer/handler who cared little about his personal statistics. Some veteran observers rated Phelps as one of the best defenders in ACC history.

Rodl, Reese, Sullivan and big man Kevin Salvadori played smaller, but still important, roles on the 1992-93 team. Rodl was the savvy passer, Reese the versatile slasher, Sullivan the reliable jack-of-all-trades, Salvadori the long-armed shotblocker. Meanwhile, the catalyst was shooting guard Donald Williams, an up-and-down sophomore the team once nicknamed “Sports Illustrated” because he delivered only once a week.

A Period Of Lethargy

The season started with the usual assortment of exhibition wins, followed by easy victories against overmatched opponents such as Old Dominion and Butler.

The Tar Heels were 7-0 when they left for the Rainbow Classic in Hawaii. After demolishing Southwestern Louisiana, they faced Michigan. The Fab Five were sophomores and NCAA runners-up in 1992. The game showed the teams were evenly matched, and Michigan won on a basket off an offensive rebound with two seconds left.

Carolina then ran off nine straight wins, but some were dogfights. The Heels looked certain to pick up their second loss when they trailed Florida State by 21 with 11:31 left. Just before the game, FSU coach Pat Kennedy had been leafing through the UNC media guide and came across the section on comebacks. Little did he know…

The Tar Heels broke a 14-miss string from three-point land with five straight treys, including three from Rodl. By the time the final horn buzzed, the score read North Carolina 82, Florida State 77. That final score only temporarily masked what was a period of lethargy in the season. Three days later, Wake Forest blitzed the Heels 88-62.

“It seemed like everybody wasn't interested,” Phelps said. “We were just out there to be out there.”

Carolina lost again four days later, this time at Duke, and people started wondering what was going on. People other than Smith, that is.

Smith called the Wake game a wake-up call, and he said the Tar Heels played well at Cameron and just lost to a good team on the road. As is the UNC way, Montross led the scoring with 22 points inside against the Devils. Lynch had 17 points and eight boards. A big difference was the three-of-15 performance by Williams. The game left fans asking if he could — or would — deliver more often.

Before the season began, Williams wasn't sure he would be able to deliver at all. After struggling as a backup point guard as a freshman, he seriously considered transferring, a thought that previously crossed the minds of at least four other teammates: Reese, Wenstrom, Phelps and Larry Davis. Only Davis left, for South Carolina.

After the Duke game, things were inconsistent for Williams at best, bad at worst. He finished two-of-19 against Maryland. He shot one-of-four from the floor against Virginia, but that was the turning point. Smith inserted Williams into the starting lineup as if to say: We believe in you, Donald.

In the regular-season finale against Duke, Williams turned in a performance that would become more the norm than the exception over the next month. His 27 points led UNC to an 83-69 victory and the No. 1 seed in the ACC Tournament.

Finishing A Worthy Work

In the conference tournament, UNC feared the worst when a collision between Virginia's Jason Williford and Phelps sidelined the Carolina point guard with a bruised pelvis. The Tar Heels didn't have enough ball-handling to get by Georgia Tech in the championship game, and fans worried about the NCAA Tournament.

Good fortune, four days off and two NCAA walkovers — East Carolina by 20 and Rhode Island by 45 — gave UNC, notably Phelps, time to heal. By the time the regionals arrived, and with them the constant defensive pressure of Arkansas and Cincinnati, Phelps was ready.

He was needed against Cincinnati, for his ball-handling and defense. Bearcats star Nick Van Exel, a scoring machine, was on fire. With 3:38 left in the first half, he had 21 points. Coming out of a TV timeout, Smith pulled aside Phelps, the guard he considered the nation's best defender.

“I whispered to Derrick, ëDon't leave him,'” Smith said. “I didn't want the others to hear it.”

The rest of the game, Van Exel had two points, missing nine of 10 shots.

The change gave the Heels a chance to win at the buzzer, and Smith designed an inbounds play that set free Reese for an open four-footer in the lane. In the huddle, Smith told Reese exactly what would happen, including the fact that there would not be enough time to dunk the final shot.

Reese tried to dunk anyway, and he missed. (The refs said it would have counted.) In overtime Williams, bolstered by Smith yelling, “Knock it down, Donald,” hit a clutch three-pointer, then another, to push UNC to the Final Four.

After the Cincinnati game, the Carolina players declined a long-time basketball tradition, leaving the nets hanging rather than clipping their pieces to take home. The players, with the Superdome photo still on their minds, said they had unfinished business.

In the national semifinals, UNC met Kansas for the second time in three years. The Jayhawks, coached by former Smith assistant Roy Williams, could stay with Carolina's size and strength. The Heels out-rebounded Kansas 35-24 and made 17 free throws, drawing many fouls inside. All facets worked. Outside, Williams provided balance with 25 points.

Against the Jayhawks, Phelps proved the importance of all links in the chain when he left the game with a hip injury. Kansas attacked UNC's ball-handling in his absence. Smith turned to Reese, Phelps' roommate and fellow New Yorker.

“You know him better than anybody,” Smith said. “Can he play?”

“He can play,” Reese replied.

Phelps returned. Normalcy returned. And the Tar Heels returned to the NCAA final for the first time since 1982, the last time the event was held in New Orleans. This year's story line: a rematch with Michigan.

By now, Williams had a new nickname: New York Times. His game was arriving daily, and April 5 was no exception.

The game is remembered because Michigan's Chris Webber called a timeout when his team had none. The technical foul sealed the game, though North Carolina had the lead, Webber trapped and three fouls to give at the time.

Forgotten by many are the three three-pointers, two jumpers and four game-ending free throws Williams made in the second half. He scored 25 points to be named Final Four MVP.

“He was in a different zone out there,” Smith said. “I thought he was going to make it every time he put it up. And I think the other team did, too.”

Even in victory, Smith coached the celebration — and the players again followed his lead. As the team gathered to cut down the nets, Smith planned the order: seniors, juniors, sophomores, freshmen. Then he used a special pair of gold scissors, a pair that had been used 11 years before.

Meanwhile, back in the UNC locker room, one of the coaches left one last message, reflecting back on the first day of practice when he handed out photos.

Congratulations! You Are A Great Team! No Practice Tomorrow!

Dave Glenn, the editor of the ACC Area Sports Journal, has been an author, editor or contributor for more than a dozen ACC-related books, magazines and videos. He has covered the conference since 1987.