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The Big Three — Top 5

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

March 14, 2005

North Carolina

Picking the best basketball team in North Carolina history isn't as difficult as some might think. In fact, it's rather easy. The 1957 Tar Heels, coached by Frank McGuire, are one of the few teams in history to go undefeated (32-0) and win the NCAA championship. They completed ìMcGuire's Miracleî by winning back-to-back triple-overtime games at the Final Four and by beating Kansas and Wilt Chamberlain 54-53 in the title game in Kansas City. In the end, they defeated the best player in America and his team in what was essentially a home game for the Jayhawks. No ACC team before or since has gone undefeated and won the national title.

The 1957 team wasn't just the most important in Carolina history. It's the most important in ACC history. This club represented a huge stamp of approval nationally for the young conference, which had formed in 1953. Meanwhile, a region already in love with the game went absolutely mad over it.

An unknown fellow at the time, would-be television producer C.D. Chesley, began his broadcasting career by filming that team. He positioned a camera in a hole in the wall at UNC's Woollen Gymnasium and filmed games. Later, he followed the team to the Final Four and broadcast the two triple-overtime thrillers back in North Carolina. This marriage of college basketball to TV sparked an avalanche of momentum that continues to this day.

While the 1957 team is the most important and most accomplished at 32-0, the 1982 version may well be the most beloved of all UNC teams. This is the club that captured coach Dean Smith's first national championship and launched a career for a freshman named Michael Jordan.

The same team, minus Jordan but with senior Al Wood, had played for the title the year before but lost to Indiana in Philadelphia. The four returning starters came back on a mission to get Smith a title and end all the criticism that he could not win the big one.

The 1982 team certainly ranks among the elite in school, ACC and NCAA history as far as overall talent and accomplishments. Forward James Worthy, who eventually would enter the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, was the most outstanding player at the Final Four and would go on to become the first overall pick in that year's NBA draft. Center Sam Perkins also followed with a long and successful professional career.

To put what they did in context, that Carolina team won back-to-back ACC championships, made appearances in the national title game each season and did it during a time when 7-4 center Ralph Sampson was playing for Virginia. The players' obvious affection for their coach and his for them endeared that team forever to UNC fans.

Carolina went 32-2 in 1981-82, losing only to Sampson and Virginia plus Wake Forest. Savvy point guard Jimmy Black ran the show just as Smith wanted and pressured the ball on defense. Worthy, Perkins and, eventually, Jordan, took care of the offense. There was nothing easy about it, though. There is a famous photo of Smith and some players sitting in a room right after the final game. They all appear exhausted from the grind of the season.

By the time 1993 rolled around, Smith had begun to hear the criticism again. He had won ìonlyî one national title with all the talent he had recruited. Neighboring Duke was the one that really turned up the heat. The Blue Devils won back-to-back national titles in 1991 and 1992, and they eclipsed Carolina as the premier program in the ACC and the Triangle. Everywhere the Tar Heels turned, they felt as if they saw nothing but Duke, Duke, Duke.

But Smith had been building a powerful team while the Blue Devils made their name. He had a 7-0 center named Eric Montross who could dominate in the lane. He had a point guard in Derrick Phelps who played much like Black had 11 years before, shutting down opponents and running the team the way Smith wanted. He had a team leader and powerful rebounder and defender in forward George Lynch. And he had a guard from Eastern North Carolina who could shoot the ball. And, boy, did Donald Williams ever shoot the ball. First he gunned down Cincinnati in overtime in the East Region final, and then he did it to Kansas (coached by Roy Williams) and then Michigan in the national championship game.

The 1993 team played Smith's defense as well as any group had to that point. They also were as unselfish as a coach could ask. The kids who came off the bench knew their roles and kept their egos in check, and the starters did their jobs. It was easy to see that these guys all liked one another. They finished the year 34-4.

The 1977 Carolina team had no business playing for the national championship because it had suffered so many injuries. The Tar Heels went 28-5 that season, overcoming all the odds fate threw at them. They had to beat Purdue, Notre Dame, Kentucky and UNLV just to earn a berth against Marquette and coach Al McGuire in the title game.

They did it, and for much of the championship game it looked as if they were going to win Smith's first title, too. But the coach's strategy of going to the Four Corners early in the second half did not pay off this time. Marquette seized the momentum and earned McGuire's first title instead.

That UNC team always has remained among the favorites of the fans, nonetheless. Point guard Phil Ford is the most beloved player in school history. He stands alongside Lennie Rosenbluth (from the 1957 team), Larry Miller (Smith's key recruit in the early years) and Charles Scott, the first African-American player for Carolina, as the most important players in the program's history.

Ford came along when David Thompson had carried N.C. State to the top spot in the ACC and in the country. At one point, the Wolfpack defeated Carolina nine straight times and won a national title along the way. By landing Ford, who had grown up a huge Thompson fan, Smith regained the edge in-state. He never again lost an in-state recruit he really wanted.

The 1968 Carolina team went 28-4 and played against the best college team in history with Lew Alcindor (now Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and UCLA. Unlike the 1957 team, these Tar Heels were not able to overcome the opposing giant.

Larry Miller was the best player on the team, and this was the finest UNC club in his four years. He was the first recruit for whom Smith had beaten Duke's Vic Bubas, and Miller provided the credibility and performance Smith needed to get the program going.

— Eddy Landreth, Chapel Hill (N.C.) News

Wake Forest

Wake Forest boasts a distinguished basketball history, but it is one that features consistency over brilliance. For example, this season marked the 23rd time the Demon Deacons won 19 or more games since the ACC was formed. At the same time, they've never won more than 26, and they don't have any national title runs. So when looking for the greatest teams, the debates are a little more muddied than at schools such as Duke or North Carolina, which have multiple national championships on their rÈsumÈs.

Two sets of Wake Forest teams appear to stand tall, however: the 1961 and 1962 squads, formed around Len Chappell, and the 1995 and 1996 teams, formed around Tim Duncan. These are the only Wake teams to win the ACC Tournament, and the 1962 team is the only one to reach the Final Four.

Many teams deserve a look for the fifth spot, such as the 1984 team that upset DePaul in the NCAA Tournament to retire legendary Ray Meyer. The 1977 and 1981 teams spent part of the season in the top 10 but fell apart in the postseason. The 1993 team was a breakthrough for Dave Odom, as was 2003 for Skip Prosser, when Wake won the ACC regular-season title. For now, though, we're going to leave that fifth spot vacant until a better candidate comes along.

Back in 1960, all Bones McKinney really had to show for his tenure at Wake was a couple of losing seasons and a reputation as a wild man. His teams were getting the same kind of notoriety. McKinney often said he thought the 1960 team was his best, and indeed it finished 21-7 and tied for the ACC lead with a 12-2 mark. But a last-second loss in the ACC title game left it out of the postseason, and the success of McKinney's next two teams relegated it to a footnote.

For a while, the 1961 team certainly seemed to pale in comparison. The season was a roller-coaster: losing two of its first three, road wins over No. 10 N.C. State and No. 12 Maryland, two losses in the Dixie Classic, four losses in the final six games, sandwiched around a 103-89 pasting of No. 3 Duke.

Chappell was the team's focus, but the role players needed to play well for Wake to win. Billy Packer teamed with Alley Hart and Dave Wiedeman in the backcourt, and Jerry Steele and Bill Hull played alongside Chappell up front. The team was only 15-10 overall, but it finished 11-3 for second in the league, then got the first bye in ACC Tournament history when UNC declined to play because of its probation. Wake destroyed Maryland in the second round, setting up a rematch with Duke.

Through his career, Chappell was often unstoppable in the middle, just bigger and stronger than almost every opponent. Even against Duke, which featured Art Heyman, Chappell could dominate. He scored 38 in a regular-season win, and he put up 33 points and 14 rebounds in a 96-81 win for the ACC title.

Still just 17-10 and unranked, Wake opened the NCAA Tournament with St. John's on virtually its home court, Madison Square Garden. The Deacons trailed by 10 at halftime, but in the second half Chappell took apart Leroy Ellis, who would play 14 years in the NBA. Chappell scored 24 points after the break on his way to 31 points and 20 rebounds in a 97-74 win. Hart added 28 points. Wake took out No. 3 St. Bonaventure
78-73 in Charlotte but fell to St. Joseph's 96-86 in the regional final, despite 32 points and 16 rebounds from Chappell.

The 1962 team was much the same group, with 6-10 Bob Woollard and Frank Christie adding more frontcourt depth. But the glory of a preseason No. 3 ranking quickly faded. In the third game of the season, top-ranked Ohio State came to Winston-Salem and took apart the Deacons 84-62.

Wake followed with a loss at Florida, and the players were hung in effigy on campus. The Deacons won at Virginia, then lost two more to fall completely out of the rankings. Losing four of six later left Wake at 9-8. Chappell was still rolling, but others, including Packer, were struggling around him.

But the Deacons recovered to win the last six of the season, surprisingly putting them at 12-2 and first in the league. Wake cruised through the ACC Tournament, helped by a Clemson upset of powerful Duke.

In the NCAA Tournament, the Deacons then took out Yale (in overtime), St. Joseph's (in overtime) and Villanova to advance to their first Final Four. As a reward, they got Ohio State again and fell 84-68. But Wake beat John Wooden's UCLA team in the consolation game to finish third. Chappell ended one of the conference's best careers by averaging 30.1 points and 15.2 rebounds, and Wake's play helped the ACC get a first-round NCAA bye from then on.

Odom was the next coach to put Wake atop the ACC. In 1995, the world was just beginning to find out about Duncan, a sophomore. As he emerged, fifth-year senior Randolph Childress provided the shooting. Also in the backcourt were Rusty LaRue and Charlie Harrision. Alongside Duncan were Ricky Peral and Sean Allen.

The Deacons won the season's final seven games to finish in a tie for first in the league. Wake fell behind No. 9 seed Duke by 18 in the ACC Tournament opener, but Childress took over. He scored 40 points in the win, then added 30 against Virginia the next day. He set the tournament's scoring record with 37 in the title game, the last two on a jumper to beat No. 4 UNC. In the NCAA Tournament, Wake took out North Carolina A&T and St. Louis but fell to Oklahoma State.

The Deacons couldn't sneak up on anyone in 1996. Childress was gone, but Tony Rutland and Jerry Braswell joined the rotation. Wake jumped to a 12-1 record and No. 6 in the country. Wake stumbled a bit, finishing second in the league, but rolled through Virginia and Clemson in the ACC Tournament. The title game looked uneventful, as Wake built an 18-point lead on Georgia Tech.

But Rutland's knee buckled in the second half, and without a ball-handler, Wake struggled. Tech had a chance to win, but Duncan forced Stephon Marbury into a bad shot and Wake held on. Duncan finished with 27 points, 22 rebounds, six assists and four blocks.

Without Rutland, LaRue took over at the point, and Wake was never quite the same. The Deacons won three NCAA games, the last a comeback over Louisville. But No. 2 Kentucky destroyed the slower Deacons 83-63 to end their season. Duncan averaged 19.1 points, 12.3 rebounds and 3.8 blocks, but Wake never could put quite enough talent around him.

— Dave Glenn, ACCSports.com


Coach Vic Bubas took Duke to three Final Fours (and one national championship game) from 1963-66, and coach Bill Foster led the program back to the NCAA final in 1978. But few would argue with the claim that the Blue Devils' five greatest teams in history all came in the last 20 seasons, all under coach Mike Krzyzewski. In 1992 (34-2, ACC champions, NCAA champions), Duke became one of just eight teams in NCAA history to go wire-to-wire ranked No. 1 and win the national championship. The Blue Devils also represented the first back-to-back champions since coach John Wooden's amazing reign at UCLA came to an end in the early 1970s.

The 1992 Blue Devils boasted Christian Laettner, the national player of the year, in the middle; Bobby Hurley, the NCAA's all-time assist leader, at point guard; and gifted sophomore Grant Hill on the wing. Veterans Thomas Hill, Brian Davis and Tony Lang provided strong support.

Duke overcame a number of significant injuries to remain No. 1 all season. The worst was the loss of Hurley for five games in February. Just as he returned, Grant Hill was sidelined with a bad ankle that hampered him as postseason play began.

Through it all, the Blue Devils prevailed, winning tough road games against Michigan's Fab Five, against Shaquille O'Neal at LSU and at UCLA. Duke won the ACC regular-season race by three games, blasted UNC by 20 points in the ACC Tournament title game, then survived a monumental 104-103 overtime thriller with Kentucky in the East Regional title game to reach the Final Four for the fifth straight year. Hurley won Final Four MVP honors after guiding Duke to comeback victories over Indiana and Michigan.

Criticized as too small and too thin to go all the way, the 2001 Duke team (35-4, ACC champions, NCAA champions) lost its best big man in the final home game of the season, then re-grouped and won 10 straight to claim the school's third national championship.

The Blue Devils were chasing UNC in the ACC regular-season race after losing to the Tar Heels in Cameron. When center Carlos Boozer went down with a broken foot in a homecourt loss to Maryland, Duke's title dreams appeared to be over. But Krzyzewski energized his team by installing freshman guard Chris Duhon as a starter and fashioning a makeshift center rotation out of slender sophomore Casey Sanders and football player Reggie Love.

The result was astounding. Duke stunned UNC in Chapel Hill to win a share of the regular-season title, then a week later blitzed the Tar Heels again in the ACC championship game in Atlanta. The Blue Devils, getting spectacular play from senior forward Shane Battier, the national player of the year, and sophomore point guard Jason Williams, another All-American, swept into the Final Four without breaking a sweat.

There, it got interesting. Duke had to rally from a 22-point first-half deficit to beat Maryland in the semifinals — in the fourth memorable matchup between the two teams that season. In the title game against Arizona, Battier earned Final Four MVP honors with a great all-around performance, helped by four second-half three-pointers by sophomore swingman Mike Dunleavy.

Heading into the 1991 season (32-7, NCAA champions), it wasn't supposed to be Duke's year. The only senior, forward Greg Koubek, was a role player. Most of the team's key players were freshmen or sophomores.

The team started slowly, dropping to No. 14 in the national rankings after a bad loss at Virginia. Krzyzewski's response was an intense late-night practice session that produced a broken nose for freshman Grant Hill but led to 12 victories in the next 13 games. Duke faltered in the ACC title game, losing big to a North Carolina team it had beaten twice in the regular season.

Both Duke and UNC reached the Final Four in Indianapolis. The Blue Devils were huge underdogs against unbeaten and No. 1-ranked UNLV, which had routed Duke by 30 in the 1990 title game. This time, Laettner (a junior) punished the Rebels inside and out, while Hurley (a sophomore) controlled the tempo and hit one of the biggest shots in Duke history to set up Laettner's two game-winning free throws. Duke followed up its monumental upset with a workmanlike win over Kansas, which had eliminated UNC in the semifinals, to claim the school's first national championship.

Krzyzewski's first great team came in 1986 (37-3, ACC champions, NCAA runner-up), when he started four seniors who had endured an 11-17 season and an embarrassing, 43-point ACC Tournament loss as freshmen.

But when point guard Tommy Amaker joined high-flying guard Johnny Dawkins, versatile big man Mark Alarie and reliable forwards David Henderson and Jay Bilas a year later, all the pieces for a powerhouse were in place. Duke went from 11 victories in 1983 to 24 and 23 wins the next two years. In 1985-86, Krzyzewski's team took off, winning 16 straight games to open the season. After close losses at UNC and at Georgia Tech, Duke reeled off another 21 wins in a row.

That streak resulted in Duke's first outright ACC regular-season title in 20 years, the first final No. 1 ranking in school history, Krzyzewski's first ACC Tournament title, and five NCAA Tournament wins. Alas, Duke needed six tournament wins to claim its first national title. But two nights after a follow shot by freshman forward Danny Ferry helped Duke knock off Kansas in the semifinals, Louisville freshman Pervis ìNever Nervousî Ellison proved too much for the Devils to handle in the title game.

Perhaps the most talented Duke team ever was the school's 1999 (37-2, ACC champions, NCAA runner-up) edition. Its complete domination in conference play, with a 16-0 regular-season record and a 25-point average margin of victory at the ACC Tournament, never has been matched. Only a narrow loss to Connecticut in the NCAA title game prevented this team from being judged the best Duke team — and maybe even the best ACC team — in history.

The deep and talented roster included four players who would be taken in the top 15 of the 1999 NBA draft, including national player of the year Elton Brand and three-time All-ACC guard Trajan Langdon. Duke was so deep in 1999 that Chris Carrawell, who would become the 2000 ACC player of the year, and Battier, the 2001 national player of the year, were role players.

Duke rolled over 19 straight ACC opponents, and only an eight-point win at Georgia Tech was by less than double figures. Only a two-point loss to Cincinnati in the final of the Great Alaskan Shootout and the three-point loss to the Huskies in the NCAA title game spoiled a perfect season.

— Al Featherston, ACCSports.com