Tar Heels Must Buck History
Over the next 24 hours, you’re going to hear a lot of comparisons between this year’s Tar Heels and the previous three squads that started 0-2 in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Are there really any similarities? Here’s a look at those three previous teams:
2009: Started 0-2 with an 85-78 loss at home to Boston College, and then a road loss at fourth-ranked Wake Forest, 92-89.
What’s the same? An 0-2 start left a talented team confused. “I do believe our team had some doubts,” Roy Williams said when he looked back after the conclusion of the 2009 campaign. “I think our confidence was shaken a little bit at that time.” To make matters worse, it looked like two local teams (Duke and Wake) were going to be serious conference—and maybe national—contenders. This year, the Tar Heel misery is heightened by the knowledge that Duke and possibly NC State may contend for the league crown. The Tar Heels had to go on the road to snap their 0-2 streak; they got an 83-61 win at Virginia.
What’s different? Tyler Hansbrough, Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington and Danny Green played on the 2009 team. One of the defeats was at fourth-ranked Wake, a team that was playing very, very well early in the season. Prior to the defeat to BC, Carolina had started the year 13-0, including total demolitions of eighth-ranked Notre Dame and 13th-ranked Michigan State, with the latter coming in a virtual home game for the Spartans (a scenario that would be repeated a few months later, this time for the national title). Winning at Virginia, which finished 4-12 in the league, 10-18 overall, is not quite the same as winning at Tallahassee.
What happened? Someone still on this year's team played a key role. In the immediate aftermath of the loss at Wake, Williams went in the locker room and played the psychologist rather than the motivator. He explained that his 1991 Kansas team had also started 0-2 in the conference, and ended the year playing for the national title. “Everyone was kind of jumping off the ship around us,” Bobby Frasor said. “We didn’t have any more bandwagon fans. Everyone said, ‘Oh, they can’t play defense,’ but we still believed. And Coach still had faith in us.”
1997: Started 0-3 in the conference, with a blowout road loss at second-ranked Wake Forest, an 85-75 home loss to 19th ranked Maryland, and a 75-63 loss at Virginia.
What’s the same? The 0-3 start had Tar Heel fans openly questioning the head coach. Yes, there was a time people weren’t sure if Dean Smith could still coach. Carolina hadn’t had too many high-quality wins in the nonconference season, as they lost their only game against a ranked team (the season opener to Arizona, and the two teams would meet again with the same result in the last game of the year). The best pre-ACC win was probably a road victory over Princeton in front of a very hostile crowd. There was some occasional murmuring among the fan base about the rotation, as no Tar Heel fan alive in 1997 ever thought Vince Carter played enough minutes. Carolina also had a very tough conference schedule in 1997; they closed the regular season against four teams ranked in the nation’s top 15.
What’s different? Antawn Jamison, Vince Carter, Ed Cota and Shammond Williams played on the 1997 team. The Tar Heels had a core of players who had already played together for at least one full season, and had experienced some ups and downs during a 21-11 1996 campaign that ended with Texas Tech’s Darvin Ham shattering the backboard in the NCAA Tournament. Even with the 0-3 start, the Tar Heels never fell out of the national rankings. They were also riding over 30 years of history of finishing no lower than third in the conference; falling apart really wasn’t an option.
What happened? In hindsight, 1997 is one of the coaching signatures of Dean Smith’s career; the Tar Heels went on a 16-game winning streak, won the ACC Tournament, and made the Final Four. It’s often forgotten just how close it was to being a disaster, as Carolina needed one of the most miraculous comebacks of Smith’s career to beat NC State at the Smith Center and avoid falling to 0-4. Then, as Smith frequently pointed out, they still finished the first half of league play at 3-5, including an 80-73 loss at Duke, before starting that winning streak.
1980: Started 0-2 in the conference, with road losses at Clemson and 13th-ranked Virginia.
What’s the same? Carolina had injury issues, with James Worthy’s broken ankle (in case you’re wondering why Roy Williams is so vigilant about wet spots on the floor, his injury was caused by slipping on a wet spot) sidelining the talented freshman for the rest of the season. While nothing the Tar Heels have encountered so far has been that serious, they have seen four members of the rotation lose at least one game to injury, and it’s fair to say that Dexter Strickland is not fully back up to normal speed after a torn ACL one year ago. The 1980 Tar Heels had some trouble on the road, going just 5-4 away from Carmichael.
What’s different? Prior to beginning league play, Carolina already had a big nonconference win, topping fifth-ranked Indiana in Bloomington. Even without Worthy, the Tar Heels still had junior Al Wood and senior Mike O’Koren on the roster, so their two leading scorers had plenty of experience and had a good idea how to steer the ship out of troubled waters.
What happened? The Tar Heels snapped back with a four-game ACC winning streak, including a decisive 82-67 win at top-ranked Duke. But the streak ended with a home loss to Maryland on Jan. 20, the same day that Worthy broke his ankle. Still, Wood and O’Koren pushed the Tar Heels to a 10-2 finish over the remainder of the regular season. Carolina lost in the ACC Tournament semifinals and in their first game of the NCAA Tournament to Texas A&M.
Overall, it seems fairly apparent that this year is a very different season from any of the three previous 0-2 campaigns. Each of the three previous clubs had at least one player who had already qualified—prior to the 0-2 season—to have his jersey in the rafters or was on his way to qualification that same season (1980 had O’Koren, who was first-team All-America in 1979; 1997 had Jamison, who was second-team All-America that year before earning retirement status as national player of the year in 1998; 2009 had ’08 national player of the year Hansbrough).
The three previous teams also had a strong upperclassman presence playing key roles, both in leadership and in on-court production. The 1980 team had Wood and O’Koren. The 1997 squad had junior Shammond Williams, plus the Jamison-Carter-Okulaja sophomore trio that had already played together for a season. And the ’09 team was perhaps the last of the modern era of college basketball with such a talented group of juniors and seniors.
In order to pull out of the spin, this year’s team will have to be unique in Tar Heel history. The job starts tomorrow in Tallahassee. Is there anything either in Carolina's past or based on what you've seen in this year's team that makes you believe they either will or won't do it? Let us know in the comments below.
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