The North Carolina Tar Heels are making a mockery of the 2009 college basketball season. That’s not a knock. Far from it. More an homage to a team that has essentially made opponents look like the Washington Generals. They’re 13-0 after beating Nevada 84-61 on New Year’s Eve. They’re averaging 95.8 points and have beaten opponents by an average of 26.8 points.
No Tar’d foe has finished closer than 15. And most appear to have been almost honored to to have had their tails whipped. “There’s no shame in losing to Carolina,” Nevada coach Mark Fox said after the game. “That is a great, great team.”
But how great? With the ACC season set to begin on Sunday and the ‘Heels having beaten 39 straight non-conference opponents, where do the 2009 Tar Heels rank among the greatest UNC teams ever?
5) 2005 (33-4, national champions) A bit of a surprise entry mainly because not a single player on this unit is likely to make any all-time Tar Heel list. Sean May, Marvin Williams and Rashad McCants, the stars of that squad, have barely earned free kicks at the pro level. So why here. Simply because this team, in Roy Williams’ second season, had something to prove and it did, winning the NCAA just a year after going 19-11 and tumbling in the second round of the NCAA tournament. Most Tar Heel teams are expected to win. This bunch was a pleasant surprise for UNC faithful.
4) 2008 (36-3, Final Four) Call this the not-quite-ready-for-prime-time Tar Heels. Maybe the best Carolina team not to win the national title, these Heels were Tyler Hansbrough’s team. Period. The junior forward emerged as not only the best player in the nation but, in some circles, also the most hated. Nonetheless, he led UNC to its second consecutive ACC title and into the Final Four where, well, they endured a night to forget. In the semis, Kansas made 12 of its first 16 shots and went on an 18-0 run before UNC seemed to understand that the game had begun. They were down 33-10 with 9:31 left and for all intents, done. Call this team Greatness Unfulfilled.
3) 1993 (34-4, national champions) Another team without legendary star power. But Donald Williams, George Lynch and Eric Montross gave legendary coach Dean Smith his second and final national title by defeating highly ranked Cincinnati, Kansas and then the heavily hyped Michigan Fab Five in the title game. The most memorable play that night, of course, occurred when the Fabulous Chris Webber tried to call a timeout in the final seconds when he got trapped behind a Tar Heel double-team, though Michigan was out of TOs.
2) 1957 (32-0, national champions) Sure, this team, in its prime, might not have been able to defeat the teams behind it on this list.Today’s players are bigger, stronger, quicker, etc. And defenses are a lot more sophisticated. I know all that. But undefeated counts with me. National title counts with me. And this counts with me: This team defeated an opponent led by perhaps the greatest, most dominant college basketball player ever. Wilt Chamberlain, who took only 13 shots against coach Frank McGuire’s Tar Heels in the championship game and UNC won in three OTs 54-53. And how’s this for extra points? McGuire sent 5-foot-11 Tommy Kearns, his shortest player, out to jump against Chamberlain in the opening tipoff. “We’re a chilly club,” Kearns said. “We play it chilly all the time. I mean, we just keep cool.” Clearly, a team ahead of its time.
1) 1982 (32-2, national champions) Michael Jordan, James Worthy and Sam Perkins, orchestrated by less-heralded point guard Jimmy Black, led the greatest Tar Heel team ever. No question. If their win over Patrick Ewing and Georgetown in the national title game was not the best-ever championship game, tell me what was. (Sure, Villanova’s 1985 win over the Hoyas was the biggest upset ever, but there was never a game with more talent and more drama than this one.) This team was so focused on winning the national title that Dean Smith used the date of the national championship game, 3/30, as part of the combination to the players’ lounge.
So where does that leave the 2009 ‘Heels? Not quite there. Despite their lopsided wins this team has not played consistently well. A risk-taking defense has allowed some opponents to enjoy a parade of open looks. Nevada shot 45 percent from the field, well above UNC’s season-long 40 percent lip.
What these Tar Heels are is relentless and talented, and, yes, they do have the most dominant player in the game. That combo is enough to beat almost anyone on any night. But whether they’re ultimately good enough to crack this list, we won’t find out until 4/6/09.