Saturday, March 1, 2008

Indiana in 1976 and the Dwindling Importance of the ACC tournament

I have previously discussed just how amazing the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers' achievement was and why it is unlikely to be equalled, but apparently many in the media still are under the illusion that the NCAA tournament is more difficult today than back then. On average, this is probably true, but no one is ever likely to have a more difficult path than Indiana did in 1976, or North Carolina, which fell just short the following year, did, having to play Purdue, Notre Dame, Kentucky, UNLV and Marquette in succession, ultimately being edged by Marquette in the final.

Let me add this link though to show how much more important the ACC tournament was before 1980, even after they started allowing a 2nd team, because the regions were unbalanced. Given travel costs in the past, it is understandable that such was the policy but it makes it difficult to compare across eras without looking more closely, as some regions could be easy and others hard.'s_Division_I_Basketball_Tournament

This shows just how great Indiana was in 1976 and why UVa's upset of UNC in the ACC tournament final was so crushing. The regions were unbalanced then and Indiana winning the region was much tougher than winning the Final Four.

Why? Look at the Mid-East regional line-up and the UPI rankings: Indiana(1), Marquette(2), Alabama(6), and UNC(8). That is the two best teams in the country were in the same initial bracket, and four of the top 8 teams were in that one regional, and if you go by the AP, it was five of the top ten teams in that regional.

It took 5 wins to win it all then.

Indiana's first win was against a top-twenty team, St. John's (18). Its second win was against Alabama, number (6). In the regional final and pseudo-national championship, Indiana beat the number (2) team in the nation, Marquette. In the National Semi-final, they took out defending champ UCLA (5) easily and then beat Michigan, who was only number (9) for the 3rd time that year in the finals. Indiana finshed 32-0 with Bob Knight tying Frank McGuire's record for most wins in a season without a loss and did it by facing the most brutal post-season schedule, but at least, unlike the ACC, Indiana didn't have three extra bruising games back to back to back.

For ACC teams to win back then, like NC State in 1974, they had to win 7 post-season games in a row, since the ACC had a bye then for the champions. That is brutal.

Had Carolina beaten UVA, they would have had a virtual walk to the Final Four. Rutgers had not played anybody all year and was way, way overrated, getting pummeled in the Semi-finals by Michigan. Rutgers beat, get this, VMI in the Regional Final. UConn, pre-Big East was another "power" in the region. For the most part, during the unbalanced region phase, winning the ACC tournament almost guaranteed a spot in the Final Four.

Another thing that shows the importance of the tournament then versus now, is that unlike what we often hear, upsets were not very common in terms of the tournament winner. The best team during the regular season almost always won the ACC during the period between 1963 and 1975.

Carolina finished first in the ACC during the regular season in 1967, 1968, 1969, 1971 and 1972 and won the tournament every year except 1971, losing to the Gamecocks who were only 1 game back in the regular season. Duke finished first in 1963, 1964, 1965 and 1966 and won the tournament every year except 1965, when State won, who was only 1 game back. State finished first in 1973 and 1974 and won the tournament both years. This is why the 1970 loss by the Gamecocks was such a big deal. It was a rare loss by the regular season champ, and an undefeated one at that.

After the NCAA expanded in 1975, it quickly became common for the top regular season team not to win the tournament. Coaches are not dumb and just as in horseracing, most of them know that if you apply the whip too much, you will wear out the ride. 3 of the last 4 national champions from the ACC did not win the ACC tournament and the smart money now says that expending any energy or risking injuries in winning the conference tournament is simply not worth it if you are already guaranteed a number one or two seed. Duke seems to be the only major national program that continues to place great emphasis on winning the conference tournament. Roy Williams has never made the Final Four, after winning his conference tournament, nor has Gary Williams or Terry Holland. In 1984, UVa had a losing record in conference and lost in the first round of the ACC tournament and then went on to the Final Four.

The last ACC tournament that had much meaning at all in terms of winning the NCAA's was probably the 1982 tournament, where Carolina edged UVA, 47-45. This allowed them to stay at home in the East Regional, where they barely edge JMU in Charlotte and Alabama and Villanova in fairly tight games in Raleigh, while UVA lost to Birmingham.

UVa was a team that had ACC tournament "magic dust" on them in 1976 and 1977. They were mediocre in 1976 and downright awful in 1977 and yet won five out of 6 tournament games over two years against topflight competition. In the NCAA's, however, the Cavs reverted to form and went out in the first round against a weak Depaul team.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Matt Doherty

Former University of North Carolina coach and player, Matt Doherty was back in North Carolina yesterday, for his SMU team's game against East Carolina, one of their Conference USA rivals. Remarkably, there was not much press attention, as Doherty attempts to recover from his ouster as UNC mens's basketball coach in 2003.

Although North Carolina alumni and fans are deliriously happy with Roy Williams and the results he has gotten in putting UNC back on top in the college basketball world, they are less certain about the treatment that Doherty received and whether he will ever be comfortable returning to his alma mater for alumni functions.

I honestly am not sure whether we will see Mr. Doherty at UNC anytime soon. This is a complicated issue. Essentially, Carolina never got over a similar riff that it had with Frank McGuire until last year. Frank McGuire led UNC to the 1957 national title, going 32-0, which is still the record for most wins without a loss in a season, and became a state hero, before encountering some mild rules violations and fleeing for the NBA, leaving Dean Smith as head coach.

The former McGuire players like Lennie Rosenbluth, Larry Brown (less so), Doug Moe, and Billy Cunningham have generally not been as beloved as the Smith guys by Carolina fans. Some of this is simply due to temporal proximity, but a lot of it is because Frank McGuire did a Rick Pitino squared, by taking the South Carolina job, and hiring UNC alum, Donnie Walters as chief assistant, in the mid-1960's, and escalated the bad-boy aspect of his personality, as well as the South Carolina versus North Carolina state rivalries, thereby elevating USC almost instantly into everyone's biggest rival in the conference. By the time South Carolina left the ACC in 1972, McGuire may have been less popular in Chapel Hill than Coach K is now. Some of the 1957 guys have said that they have never felt particularly welcome at UNC until last year's celebration.

With respect to Doherty, things were a mess on several levels. He was an excellent recruiter and doing well at Notre Dame, which seemed a great fit for an Irish guy from New York.
I love Dean Smith, and I think he is a great human being, but he is human and from what I have read, he did not want Doherty to have the job from the beginning, and may not have been particularly helpful to Doherty.

Smith had already essentially forced Carolina to hire Guthridge and was still the power behind the scenes and some of the problems Doherty had seem trivial and stupid, but had to do with things like angering Smith's secretaries and the like. Adam Lucas covers much of this in his book, but essentially Roy Williams did much of the same things as Doherty--i.e., refusing to hire assistants from UNC, but no one complained because he was a famous coach.

Apparently, Doherty's worst trait was an Irish temper(hey, I am part Irish and I sometimes have it, too) that could explode in all directions, even at his chosen assistants in the huddle. He had a penchant for using the "P" word, it is said, at players who displeased him. After playing for the subdued and grandfatherly Guthridge, some players like Forte, apparently couldn't stomach Doherty's intensity.

His first season ended poorly, but going 13-3 and first in the ACC and taking 3 out of 4 from eventual Final Four teams, Duke and Maryland was pretty darn good overall. The 26-7 record was far better than the 22-14 record of the year before, although that team made it to the Final Four (and no one has any idea how to this day).

His second season was strange. Yes, the Heels went 8-20, but they still won 4 conference games, keeping them far above the Duke 2-14 fiasco or the Wake record under Skip the year after Chris Paul left, of 3-13. Carolina played just about the toughest schedule in the nation that year and also played about the fewest games possible, leading to the perfect storm that made them look worse than they actually were. For example, State will probably finish 4-12 in the ACC this year but with a record much closer to .500.

What is forgotten is that aside from his driving Forte away, which was a tragedy for all involved, Doherty also inherited years of neglect by Guthridge on the recruiting trails. All of this came to a head in 2002. Perhaps he should have sought treatment for a bad back.

Doherty, however, did not rest on his laurels and garnered one of the greatest recruiting classes ever, probably better than any by his successor, Roy Williams at Carolina thus far. The Heels rebounded to 6-10 in the ACC, 19-16 overall, winning the pre-season NIT, beating Williams' Jayhawks, and going into the second round of the ACC tourney and the post-season NIT. They beat Duke and while they were erratic, who knows how much better they might have done had Sean May not been injured for much of the season.

Using mostly the same, more-experienced talent the next year, Williams was unable to do much better, finishing 19-11, and 8-8 in conference and losing in the first round of the ACC tourney, without beating Duke, although Carolina did get a NCAA tourney bid, where they underperformed and went out in the second round.

The conventional wisdom is that Doherty had the players so screwed up that it took Roy Williams over a year to turn them around. The facts are probably somewhere in between.

The real truth is that Carolina fans were never going to be comfortable with Matt Doherty because he was too much like Coach K, a working-class Catholic kid who had made good but who simply makes us feel uncomfortable. North Carolinians are more laid-back and the Kansan Smith was a good fit. McGuire was popular and fiery in his day, but he got away with it by being erudite and stylish, ultimately losing that good will when he went to USC. Roy Williams is fiery, but has learned how to use his "Ole Roy" persona to deflect some of his aggresiveness.

Matt Doherty was too much like Bobby Knight and K, with the profanity and hystrionics and making fun of cheerleaders, and I believe that many of us were secretely happy that the 2003 team performed slightly below its level, which should have been the final 32 in the NCAA, because it gave us a reason to fire Doherty besides the fact that he was simply kind of "icky." As much as Carolina dislikes Duke, many of us couldn't quite stomach the near brawl that occurred during a 2003 game against Duke. It just wasn't classy and was a throwback to an earlier time 25 or 30 years earlier, when even Smith got into it, apparently, with a UVa player, a time that had been long forgotten by most and such actions, if once tolerated, were no longer appropriate, regardless of who was to blame.

But looking back, had Carolina upset Duke in the second round of the 2003 ACC tourney, they very well might have snuck into the NCAA tourney and the story would have been the great turnaround, even without Sean May.

But, because Carolina did not win 20 games and did not make the NCAA tourney, the administration had an out, they could fire him because "he was mean to the players" and the players did not like him. Doherty had committed no recruiting violations and had just assembled two excellent recruiting classes after years of mediocre recruiting, but we (including me) just didn't feel comfortable with him as coach. We had made a mistake and wanted a divorce and now Roy Williams was available.

I truly feel sorry for Matt Doherty because he was put in over his head. Had he stayed at Notre Dame, he would probably be reaping the rewards that current Notre Dame coach Mike Brey is. A lot of this unpleasantness could have been avoided had Coach Smith, I think somewhat selfishly, somewhat selflessly, not decided to quit right before the 1998 season. His decision essentially forced UNC to hire Guthridge and forced Guthridge to take the job and I am not sure either party wanted him to be head coach, but Coach Smith had forced the scenario.

What should have happened is that Smith should have announced his retirement but coached that year, allowing a proper replacement decision. It probably would have been Williams, but possibly Larry Brown or Eddie Fogler. Instead, Carolina ended up with its initial Roy Williams rejection fiasco and then the negotiations in the middle of Kansas's season in 2003, which gravely injured strong ties between the two universities.

Given a second chance at the universally-admired Roy Williams, Carolina could not say no, and Doherty was thrown on the trash heap and possibly treated unfairly in terms of severence.

He has bounced around a bit and is now at SMU, his second job since leaving UNC. The SMU team is horrible this year, but apparently has mostly freshmen and sophmores and Doherty still appears to have his recruiting touch, so I am hopeful for his future there, as the univesity attempt to recharge its sports program which was at the very top in both football and basketball in the early 1980's, by bringing in Doherty and the football coach from the successful Hawaii program.

Transitioning from the impersonal journalistic attempt to describe in an unbiased way what led to Doherty's leaving Chapel Hill, I would like to end on a more personal note.

Matt Doherty was a couple of years ahead of me at UNC and truly was a key cog when Carolina made the transition from being merely one of many excellent basketball programs to being at the very top with the UCLA's and the Kentucky's. I will never forget his big shot on Senior Day back in 1984 that led to our comeback against Duke and preserved our second perfect season in conference. I know he is a fighter and I will be rooting for him at SMU and expect that one day he will be back on college basketball's big stage. Many of us take a few tries before we find our dream job or perfect fit at a job. He is a Carolina guy and hopefully knows that many of us still admire him and want to see him back in Chapel Hill for all of his accomplishments.

Monday, February 25, 2008

UNC Tar Heels hit the 26-2 Mark

It is interesting that the 2007-08 UNC Tar Heels have gotten a fair amount of criticism from fans and writers alike for having had a lackluster season, particularly on the defensive end. What this probably indicates more than anything else is just how spoiled Tar Heel fans have gotten.

I am only going to go back as far as the 1970's but let's see what this team has accomplished so far by seeing what other Carolina teams have achieved a record of 26-2, or close to it, missing it by one win at most, at some point during a season. These numbers are off the top of my head but I am sure that they are pretty much on target:

1. 1976--The Tar Heels, who featured four future NBA'ers and Olympians, were 25-2 and number two in the nation before losing in the finals of the ACC tourney and having Phil Ford get injured, finishing 25-4. They weren't going to beat Indiana that year anyway, who went 32-0.

2. 1982--UNC wins it all and finishes 32-2. This is Carolina's second best record ever, just short of the 1957 team's record, shared with 1976 Indiana, of 32-0, for a champion. This team had only one loss, at UVa when it had its starters intact, also losing at home to Wake, 55-49 without Perkins who had influenza(the real kind that makes you go to the hospital), and thus they came very close to going 33-1. I won't say that they came close to going undefeated, however, because they got pasted by double digits in Charlottesville in a game that they were never really in.

3. 1984--UNC finished up 28-3, after going 14-0 in conference. Dean hints that he brought starting point guard Kenny Smith back as a starter, which may have been a mistake, given how well back-up Steve Hale was playing(hmm). Indiana and Dan Dakich ruined my freshman year during the round of 16.

4. 1987--UNC finished 32-4, after going 14-0 in conference, losing to NC State in the ACC tourney finals and losing to Syracuse in the round of 8. This team had Kenny Smith, J.R. Reid and Scott Williams, all of whom had decent pro careers, especially Kenny Smith, as well as highly recruited Dave Popson, Joe Wolf and Jeff Lebo. The ACC was a little down this year and Carolina surprised somewhat, given that they had lost the number one draft pick, Brad Daugherty from the year before.

5. 1993--UNC finished 34-4, after going 14-2 in conference. This team lost to Michigan in December by one point at the buzzer and then to Duke and Wake in the first go round in conference. They ended up losing a heartbreaker in the conference tourney final to GIT, after playing without Derrick Phelps, in a game in which Donald Williams bonked three after three after three, something he wouldn't do again until the next year. My recollection is that this team was 25-3 at this point in the season.

6. 1998--UNC finished 34-4, losing to State, Maryland, Duke and Utah in the semi's. Carolina beat Duke in the finals of the tourney, after losing the Senior game at Duke the week before in a total collapse. My recollection is that this team was 26-2 at this point in the season. This team was somewhat of a mystery team, with the losses to Duke and Utah being somewhat inexplicable; they also came very close to going out in the Second Round against Charlotte in the NCAA tourney.

7. 2005--UNC finished 33-4, losing to Santa Clara in its first game, which I believe Quentin Thomas started, since Ray Felton had been suspended for one game for playing in an unauthorized summer game, and then lost to Duke and Wake in the first go round in conference play and then to GIT in the semi's of the tourney. Carolina was 25-3 at this point in the season. Discounting the game that Felton missed, this team came reasonably close to winning all the rest of its games,losing heartbreakers to Duke and GIT and a foul-marred game at Wake Forest. The 2005 team won the title by beating one of the best second place finishers in recent memory, the 37-1 Illinois Illini. Had Illinois won, it would have been a new record for most victories by a champion.

So, looking back, Carolina teams achieved a record of 26-2 in the 1982, 1984, 1987, 1998 and 2008 seasons. Smith did it three times, Guthridge once and Roy Williams has now achieved it with the 'Heels and at least once with the Kansas Jayhawks, in 1997, who only lost twice the entire season.

Looking at how those teams did, we see a national championship in 1982, Sweet Sixteen in 1984, Final Eight in 1987, and a Final Four in 1998. Roy's 1997 Jayhawks had the misfortune that Dean had so many years, in that they played Arizona, the eventual title winner, in the round of 16 and lost a heartbreaker to the Wildcats, who went on to defeat Carolina and Kentucky in the Final Four. Judging by history, Carolina should expect to at least get to the Final Eight and probably to the Final Four, although after that (and of course, really these are just probabilities) there are no guarantees.