Thursday, January 8, 2009

Big Upset in the ACC

This time of year those of us from the Mid-Atlantic spend a lot of time watching ACC basketball and for those of us lucky enough to be North Carolina-bred, the UNC Tar Heels are a constant source of inspiration.

This year, UNC, coming off a 36-3 season and Final Four appearance with virtually their entire team intact, appeared to be practically invincible and talk of an unbeaten season for Carolina was sweeping the nation. Yet, surprisingly enough, UNC went down to a crushing defeat, at home, no less, in its first ACC regular season game against the somewhat lightly-regarded Boston College Eagles, 85-78.

It was not the finest moment for this group of players, who have largely been together for three years and won two ACC regular season crowns and two ACC tournament titles, followed by trips to the Elite 8 and Final Four respectively. It was also a bit reminiscent of some other big game losses by this core of players, most notably a first half collapse against Kansas last year in the Final Four and a late minute and overtime collapse against Georgetown in the Final Eight in 2007.

Most strikingly, the Tar Heels shot a miserable 29% from the floor in the second half against BC, and only earned 15 points from 28 free throw attempts.

If the only issue in the game had been poor shooting, then I think you can write that off somewhat. Here, there were just a whole host of mental mistakes and sloppy and lackadaisical play. It is one thing to lose, but to go, as the Heels did, from a two point deficit to a fifteen point deficit around the eight minute mark, in a matter of a few minutes, is kind of strange, especially at home.

Nobody likes to lose but many Carolina fans were mystified by the performance, sure in their convictions that the other great ACC and Tar Heel teams from the past didn't have days like this.

Well, not so fast. Perhaps the four greatest teams in the history of the ACC, not to mention some other great Tar Heel squads, have also had some puzzling outings. A further and related point, is that with the exception of perhaps a handful of UCLA teams, there have been almost no teams that have been able to glide effortlessly to a title. It generally takes skill plus a whole lot of luck.

NC State went 57-1 during the 1973 and 1974 seasons, going undefeated in the ACC both years and then earned the ACC its first national title since 1957 by winning it all in 1974.

But along the way, State got annihilated by 18 points by UCLA, 84-66 on a neutral floor during the regular season, after its chief rival Maryland had only lost to the Bruins by one point at UCLA. NC State had actually led the Bruins 33-32 at the half. The Wolfpack benefited from Bill Walton's four fouls in the first nine minutes that kept him out of the game until the last ten minutes of the second half, but then when Walton returned, with the score tied 54 all, NC State just fell apart as UCLA went on a 19-2 run.

David Thompson, State's great clutch All American, went 7-20 from the floor and 3-7 from the foul line in the loss, while allowing Keith (Jamal) Wilkes to drop 27 points on him, on 11-20 shooting from the floor.

State also almost lost to Purdue in a tough road game in Indiana, and needed a huge rally to get past them. The Boilermakers were decent but ended up in the NIT.

State ultimately got past UCLA the second time, but as great as the Wolfpack were, it took two huge comebacks, first, just to get the game into overtime, and second, after going down seven in the second overtime period. NC State was certainly fortunate that the Final Four was played in Greensboro, North Carolina that year.

I still think that the 1974 Bruins with Bill Walton, Dave Meyers, Keith Wilkes and Marques Johnson were slightly better than NC State and would have won a seven game series, but they weren't better on the day that they had to be.

UCLA, as great as they were that year, also saw their 88-game winning streak end against Notre Dame, when the Bruins blew a double-digit lead in the final three minutes--no, the Bruins did not stall, ever.

Although UCLA would destroy Notre Dame the next week in a re-match, 94-75, UCLA then proceeded to lose back-to-back games at Oregon and Oregon State, a result so shocking that media wags deemed the "Bruins in Ruins," and Sports Illustrated ran a cover story with the caption, "UCLA's Lost Weekend."

The Bruins actually had to win their last regular season game, (which was televised nationally late at night on the East coast by the Hughes Network--a rare thing in those days) just to qualify for the NCAA but put a hurting on rival USC the likes of which have seldom been seen in college basketball. USC and its star, Gus Williams, finished 24-5 and 11-3 in the Pac 8 but would miss the NCAA tourney, just as it had in 1971 when the Paul Westphal-led Trojans went 24-2 and 12-2 in the Pac 8.

The 1991-92 Blue Devils are often seen as an all-time great team but in the regular season they lost to average UNC and Wake Forest squads, and needed overtime to beat a very green Michigan early in the year, and then needed overtime and a prayer to get past Kentucky in the regional finals.

The 1982 Tar Heels are another squad often touted as an all time great team. Nevertheless, Michael Jordan, Sam Perkins and James Worthy needed to go to overtime that season to beat Penn State in the Cable Car Classic! They also lost at Virginia by 16 points, which was a considerable margin back then, and then barely beat James Madison 52-50 in Charlotte in the NCAA tourney, where a defeat would have been seen as an incredible humiliation for Dean Smith and his team.

Maybe a step behind the above four in the pantheon of great ACC teams were the 1993 Tar Heels, but the national champion 1993 Heels also simply annihilated many rivals, similar to this year's Tar Heels.

The 1993 Heels beat South Carolina by 31; they beat Texas by 36 and Ohio State by 20 in Columbus. They beat NC State by 33 and 46 points; they beat Maryland by 28, 14 and 36 points; they beat Virginia by 22 and 20 points; but then seemingly out of nowhere, the 1993 Heels had a three game interval where they could do very little right.

The Heels fell behind FSU by twenty-something points and had to stage a huge rally to get an ugly win at home; except for the ultimate outcome, the Heels' play here was not all that different from the current squad's game against BC. They actually trailed by more, but started their comeback sooner and were just able to eek out a win by the somewhat deceptive score of 82-77.

In their next game, the 1993 Tar Heels proceeded to lose by 26 points to Wake Forest, followed by a 14 point thrashing by Duke. With the exception of a close loss in the ACC finals to Georgia Tech, (without Derrick Phelps and where Donald Williams shot horribly) the Tar Heels would not lose again during their final 18 games.

What does it all mean? That remains to be seen. Is this squad more like the 1993 Tar Heels or is it more like the 1994 Tar Heels squad that had Jerry Stackhouse, Rasheed Wallace and Eric Montross and was also seen as a sure title bet but then didn't even make it to the Sweet Sixteen?

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