By Adam Lucas
Very close to the 25th anniversary of the last Carolina-Michigan basketball game, the Tar Heels and Wolverines will meet for the first time since that memorable game in the 2017 ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
The game, announced today, has been a long time coming. Carolina has played every other current member of the Big Ten except Nebraska since it last faced Michigan. The previous meeting was one of the definitive college basketball games of the 1990's.
Rarely has there been an NCAA championship game more defined by a clash of styles than the 1993 game in New Orleans. The Michigan Wolverines were rock stars. Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, Ray Jackson and Jimmy King had arrived the season before as the “Fab Five,” and they advanced to the 1992 title game—the first all-freshman starting five to reach the Final Four—before losing to a far superior Duke squad in one of the most-watched college basketball games of all-time. They returned intact for their sophomore season, which was widely expected to be a coronation.
The Wolverines' swagger had a financial impact. Sales of Michigan logoed clothing spiked; the Michigan athletic royalties as reported by Collegiate Licensing were $6.2 million during the 1993-94 school year, triple what they had been just three years earlier and double what they were at the end of the 1990s decade. The Fab Five captivated Wolverine fans, but they also fascinated the casual fan. Detroit columnist Mitch Albom wrote a book on the Fab Five published a few months after the national title loss to the Tar Heels. The title said it all: Fab Five: Basketball, Trash Talk, the American Dream.
“They started all the trends,” said George Lynch. “They had the black shoes, the black socks, the baggy shorts, the flashy plays and celebrating afterward.”
And the 1993 edition of the Tar Heels?
“We were just Carolina,” Lynch said. “We were blue-collar and we were under the radar. For some of our younger guys, it was nice that Michigan was getting all the attention. And for me as a senior, I enjoyed the fact that I knew how hard I was working but they were getting all the publicity. It was an opportunity to come in with no one knowing who we were.”
When a newspaper took an informal survey of players and coaches across the basketball world prior to the title game, UNLV's J.R. Rider was the only individual to pick Carolina. The rest of the nation thought it was a simple case of star power. Michigan had it, Carolina didn't. The only two Tar Heels on the three All-ACC teams were Lynch and Eric Montross. Duke and Florida State had more representatives; Clemson (5-11 in the ACC) and Wake Forest had the same number.
But more than any of the other Carolina national champions until perhaps this season, 1993 was a team where the whole was more than the sum of the individuals.
“From top to bottom, every single person bought into our goal to be in the Superdome at the end of the year,” Montross said. “When we played, you never second-guessed whether it would be anything other than a complete team effort. We interacted as a group and we trusted each other. More than any other team I've been part of, that team was selfless.”
It wasn't that they weren't talented. Some heated recruiting battles had to be won to build the foundation of the team. Montross was picked out of Indianapolis and wooed away from Michigan, where his parents had lettered. Brian Reese was spirited out of Carolina's traditional recruiting grounds in New York. Lynch's brother was smitten with the idea of Lynch playing with Alonzo Mourning at Georgetown.
But perhaps the toughest battle was for a shooter who lived less than an hour from the UNC campus. Donald Williams grew up an NC State fan in an era when the Wolfpack was a legitimate Carolina competitor. But the Jim Valvano controversy plus a terrific recruiting visit to Chapel Hill swayed Williams to the Tar Heels.
“I was very close to going to State,” Williams said. “I played pickup games in the summer with their players, and I was close with them. But I had no idea what Carolina basketball was about until I made my visit, and that changed everything.”
Williams was the only underclassman in a rotation made up almost exclusively of juniors and seniors. The core of the team had played in the 1991 Final Four together, a disappointing 79-73 loss to Kansas. That experience became important in 1993. Instead of simply being happy to be in the national semifinals, the Tar Heels arrived in New Orleans eager to complete a mission.
Before the first day of practice, Smith had ordered a doctored photo of the Superdome scoreboard from 1982. Instead of, “North Carolina 1982 national champions,” the photo now read, “North Carolina 1993 national champions.” A copy of the new and improved picture was placed in every player's locker.
“In '91 we learned how to play together as a team,” Reese said. “In 1993, we had just one common goal: win a national championship. In '91 we were just freshmen, we didn't know what we had to contribute to reach that goal. When we were juniors, we were more comfortable with the idea of being a team.”
“As a team, that group played together as well as any team we've ever had at North Carolina,” said Phil Ford, an assistant coach on the '93 team. “They could read each other. Henrik Rodl was so smart. The big guys, with Kevin Salvadori and Eric Montross, could play off each other.
“And with George and Derrick Phelps, we had two defenders who could go off and run something totally different and everyone else would pick up on it and adjust. We'd call one thing, Derrick would see something and run something totally different, and everyone else would pick up on it.”
Lynch was the unquestioned leader, the senior capable of blistering a teammate for a mistake and then encouraging the same teammate on the very next possession. While in Hawaii for the Rainbow Classic, Lynch had gotten in a wrestling match on the beach and injured his shoulder. He didn't bother to tell anyone, and averaged a double-double in the three games in Hawaii. Ford began calling Lynch “Mangani.” “George was just a tough, warrior-like dude,” Ford said. “He wasn't just a warrior in the game. He was a warrior in practice, a warrior in the dorm, a warrior walking down the beach.”
After a dominant 8-0 start to the season that included an average margin of victory of 28.3 points, the Tar Heels lost a one-point decision to Michigan in the Rainbow Classic on a Jalen Rose tip-in. The loss miffed the perfectionist Tar Heels, but it also provided an important tidbit for a team that thrived on the game's subtleties.
“When we played them in Hawaii, I noticed they let Webber handle the ball a lot in the backcourt,” Lynch said. “He didn't always make the right decisions, and sometimes they would have Rose taking the ball out to throw it into Webber. In Hawaii, I mentioned to Derrick that when Rose took the ball out we could try some pressure to take some time off the clock or even get a 10-second call.”
That eye for detail became very important three months later in New Orleans. Williams, who was sporting a freshly shaved head for the weekend, carried the Tar Heels through a back-and-forth first 39 minutes, swishing five three-pointers for the second straight game.
“When I think about Donald, I think about a pure shooter,” Montross said. “He elevated so high and every time he shot it he had that perfect follow-through. The ball had perfect spin, and his eyes were on the front of the rim. Sometimes shooters change their form with every shot. He didn't. He was perfect every time.”
Williams's backcourt partner was Phelps, who attempted the fewest amount of shots of anyone in the starting lineup against the Wolverines. But he also defended the wiry Rose, forcing the sophomore point guard into a 5-for-12 performance with six turnovers.
Part of Phelps's defensive prowess was physical. Listed at 6-foot-3, he seemed to have the wingspan of a taller player. He combined that spidery reach with an advanced knowledge of how to defend.
“It all goes back to Coach Smith and the way he recruited,” Williams said. “He knew how to put a puzzle together. Derrick was perfect for that team. He had such good instincts and he did all the things you can't teach. I had to go against him in practice when I was playing some point guard as a freshman, and I thought I was a pretty good offensive player. He would shut me down every day. My freshman year, he made life miserable for me. I wanted to fight him every day.”
Rose might have felt the same way, and by the time less than 20 seconds were left in the national championship game, Michigan was clearly more rattled than Carolina. Webber's first instinct after grabbing the rebound was to call a timeout. Realizing the Wolverines had used them all and trying to grant the player a favor, the official looked the other way. That left Webber looking for an outlet, but—as he had learned in Hawaii—Lynch hung back to apply token pressure on Rose. That cut off Webber's passing lane, forcing him to drag his pivot foot.
“I had confidence in Derrick's ball pressure,” Lynch said. “I knew it was a gamble, but I was willing to take it. If it had been Rose bringing the ball up, I wouldn't have hung back there. But when I saw Webber with the ball, I liked my chances.”
It was the kind of nuanced game-winning play the '93 team always seemed to make, and Lynch could have easily been the hero if the traveling whistle was blown. But it wasn't, so Webber dashed up the court. Now trailing the Wolverine big man, Lynch had to hustle into the frontcourt to keep up with the play.
A trap hadn't been called from the bench. But Carolina had a basic defensive principle that any time a player saw an opponent's numbers—meaning the opponent had his back to them—while dribbling the ball, it was acceptable to try and create a trap. That was even more suitable when the dribbler was next to the sideline or the baseline, because the boundary provided an extra defender. Phelps funneled Webber to the sideline in front of the Michigan bench. Sprinting back onto the play, Lynch came from behind to apply a double-team.
That left Webber trapped between Carolina's two best defenders. In the frenzied final seconds of the national title game, he thought his best option was a timeout. Williams hit the title-sealing free throws after the technical foul.
“At the time, I had no idea what a big deal it was to win a national championship,” Montross said. “I knew it was a big deal. But I didn't know how hard it was to do. I just had the expectation that you come to Carolina and you go to the Final Four. I took it for granted. My senior year, it became apparent that it was something really special.
“It wasn't until I watched Michigan State win it in 2000 that I finally started to have enough distance between our success and someone else's success to appreciate how hard it was. Mateen Cleaves, from that MSU team, was drafted to the Pistons, where I was playing at the time. To be around him and see how much he appreciated it really opened my eyes. You start to realize how many great teams never get the chance to get there, and seven years later it finally sunk in that it must be quite an accomplishment to win a national championship.”