by Steve Kirschner, Senior Associate A.D. for Communications
The NCAA Tournament turned 75 this year and every Carolina fan knows that their Tar Heels have won five championships, something only three other schools have done. Twenty years ago, UNC won the 1993 title in New Orleans, the school's third and the second under Hall of Fame coach Dean Smith.
That squad is often overlooked when college basketball analysts and fans talk about the Final Four's best teams, in large measure because of the blue-collar, workmanlike fashion in which they went about the business of winning games.
Carolina wasn't the dominant team throughout the year. The Tar Heels had finished the '92 season ranked 18th and lost to Jim Jackson's Ohio State Buckeyes in the Sweet 16. UNC was No. 7 to begin 1992-93, but didn't move into the top three in the polls until mid-January, and spent just the final two weeks of the regular season in the top spot.
Five other teams also claimed the number one spot at some point in the season and it was a Who's Who of College Basketball's Elite - Michigan, Duke, Kentucky, Kansas and Indiana. The Wolverines were No. 1 in the preseason as their Fab Five were now sophomores, coming off an appearance in the previous title game.
After the Tar Heels lost to Georgia Tech in the ACC Tournament championship (without injured point guard Derrick Phelps), NCAA Tournament play began with Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan and Carolina holding down the AP's top four spots. Three of those teams would meet at the Superdome, joined there by Roy Williams's Jayhawks, who knocked out the top-seeded Hoosiers in Charlotte.
Most of the buzz in the Big Easy centered around the second semifinal, pitting Chris Webber's trend-setting Wolverines against Rick Pitino's Wildcats, the hottest team in the country and the odds-on favorite to cut down the title nets.
Kansas and Carolina met first in a rematch of a national semifinal from two years earlier. Again, the talk centered on the Dean Smith-Roy Williams storyline, but both teams downplayed that angle and instead focused on the talented players on each roster.
Standouts like Carolina's George Lynch, Eric Montross and Phelps and KU's Rex Walters and Adonis Jordan. Donald Williams and Montross combined for 48 points in a 10-point win that was most memorable for the five three-pointers and national coming-out party for Williams, the soft-spoken, easy-going sophomore from Garner.
But again, much of the conversation was focused that evening and all the next day at the press conferences on Michigan's scintillating, 81-78, overtime win over Kentucky. The Wolverines featured Webber, Jalen Rose and Juwan Howard and eliminated the Wildcats, who had bull-rushed their way into the Final Four by winning their first four Tournament games by an average of 31 points.
Michigan had staked its claim as the game's top rock stars, but the Tar Heels had Dean Smith and a fearless and seasoned bunch that was ready to once again rule the sport, on 15-501 and everywhere else, too.
The game was, and remains to this day, a classic. Carolina fell behind by 10 points after some hot shooting by Michigan sub Rob Pelinka, but pulled ahead by six at halftime. The second half was a heavyweight title fight. Picture Ali-Frazier wearing Maize and Blue and Carolina Blue trunks just throwing down. Webber and Rose started to assert themselves and Michigan pulled ahead just past the halfway mark.
That's when "The Donald" took over, scoring a dozen of his game-high 25 points in the final eight minutes. Lynch had 12 points and 10 rebounds in his final college game. Quite simply, has any player in college basketball ever had such an impact on a team, a season and a championship game with such modest numbers? He was The Man, one of the best leaders and selfless players to ever wear a Carolina uniform, up to that point and right on through to today.
Unfortunately and unfairly, there are a number of reasons these Tar Heel champions don't get mentioned among the sport's all-time teams.
The most accomplished players -Lynch and Montross- played a combined 20 years in the NBA, but neither made an NBA All-Star team or have their jerseys on the front row (retired) in the Smith Center; Final Four MVP Donald Williams was but a sophomore who had two more good seasons at UNC, but didn't make All-ACC or play in the NBA; Phelps, Brian Reese, Henrik Rodl, Kevin Salvadori, Matt Wenstrom, Pat Sullivan - yes, household names to Tar Heel nation even two decades later, but ESPN isn't airing a "30-for-30" documentary about them like they've done on the Fab Five; and maybe most telling, the most famous play wasn't a James Worthy dunk or Michael Jordan shot, it wasn't Tommy Kearns jumping center against Wilt, or Raymond Felton stealing away Illinois' last chance for a game-tying shot or Wayne Ellington's three-pointer from the Canadian border. It's not even one of Donald Williams's five three-pointers in the title game. Instead, the most enduring play is a travel that was not called and a timeout that should never have been called. And no one remembers who set the trap that forced the timeout, only the man who signaled for one.
For me, that's too bad, because the 1993 Tar Heels are a national championship team in every way imaginable. It won 34 games, the ACC regular-season title; it knocked out a Final Four team in Cincinnati to get to the Final Four and two of the sport's giants in Kansas and Michigan to take home the hardware.
Keep your 30-for-30 and Jalen Rose saying even today how Michigan was the better team. I'll just head over to the museum and take another look at the championship trophy. It's a beauty.