(Second of a Three-Part Series)
By Rick Brewer
North Carolina’s 1967 basketball season was filled with anticipation. Dean Smith had engineered a building process that was coming to fruition.
This is the golden anniversary of a three-year period that is unparalleled in ACC history with three straight league regular-season and tournament championships.
Carolina had posted a 16-11 record during the 1965-66 season, despite Bob Lewis and Larry Miller putting on perhaps the best two-man show in college basketball. They combined to average over 48 points a game.
Smith knew he had to have a more balanced team if his program was to be really successful. That was his plan—not to just have great teams, but to build a great program.
His work paid off in 1967 as Carolina began its three-season run that would lead to all the success that has followed since then. It has led right up to the accomplishments in this 50th anniversary season.
While Lewis and Miller were the big show in 1966, fans were coming early to games to see the freshmen play. It was a team with five players who would be the nucleus of the 1967, 1968 and 1969 teams.
There was Rusty Clark, a 6-10 center from Fayetteville, N.C., who gave Smith the big man he desperately needed. His inside presence helped free up the perimeter stars like Lewis, Miller and Charlie Scott for better scoring opportunities. His rebounding and interior defense would be key to this three-year period.
Bill Bunting, a 6-8 forward from New Bern, N.C., provided additional size. He was a good defender and rebounder and made gigantic steps offensively in his senior season. He had averaged 7.7 points and shot 45.3 percent from the field as a sophomore and 7.9 points with a 42.7 percent shooting accuracy as a junior. But, in 1969 he scored 18.0 points a game and hit 59.8 percent of his shots, best in the ACC.
Dick Grubar, a 6-4 guard from Schenectady, N.Y., was the team's quarterback. With his size and quickness he also was a problem defensively for most opponents. Although not known as a scorer, he averaged 10.0 points a game for his career with a high of 13.0 as a senior.
Joe Brown, a 6-5 forward, and Gerald Tuttle, a 5-11 guard, were valuable reserves. Brown would often come off the bench to spark a surge with his rebounding and hustle. Although he did not have a great free throw percentage, Tuttle made some big ones in the clutch. That was especially true in post-season play.
When Lewis graduated after the 1967 season he was replaced in the lineup by Charlie Scott. A 6-5 swingman from New York City, Scott had tremendous quickness, was an explosive scorer, wasn't afraid to rebound against bigger opponents, could handle the ball and would develop into an outstanding defensive player.
He was the first African-American on an athletic scholarship at Carolina, but he fitted in perfectly with his teammates.
With the added talent, Smith began to use more pressure defenses. Grubar, Miller, Lewis and Scott all excelled in that phase of play. Even if opponents could beat Carolina's press, they still had to contend with Clark and Bunting under the basket.
Grubar, Lewis, Miller and Scott were all adept in the four-corners offense Carolina would run late in some games. With Miller's driving ability and Scott's quickness, they were particularly difficult to stop when they only had one defender to beat.
It may seem hard to believe now with freshmen walking on to campuses and expecting to play immediately, but in those days it was generally felt teams could not win regularly with sophomore starters. Smith had three in his lineup when the 1966-67 season opened at home against Clemson.
All Carolina did was win its first nine games before a home court loss to Princeton. Included in those wins was a victory at Kentucky that moved the Tar Heels to third place in the national polls.
The team finished with a 26-6 record, going 12-2 in ACC play.
Strangely, several members of the media picked defending champion Duke to win the ACC Tournament in Greensboro. The feeling was it would just be too difficult for the Tar Heels to beat a team as talented as the Blue Devils three times in one year. Carolina had defeated them 59-56 in Durham and 92-79 in Chapel Hill.
Miller, with his competitive makeup, was incensed. But, his team barely got by eighth-seeded N.C. State in the first round. It took a late Clark tip-in and two Tuttle free throws to pull out a 56-53 win. Wake Forest was next and this was a team that Carolina had beaten by only two in both Winston-Salem (on a steal and layup by Miller at the buzzer) and Chapel Hill.
The Deacons had a 38-34 halftime lead and Miller had just two points. But, he had 29 in the second half as the Tar Heels rallied for an 89-79 victory.
In the finals Miller was dynamic, hitting 13 of 14 shots from the floor and scoring 32 points. With Lewis adding 26, Duke fell for a third time, 82-73. For the first time since the 1957 national championship season, Carolina was the ACC champion. Miller was an easy choice as the Tournament's MVP.
Two wins later and the Tar Heels were in the Final Four. An upset loss to Dayton in the national semi-finals left them short of the title game.
But, this group was just getting started.
TO COME: Stars Leave and Others Emerge