You hate to end the season the way it did for our team, but when you think about it, only one team is happy when the season is over.
Everyone knows we were caught short in some areas with the guys leaving early last year, and what you want your team to do every season is improve as it goes along. I think we did that and I’ve said before this may have been Coach Williams’ and his staff’s best coaching job.
We caught Kansas when they were tight in the first half and if a few more of our shots went down we could have been ahead by much more than nine points. If so, that would have made it hard for Kansas to win, no matter how well they played in the second half. But it wasn’t to be, and now with one and a half “bad games” behind them Kansas could be dangerous for the rest of the tournament.
Winning 25 games was pretty amazing, when you consider how unsure we looked in December and January. When we went small, the game was in the hands of the shooters and we won a lot of contests by shooting the ball really well. But, as they say, if you live by it you may die by it someday.
It gives us great momentum going into next season, especially if everyone comes back. I agree with Coach Williams, that Reggie, James Michael and P.J. will all be in the NBA someday, but we don’t know exactly when. If the guaranteed money is there, it becomes a tough choice, but as a Carolina fan I hope they all come back for one more season and help us have a great year, which in turn will help their draft status.
We’ll have more size coming in next season and with the big guys returning I think we’ve probably seen the end of small ball except in certain match-up situations. Coach Smith used to say the biggest improvement comes between your freshman and sophomore years, after having one season to learn what playing college basketball is all about. So I look for Brice and Joel and J.P. to improve over the summer, and Marcus to keep getting better as he did all season. He’s going to be one great point guard for Carolina, I’m sure of that.
Now, I guess we can just sit back and enjoy the tournament. There are some great teams left, like Louisville and Indiana and, of course, Duke and Miami. How about Florida Gulf Coast? That’s a great story about Andy Enfield getting into coaching in an unusual way. He had always been involved in basketball, but before taking his first coaching job he had already sold his company for a hundred million dollars.
I heard that he told the school he wanted to make a nice donation, and they asked what they could do for him in return.
And he said, “I’d like to coach your basketball team!”
Phil Ford was a three-time All-American at UNC, 1978 ACC Player of the Year, NBA Rookie of the Year, an NBA all-star, and was recently inducted into the College Basketball Hall of Fame.http://chapelboro.com/ford-corners/bright-futures/
Chapelboro.com has been publishing excerpts from Return To The Top on the 20th Anniversary of Dean Smith’s 2nd NCAA title season in 1993. Check the “Hoop it Up” section for all the excerpts from this fantastic series.
By George Lynch, UNC ‘93
In the end, the coaching staff had a lot to do with how all of our talents and personalities meshed together so well. Assistant Coaches Bill Guthridge, Phil Ford, Randy Weil and Dave Hanners all had that competitive spirit that means so much during the course of a long and tiring season.
Before or after every practice, Coach Ford would often challenge one of us to a game of H-O-R-S-E or something just to keep us sharp, to keep us humble and to remind us that he could still play. He liked to point out that he’s the one with the No. 12 hanging in the rafters!
Sometimes when we played H-O-R-S-E at the Smith Center, he would first tell me to go stand on the baseline, turn around and look up. Then he’d say, “Okay, whose name and number do you see up there?” That was his way of trying to psyche us out, but it was also something that the guys got a kick out of. We laughed about it, but we always knew that being remembered – especially at a school like Carolina – was one of the highest honors you could achieve. We knew that winning the NCAA Tournament would give us that opportunity, and that was our ultimate goal.
The next year, when they had our national championship banner hanging up there, I wanted to come back and play Coach Ford one more time. Before we played, I was going to make him walk over to our corner of the Smith Center, turn around and look up. Then it was going to be me asking, “What do you see?” That’s something we’ll always tease each other about.
But the truth is Coach Ford and the rest of the staff had an important part on this team, too – showing up for practice every day, enthusiastic and ready to work hard. That’s the way it is here and that’s the way it should be. Whether you’re the head coach, an assistant, a manager, a star player or the last guy on the bench, you know that you played an important role in our success.
As soon as you come into this program, you feel like you’re part of something important, something unique. You realize there’s a lot of history and pride on the line every time you put on a Carolina uniform. It’s like it’s your duty – and privilege at the same time – to try to carry on the tradition that was built here before you. During the season, many of the former players called just to encourage us. We talked to Kenny Smith, J.R. Reid, Steve Bucknall, Ranzino Smith and just about all of the guys who played here in the last few years. Everyone wanted to keep in touch just to see how you’re doing. Sometimes they’d call to give us a few pointers or to tell us what to expect at a certain point, but the main thing was just to wish us luck and say they were all pulling for us to have a great season.
It’s no joke when people talk about the unique atmosphere that surrounds the Carolina basketball program. The minute you sign a letter of intent to attend the University of North Carolina, you’re part of a big family. When you’re not going well, they’re all there for you and willing to help in any way they can. The other side of that is when you win, you win for yourself and your team – but you win for the rest of your family, too.
It was a great feeling at the end, watching Coach Smith cut down the nets in New Orleans. He’s the man who held this family together over all these years. Our team had been through some tough times with Coach. We played hard every year I was at Carolina, and we had nothing to be ashamed about, but it was definitely hard watching Duke win those back-to-back national championships. After that, I think Coach Smith and the players all felt it was time for North Carolina to win another one. Winning conference championships and regular-season titles were nice, but that’s pretty much common ground around here now. It was time for something different, something bigger, and we did it.
Ten years from now, when you look at the history of Carolina basketball or the history of the Final Four, we’ll be there. All of us – Scott, Matt, Henrik, Travis Stephenson – the whole crew. The great wins over Arkansas and Cincinnati, and then Kansas and Michigan; they’ll all be there forever. When we’re sitting back many years from now, watching Carolina teams in the future, we’ll be able to tell our kids and our grandchildren about the time we were there, about the time we won it all.
The original Senior Diaries were b y Travis Stephenson, Matt Wenstrom, Scott Cherry, Henrik Rodl and George Lynch, as told to contributing editor Lee Pace.http://chapelboro.com/return-to-the-top/part-of-a-unique-family/
A Cocktail Party. A warm-up. A waste of time.
None of these terms are new, and most fans have more than a few ideas why the ACC Tournament has lost much of its allure. Some blame the football-led expansion and watering down of the league since 2007. Some blame the watering down of college basketball in general in that same time. Others simply miss the days when it was almost always in Greensboro and Charlotte.
Either way, the question is still always out there: Does the tournament matter? Fans often comment that no one really remembers who wins the Tourney, and that teams who do will not be criticized any less if they lose early in the NCAAs a week later.
Those statements are 100% true. But to ask if the tournament matters is to ask if sport itself matters. If the ACC Tournament doesn’t matter, what does?
In the end, sports are about competing, and (hopefully) winning championships. The rules of the games are arbitrary — we know this. The point is to compete. Period. No matter what those rules may be.
Fans weren’t (and still aren’t) in awe of Michael Jordan because he satiated the rules of basketball. We dreamed to be MJ because he was better than everyone else at whatever game the greatest athletes on Earth happened to be playing.
OK. Philosophy aside: the league tournament matters. Carolina fans tend to forget this because they so frequently have fantastically talented and veteran teams that can turn it on and off whenever they please. The 1993, 2005 and 2009 teams could have played H-O-R-S-E all weekend in their ACC tournaments and still win a national title.
But that isn’t always the case. Ask Kemba Walker’s UCONN team that used its Big East tournament run to springboard to the 2011 National Title after a very, very mediocre regular season. Outside of the top three or four dominant teams every year, the tournament gives squads another chance to get in a rhythm, or in the case of many young teams, to just figure out who the hell they are.
Phil Ford wrote this week that early weeks of March are when teams need to be playing at their best, not pretending that some games don’t matter. They all matter at this point, if not just for the chance to get better. And the ultra-seriousness of modern day sports aside, it’s just another chance to play some great basketball and try to win another title.
Newsflash: NOT A SINGLE PLAYER on the 2013 Tar Heels has ever won a tournament at UNC. Not a national title. Not an ACC Title. They haven’t even won a preseason tournament. No one in baby blue should be happy about that. And Greensboro’s Cocktail Party presents yet another opportunity to end that streak.
UNC’s matchup with Florida State on Friday is interesting in a number of different contexts. FSU just happens to be the reigning ACC Champs. And, of course, FSU just happens to be the team that kept the Tar Heels from winning the 2012 title last March.
The ‘Noles are long, tough, and freakishly athletic—like every team Leonard Hamilton has rolled out in the last half-a-decade—and will really test the Heels’ ability to score. How Roy approaches it will tell everyone a lot about where the 2013 UNC team is headed this March.
Now that Coach Williams’ cat is out of the bag as it were in terms of his lineup, his coaching chops are going to have to be on full display in Greensboro this weekend. He can do a lot Friday night to quell the criticism that he can’t adapt to his personnel.
Does that matter? Maybe. But then again, maybe that doesn’t matter. And maybe that’s OK.
You can follow Jordan on Twitter @BlackFalcon_nethttp://chapelboro.com/game-recap/the-cocktail-party/
Photo by Sally Sather
Senior Night is so special in college basketball. I think Coach Smith started the tradition way back in the 1970s, when his seniors were not only recognized before the game they also got to start even if they were non-scholarship players.
Dexter Strickland will have the stage to himself Saturday night as the only scholarship senior on the Carolina roster this season. Leslie McDonald would have been if he hadn’t re-shirted one year with an injury and, of course, John Henson would be a senior if he did not turn pro after his junior year.
Dexter has had an excellent career and is playing his best basketball right now. He has 31 assists and three turnovers in the last six games and has moved up to fifth in the country in assist-turnover ratio. He has played very unselfish basketball for the sake of the team and he deserves a big thank you from our fans, as well as walk-on senior Frank Tanner.
Every other year, our Senior Game is against Duke, which makes it very difficult to go out with a victory since both teams are usually very good. My senior game was 35 years ago, and we played a Duke team that was on its way to the ACC tournament championship and Final Four. When Tom Zaliagiris and I went out to center court before the game, I could not keep from crying. I was so sad my college career was coming to an end and so appreciative of our fans.
We were playing Duke for first place in the ACC regular season, and I remember Coach Smith made me sit out the game at N.C. State three days earlier with a sprained left wrist. The way the standings worked out, we were going to have to beat Duke to win the regular season, win or lose against State. So I sat out and Ged Doughton started at point guard and almost led us to victory in Raleigh.
When Saturday came around, adrenalin took over for me and Mike O’Koren, who was also playing on a badly sprained ankle. Duke had a great team with Mike Gminski, Jim Spanarkel and freshmen Gene Banks and Kenny Dennard. They were probably a little better than us and had won our first meeting at Cameron earlier in the season.
But we hung around most of the game and finally rallied on a couple of baskets by Mike to take the lead. I had a chance to put the game away with a couple of free throws and fortunately I made them both. I never felt my sprained wrist the whole game and was able to get some good shots and finished with 34 points. But they would not have meant anything if we didn’t win.
After the game, our sports information director Rick Brewer followed me as I ran off the court. He was hoping I would stay out there a little longer and celebrate with the fans. But I was so happy we won and won the ACC regular season that I couldn’t wait to get into the locker room with my teammates and coaches.
We still had games to play in the ACC and NCAA tournaments, but I’ll never forget taking off my uniform for the last time in Carmichael Auditorium. Coming to Carolina was the best decision I ever made, and the four years seemed to go so fast. I am sure that’s how Dexter will feel Saturday night.
I hope he can go out with a win against a great Duke team, just like I did.
Phil Ford was a three-time All-American at UNC, 1978 ACC Player of the Year, NBA Rookie of the Year, an NBA all-star, and was recently inducted into the College Basketball Hall of Fame.
Ford playing defense as a freshman against N.C. State in 1975
They said I wasn’t a very good defensive player my freshman year, although I thought I was trying very hard. Maybe Coach Smith didn’t agree, because we sure played a lot of zone that season while I was “learning” to play defense!
But through my playing days, and into coaching, I developed such a respect for the players and teams that play good defense. It is so important in basketball, which was illustrated by our last two victories over Virginia and Georgia Tech. Even though Virginia shot the highest percentage (58%) of any Carolina team under Coach Williams in a victory, we played good defense in three important segments of that game. First, getting back into it after falling behind by 10 in the first half, then outscoring them 8-0 to open the second half and, finally, holding them off late after it seemed they were making every tough shot.
Fortunately, we were so efficient offensively against Virginia (we had to be in order to win). They are really good and Joe Harris is so underrated. Honestly, they have enough talent to win the ACC Tournament. And it was a great win because we HAD to beat Virginia after losing up there in January. Playing the small lineup with P.J. in there most of the time with Reggie was a good match-up for us, and P.J. like everyone from both teams in the second half was really shooting the ball well.
He had a tough night offensively at Georgia Tech, but I was impressed with his maturity in other parts of the game. Young shooters, when the ball’s not going in, have to give the same effort and concentration on defense, boxing out and other aspects of the game. P.J. is growing, because his other stats were good. I’m not sure that would have been case last year or even earlier this season.
Even though we were getting good shots that weren’t going in, we were still getting those shots and got enough offensive rebounds to win in a hostile environment. We had a low loss of ball, which was very important in not giving them easy opportunities to score.
It wasn’t such a good match-up for P.J. but he did a great job on the bigger kids he was guarding and penalized them on the other end. He stayed between his man and the basket and made them shoot straight up and over him. Sometimes young players won’t try to get it back on defense when their shots aren’t falling. But that’s how far defensively P.J. has come.
Now State Saturday will be awfully tough because they have everything — size, talent, good shooters outside and inside and plenty of size — really they have all the parts to win a national championship.
We have to be ready to play from the tip, unlike it was over in Raleigh. Some people say State plays to the level of their competition, and if that’s the case they will play great in the Smith Center. They will be fire and ice when they see all that blue. Our team has to remember what they did to us over there before we made the comeback in the second half. I’m looking forward to an outstanding game and I hope we have one because State is not a team you can blow out. It’s not an impossible task, but it will be hard. It IS doable if we play the way we’re capable. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see more minutes from our other big guys because of C.J. Leslie and Richard Howell. Both of those guys are so big and really good inside.
And with us, State and Virginia all tied at 8-5, the game is very important for the ACC Tournament. You want to finish in the top four so you don’t have to play on Thursday and win four games to win the tourney. I don’t think anyone has won four games in the tourney. So, with Miami in first and Duke looking like it will finish second, one of those three teams is going to finish fifth. That’s why this game is so important. We’ve already split with Virginia and now we need to split with State.
I am really excited. It’s going to be a great environment, like the old games I played in against DT (David Thompson) and the games against some of the great teams that Coach V had when it was show time for State. I just hope we’re ready to play from the start and the crowd gets there early and really helps us. Their crowd was great in Raleigh. We have to provide the same kind of support Saturday.
Phil Ford was a three-time All-American at UNC, 1978 ACC Player of the Year and went on to be the NBA Rookie of the Year and an NBA all-star.http://chapelboro.com/ford-corners/state-awfully-tough/
I am glad I waited until after the Duke game to write this column. I’m not sure I would have known what to say about the Miami game! Even though we lost at Duke, that was much more of the Carolina team we’ve all been used to seeing for years.
Wasn’t it interesting to watch two hall of fame coaches matching wits, going against each other with strategies and counter strategies? I wasn’t surprised when Coach Williams started P.J. because it’s a good match up against Duke. Give Coach credit for realizing that and putting his best players on the floor to start the game.
It worked against Duke because of the match-up with their big forward, but it won’t work against every team. In fact, we might not have done it if Ryan Kelly was still playing for them.
Most times in the NBA, when one team goes small, the other goes small, that’s what happened throughout the game and especially when Coach K took out Plumlee with three fouls in the second half. The game turned when they made a couple of shots, like Thornton’s 3’s, that really gave them confidence. When Duke is making those threes, they’re awfully tough to guard.
On the other hand, we missed some shots and we could have won the game. Missing shots, you can correct that. You never want to be happy with the loss, because a loss is a loss, but when it’s the bounce of the ball, or you missed some and they made some, that’s going to happen. The losses where you leave something on the floor when it’s over, that’s where you have to be concerned as a coach and a player . We did not leave anything on the court at Duke.
Both teams really battled, and both didn’t play as well as they could. But it was like a heavyweight championship match, the intensity was there from opening tip. As Carolina fan, you wanted more, but basketball purists watching across the country had to love that game.
I had hoped we’d be ready to play after what happened at Miami but, even as a coach, I could never tell whether a team was ready during warm-ups They could be looking like they weren’t concentrating and then set world on fire. Or the other way around.
Coach Smith used to say you can scout teams all you want but you don’t know until first four of five minutes of the game what both teams are going to do. That’s really your scouting report, like our small line-up probably surprised them a little.
We got much better shots in the first half because we were able to get into the seams of their defense and make it react or draw support from other defenders. Too many bad things can happen when you allow penetration. We got better looks, offensive rebounds and got them into foul trouble. I think Duke knew at the half that they had to stop our penetration.
There are two ways to do that. You can take the pressure off just to keep your man in front of you, which is what Duke did, or you can be so tight on your man the catch. They gave up some open jump shots, but we couldn’t get them to go down. And they got a couple of key offensive rebounds that they turned into baskets.
Going down the stretch, sometimes ill-advised shots are going to come from inexperienced players who want to make something happen. That gets better with experience and the only way you get through that is to go through it. And some of our younger guys are going through it now.
The Virginia game Saturday will be interesting. On one hand, I wouldn’t be surprised if P.J. started again at the 4 because they are small and it’s a good match-up in that regard. But Virginia has a different style than Duke, they walk the ball up and try to get into a physical game with you. So, for that reason, Coach might go back with the size.
It’s a big game for sure, and our guys need to come ready to play again.
Image by The Duke Yearlook
Playing at Miami Saturday is the toughest game we’ve had and may be the toughest game of the entire season. They’re awfully good, very big and talented and, man, can they get out and run. And they’re so experienced with six seniors who play so well together for Coach Larranaga, who’s done a fantastic job this season.
Do we have a chance? Sure we do. How many games have we won over the years where people said we had no chance, no shot?
Number 1, we have to make shots. We can’t go down there and expect to win without taking good shots and making a high percentage. And we can’t turn the ball over and let them get into their transition game, where they make layups and dunks with their crowd going wild. The only two games Miami sells out are Duke and Carolina, and after what they did to Duke we can’t let them get going.
And our key players can’t get into foul trouble. Our defense has to be aggressive but smart, making them take tough jump shots with a hand in their face. And when they miss, we’ve got to rebound the basketball. (Reggie) Johnson and (Kenny) Kadji and (Julian) Gamble are a load in the middle, and all four of our big men have got to contribute, play tough “D” and box out.
But, you know, we’re capable of winning. Our confidence is good at this point. Virginia Tech was a great win the way we came back and toughed it out, and the way we shot the ball against Wake Forest has got to continue at Miami. This will be a real challenge, one of the few times Carolina is an underdog. Miami is No. 2 in the RPI, right behind Duke where we have to play next week.
We’ve gotten a lot better and Coach Williams has done a tremendous job with this team through all the injuries and missed games. He knows you have to treat a young team differently than a veteran team when they make mistakes because young teams can be fragile and you don’t want to tear down their confidence.
I’m really impressed by Marcus’ play and especially how he’s rebounding the basketball for such a little guy. How many times does your point guard lead you in rebounding? Sure, some of them were long rebounds that went right to Marcus, but when I played I didn’t get many of those. Even if the ball was coming right to me, Mitch Kupchak would have knocked me over to get it!
We’re still so young, but I think this is one of those games we’ll play well Saturday. We may be the healthiest we’ve been in a long time. I think everybody will play and we’ve built some depth because of so many guys being hurt that others have had to step up or step in and play more.
It’s funny how college basketball has changed. You don’t have good freshmen playing against great seniors anymore, like Skip Wise playing against David Thompson. Never again because the great seniors are long gone. The better you are, the faster you go to the NBA. DT never would have been around until he was a senior; he might have gone after he played for the freshman team!
People ask me how does Miami get four kids from North Carolina? Most were recruited by former coach Frank Haith, who was an assistant at Wake Forest and had great connections in this state. And Wake Forest was always good about getting those second-tier kids who, by the time they were juniors, had developed into really good players. Miami has done the same thing, and maybe no team in college basketball ranked that high will ever have that many seniors again.
But no team is invincible. We always have a chance.
Phil Ford was a three-time All-American at UNC, 1978 ACC Player of the Year and went on to be the NBA Rookie of the Year and an NBA all-star.
I was so impressed and inspired by the first half of our game against Maryland. It showed what kind of a team we can be. We finally got Reggie and James Michael on the same page. Imagine what we can do if P.J. and Marcus get on that same page, all at the same time.
In the second half you have to give Maryland most of the credit; they’re an ACC team and capable, they just beat N.C. State. The way we took them out of their offense in the first half and the number of balls we deflected shows what we can do on defense.
If we keep improving we have a chance. There is no dominant team in the country, like last year with Kentucky. We’re going have to keep riding who’s hot in that game. It was Reggie vs. Maryland, at Florida State it was PJ, the next game it might be James Michael. But if we keep improving, I think our potential is off the charts.
You know I watch the point guards very closely, and I really like Marcus (Paige). He’s getting the job done with young players around him. And I’ll say it till the cows come home, he’s a good shooter. I’ve seen him at practice and I watched him before the season. He can shoot.
Six assists and no turnovers against Maryland, that’s pretty good. The players they have around them have a lot to do with the point guard’s success.
I hope we can handle Georgia Tech, and then comes State Saturday in Raleigh. That’s gonna be a toughie, but Carolina teams have done well over the years when nobody said we had a chance.
I remember my freshman year, we HAD State with David (Thompson) and Tommy (Burleson) and Monte (Towe) late in the game in Reynolds Coliseum before it slipped away. Then we finally beat them at Carmichael and again in the ACC Tournament.
And our team that year wasn’t a whole lot different from this one. I was a freshman, Walter (Davis) and Johnny Kue(ster) and T. LaGarde were all sophomores. We even had a guy named Mickey Bell who came off the bench to give us a lift like Jackson Simmons has done.
We DID have Mitch Kupchak, who was a junior and becoming one of the best big men in the country. But Mitch struggled as a freshman and sophomore. If we had legitimate juniors and seniors like it used to be, a kid could afford to come along more slowly . . . but now they have to play earlier in their careers.
We have pretty good big people – young, but they have size and length and are being taught well. Remember, we went to the Final Four in 1977 with three freshmen rotating at center – Rich Yonaker, Jeff Wolff and Steve Krafcisin.
So if the other four guys around them do what they’re supposed to do, you can get it done with young people inside.
Phil Ford was a three-time All-American at UNC, 1978 ACC Player of the Year and went on to be the NBA Rookie of the Year and an NBA all-star.
Vince and the 1997 Tar Heels started 0-3 in the ACC before making the Final Four.
No, I wasn’t surprised what happened at Florida State. I’ve played, coached and watched so much Carolina Basketball over the years — I’m never surprised at what the Tar Heels can do.
Now, I knew that would be a tough win down there. That’s a good basketball team, with great guards and good wing players. They’re well-coached, and it’s always fun in Tallahasse.
After Thursday night, with a bad finish, to muster up the confidence needed to win on Saturday was impressive. I’m not sure how many more teams are going to win in Tallahassee, so I’m really glad we did.
We played with more toughness, and you have to credit the coaching staff after two losses and things not turning out the way we wanted going down the stretch in our first two ACC games.
You know, in Coach Smith’s last season, we started off 0-3 in the ACC and might have been 0-4 if we hadn’t rallied from nine points down against N.C. State at home. The team has to believe in your judgment as a coach, and Coach Smith told our guys that year that they weren’t a bad basketball team, that we were better than our record and there was still a lot of basketball left to be played. And you remember what happened! (Carolina won 16 straight games, won the ACC Tournament and reached the 1997 Final Four).
Our team believed in Coach Smith, as this team believes in Coach Williams. Winning a big game on the road really builds confidence, even more than at home because, like I said, Florida State is not going to lose too many more games in their arena. And the way we did it will build even more confidence. We were down late, but we made the plays. Marcus (Paige) made a great defensive play after Jackson Simmons had his only turnover.
And how about that kid! Where did he come from? I think we had him at center at the end of the game. But, you know, I’ve since learned that he holds the record for career rebounds in North Carolina high school basketball.
Coach Williams did a tremendous job of adjusting the game plan and I look for that to continue. He’s doing a good job taking advantage of everyone’s skills, and it’s going to be one of those years.
When we had to make plays we made them. PJ was incredible. People say he’s just a shooter, but he’s much more than that. He’s so strong, can put it on the floor and, defensively, he can be off the charts if he keeps improving.
He had it going that day and we got him the ball. I think that’s the way it’s going to be. Whoever has it that night, we’ll be looking to him and try to get him the ball. Some nights it may be Reggie, James Michael or even Marcus.
This isn’t a typical Carolina team in the sense that we want to play our way, no matter what the other team does. We took what Florida State gave us and didn’t force the issue, made the plays that were there.
Carolina fans are used to having a team with set positions. We got a lot of guys who can play different positions and do a lot of things. I believe that’s what we’re going to do.
But we have to do it with confidence so it looks like we know what we’re doing out there. That’s going to take some time — it’s not a typical Carolina team with our system of the 1 through 5 men.
Normally, I’d want to get right back on the court after such a big win. But this staff is still teaching, and any time we can get practice under our belts will make us better. We’re still creating good habits.
Of all the quality kids who have come through the Carolina Basketball program over the last half century, none was any more real than Mitch Kupchak, the Tar Heels’ star center and ACC Player of the Year in 1976.
Kupchak faked nothing. He came from a blue collar background in the middle of Long Island, where wealth abounded to the north, south and east. He admired Dean Smith and entrusted the to-be Hall of Fame coach with his future as an underdeveloped basketball player.
As a freshman in 1973, Kupchak was lost and admitted it. Things got better as a sophomore starter during a second straight season when despite winning 47 games over two years Carolina remained overshadowed by N.C. State’s national championship team. Then the worm turned for Kupchak and the Tar Heels.
In 1975, junior Kupchak, sophomore Walter Davis and freshman Phil Ford led the Tar Heels back to the ACC Championship, defeating David Thompson and State in a taut title game in Greensboro. Kupchak shed tears of joy that night and, two weeks later, tears of heartbreak when Carolina lost in the Sweet Sixteen to an inferior Syracuse team.
Kupchak faced career-threatening back surgery in the off-season and remembered lying in the operating room ready to take a massive needle in his spine when Smith walked in wearing a hospital gown and mask. Smith placed his hand on Kupchak’s shoulder until his star center fell asleep.
Recovered from the surgery, Kupchak went on to a stellar senior season, leading UNC to an 11-1 record and first place in the ACC. But after being named the league’s best player, Kupchak’s college career ended with more heartbreak in ACC and NCAA tournament upset losses to Virginia and Alabama, respectively.
Kupchak (and three other Tar Heels) did earn a Gold Medal under Smith and Bill Guthridge at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal.
His teammates, coaches and great friends Kupchak made in Chapel Hill were ecstatic when the Washington Bullets picked him 13th in the 1976 NBA draft. He signed a huge contract for those days and immediately got tagged with the nickname of “Rich Kupchak” by his buddies.
Two years later, Mitch and Wes Unseld led the Bullets to the 1978 NBA title. How could life have turned out any better for the thoughtful, hard-working kid from New York, who always seemed wise beyond his years and remained quiet and conservative even in his new-found fame and fortune?
But, in truth, life was just beginning for Mitch Kupchak.
His four solid seasons in Washington led to a (then) massive long-term offer from the Lakers, urged by Magic Johnson who told team owner Jerry Buss that Kupchak was the missing piece to an NBA championship. Twenty-six games into his first season, Kupchak blew out his knee and would not play again until 1983. By then, “Big Game” James Worthy had come from Carolina to join the Lakers’ front court.
But Kupchak had made contingency plans by including in his contract a job working in the Laker’s organization when he was done playing.
While rehabbing his mangled knee, Kupchak began apprenticing Lakers legendary General Manager Jerry West and was soon to become his protégé. He retired in 1986, a year after winning another NBA Championship, and became West’s assistant. He also finished his MBA at UCLA, helping his readiness to run a pro franchise.
While working with West, and then taking over as GM in 2000, the team has won seven more of the Lakers’ 17 NBA titles by first trading for the rights to 17-year-old Kobe Bryant (originally drafted by Charlotte, of all places) and then Shaquille O’Neal. Kupchak has also survived some tough stretches that included six seasons without a championship and Bryant’s trial for alleged rape in Colorado.
Dozens of NBA stars and journeymen moving in and out of the Lakers organization, plus the two championship tenures of Coach Phil Jackson, have kept Kupchak in the headlines more than he wanted. Having failed to win the last two NBA titles, he was looking for a major re-haul this off-season.
After signing free agent point guard Steve Nash, Kupchak pulled off what even he called a “grand slam home run” by trading for center Dwight Howard and giving away relatively little to sign Superman. With an aging Bryant, all-star forward Pau Gasol and a deep bench that includes former UNC star Antawn Jamison, Howard and Nash have created Showtime II in Los Angeles.
At 58, with wife Claire and two teenage children, Mitch Kupchak’s one-time simpler life remains full and fulfilled but far from finished. Learning from Dean Smith and Jerry West will keep you going strong for a long time.
Soccer Triumph and Tragedy
Congratulations to UNC’s Heather O’Reilly and Tobin Heath for helping the U.S. Women’s soccer team to the Gold Medal in London, avenging a loss to Japan in the World Cup two years ago. It marked the USA team’s third straight Gold Medal, the third for O’Reilly and the second for Heath.
And our deepest condolences to the family, teammates and friends of former UNC men’s soccer captain Kirk Urso, who led Carolina to its only NCAA championship in 2011. Urso died suddenly this week in Columbus, Ohio, where he was playing professional soccer.