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As Easy as A-B-C

Are the ’98 Heels the greatest UNC team to not win it all? by Dan Wiederer

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s the word surfaced—trickling out slowly at first, then spreading like the popularity of Titanic and the Internet—a state of shock blanketed the state of North Carolina. Wait. Dean Smith is retiring? Can’t be. Now? It was October 1997. Smith was 66 years old. Seven months earlier, he had leapfrogged the legendary Adolph Rupp as the all-time winningest basketball coach in Division I history. He had 879 career wins to his name, 11 Final Four appearances, and national championship triumphs in 1982 and 1993. Oh, and the squad he had assembled for the 1997–98 season was being hyped as a national title frontrunner, loaded with stars (Antawn Jamison, Vince Carter, and Shammond Williams, to name three) and solidified with superb complementary parts like Ed Cota, Ademola Okulaja, and Makhtar Ndiaye. Boy, it sure didn’t seem right. Smith, the man who defined North Carolina basketball, the legend whose name was on the Tar Heels’ arena, was calling it quits just six days before practice began? With such a talent-loaded team? “I knew some team, some day would be my last,” Smith said at an unforgettable press conference that made his decision official. “Yes, there is guilt. I look at [the players’] faces and I just couldn’t handle that. But I still believe this is best for them, unless I could give them what I want to.” Throughout the program, the shock was obvious. “He’s the father we all have at school,” Shammond Williams said. “And he’s not going to be here anymore.” Yet as painful as the news was, Smith also felt the timing was right. Not only had he run out of gas, but he was making his announcement at a time that would allow longtime right-hand man Bill Guthridge to take over as head coach with a team that was more than talented enough to make a run at the national title. © 2010 Maple Street Press, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Tar Heel Tip-Off 2010–2011 | 111


UNC HEROES OF YESTERYEAR

So, as painful and uncertain as the start of the 1997–98 season was, the Tar Heels united like family, sharpened their focus, and vowed to make their old leader proud. By the time the season ended, they had succeeded. The Tar Heels tied a program record with 34 wins, held a top-five ranking the entire season, captured the ACC Tournament title with an exhilarating win over Duke, and later booked a trip to San Antonio for the Final Four. Woody Durham, the voice of the Tar Heels since 1971, looks back to that season with both wonder and amazement. “It’s easy to forget just how darn good that team was,” Durham said this spring. “That group will never be celebrated at the highest level because they didn’t win the national championship. But when you stop and remember the players they had and the success that they built given the circumstances, my goodness was that a fantastic basketball team.” In Durham’s estimation, there are two Carolina teams that are most often mentioned as the best to never win it all. There

was the 1983–84 bunch led by Michael Jordan that held down the #1 ranking for most of the season, yet stumbled in the Sweet 16 with a crushing 72–68 loss to Indiana. And there was the 1986–87 group sparked by Kenny Smith and J.R. Reid that fell victim to Rony Seikaly and Syracuse in an Elite Eight loss. But the 1997–98 group probably belongs on that list as well, if not at the very top. Smith’s shocking retirement so close to the start of the season had the potential to frazzle the Tar Heels. But Guthridge wouldn’t allow it. Commanding respect and loyalty from day one, Guthridge never had to fight for his players’ trust. Instead, the Heels quickly bought into his coaching philosophy and vision because, well, it was so similar to what they had always known. If Smith was always known as a perfectionist, frequently picking nits and criticizing his teams’ play even after wins, Guthridge used his optimistic personality

1997–98 UNC Team Stats (Players with 5+ MPG) Player

G

MPG

PPG

RPG

APG

SPG

BPG

TOPG

A:TO

FG%

FT%

3Pt%

TS%

PER

Jamison, Antawn

37

33.2

22.2

10.5

0.8

0.8

0.8

1.7

0.49

57.9

66.7

40.0

60.7

29.2

WORP/35 5.08

Cota, Ed

37

33.0

8.1

3.6

7.4

1.6

0.2

3.1

2.42

49.3

82.4

30.3

58.3

20.0

3.15

Williams, Shammond

38

32.9

16.8

3.2

4.2

1.0

0.1

2.6

1.64

48.8

91.1

40.0

64.0

22.7

3.42

Okulaja, Ademola

38

31.3

8.0

5.6

2.1

1.2

0.2

1.6

1.36

41.4

62.3

25.8

49.6

13.8

1.12

Carter, Vince

38

31.2

15.6

5.1

2.0

1.2

1.0

1.1

1.85

59.1

68.0

41.1

65.9

25.3

3.98

Ndiaye, Makhtar

38

23.8

5.8

4.1

0.8

0.6

1.4

1.3

0.59

48.1

64.2

27.3

51.1

12.0

0.72

Haywood, Brendan

38

8.1

2.9

2.4

0.2

0.3

0.9

0.6

0.26

53.0

63.5

57.3

22.2

0.90

Team

38

40.7

81.9

39.8

18.4

6.8

5.0

13.0

1.42

51.8

71.1

36.2

59.7

19.5

19.10

112 | Tar Heel Tip-Off 2010–2011

© 2010 Maple Street Press, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Photo on previous page: Craig Jones/Getty Images  Photo this page: Will Owens/Getty Images

In mid-October of 1997, Bill Guthridge was introduced as new head coach to a shocked community of Carolina fans.


As Easy As A-B-C to motivate and energize things. While Smith may have had a more animated sideline presence, Guthridge’s more sedate demeanor never left his players confused about the competitive fire burning within. Besides, the principles of Carolina basketball didn’t change a bit. The Tar Heels still prided themselves on selfless play, and with one of the most talent-packed rosters in the country, they delivered their message emphatically during the beginning stages of the Guthridge era. An 84–56 win over Middle Tennessee State was an impressive, if predictable, blowout to begin the season. The Tar Heels followed that two weeks later with a triumph in the Great Alaska Shootout (including a 109–68 dismantling of Baron Davis and #7 UCLA in the opening round, and a championship win over Brian Cardinal, Brad Miller, and #6 Purdue) followed shortly after by a defeat of Louisville in the Great Eight Classic. By New Year’s Day, UNC was still undefeated, at 14–0, and proceeded scored victories in their first three ACC games as well. An 89–83 overtime road loss at Maryland ended the

run of perfection in the season’s 18th game, but the Tar Heels rebounded from that loss with a nine-game winning streak that gave them a 26–1 record and a #1 ranking in late February. This wasn’t just a team with potential. It was a highenergy group that had fun playing together and delivered an excess of clips for highlight reels. Perhaps the most thrilling victory during the 26–1 start to the season was a 107–100 double-overtime triumph at Georgia Tech on which the Tar Heels’ three stars—Jamison, Carter, and Williams—were determined to leave their mark. After combining for 62 points in a January home win over the Yellow Jackets, the Carolina trio turned things up yet another notch in Atlanta. Williams went for 42, Jamison had 31, and Carter chipped in with 19. Ninety-two points from three players. Durham’s favorite tale from that game came in overtime when Williams, with his defender pressuring him deep out onto the perimeter, looked over to Guthridge on the bench.

POTENTIAL IMPACT OF THE ALPHABETICAL ROTATION In 1998, coach Bill Guthridge used a much publicized (and scrutinized) alphabetical rotation to platoon his “Starting Six” (Carter, Cota, Jamison, Ndiaye, Okulaja, and Williams). Every sixth game, consensus National Player of the Year Antawn Jamison would begin the game on the bench under this strategy. While it seems crazy to ever bring your NPOY off the bench, it was senior Shammond Williams who appeared to have the hardest time adjusting to his (occasional) role as a non-starter. As (bad) luck would have it, Williams’s turn to sit came around against Utah in the national semifinals. And while Williams may have had a bad game regardless (he shot 1–13 from the field as a starter in the ’97 Final Four), the decision to bring him off the bench vs. the Utes remains one of the great “What ifs?” in Carolina hoops history. For the record, Carolina’s two most obvious options to become full-time sixth men (the versatile Okulaja who could play all three frontcourt positions and Ndiaye, clearly the least valuable of the “Starting Six”) were also the two that played the best off the bench (relative to their production as starters). Player

G

MPG

PPG

RPG

APG

SPG

BPG

TOPG

A:TO

FG%

FT%

3Pt%

PER

WORP/ Starting Premium* 35

Shammond Williams (Starter)

32

34.1

17.9

3.3

4.5

1.1

0.1

2.6

1.77

51.1

91.6

42.1

24.3

3.97

Shammond Williams (Reserve)

6

26.7

10.0

2.7

2.7

0.8

0.0

2.7

1.00

35.2

86.7

28.1

12.5

0.52

Ed Cota (Starter)

31

33.4

8.2

3.5

7.6

1.5

0.2

3.1

2.46

49.4

81.3

29.6

20.0

3.20

Ed Cota (Reserve)

7

30.7

7.3

3.8

6.3

1.7

0.2

2.8

2.24

48.6

90.9

33.3

19.8

2.89

Antawn Jamison (Starter)

32

33.2

22.4

10.5

0.8

0.7

0.8

1.7

0.49

58.7

65.1

35.7

29.4

5.11

Antawn Jamison (Reserve)

5

33.2

20.8

10.8

0.8

1.0

0.8

1.6

0.50

52.1

76.3

100.0

28.5

4.89

Vince Carter (Starter)

32

31.8

15.5

5.2

2.0

1.2

1.0

1.1

1.91

59.3

66.7

39.3

24.7

3.92

Vince Carter (Reserve)

6

27.8

16.2

5.0

1.5

1.0

0.5

1.0

1.50

58.2

72.7

50.0

28.7

4.31

Ademola Okulaja (Starter)

32

31.7

7.8

5.8

2.2

1.2

0.2

1.7

1.31

40.1

62.9

23.8

13.6

1.09

Ademola Okulaja (Reserve)

6

29.0

8.7

4.3

1.5

1.0

0.3

0.8

1.80

47.7

55.6

38.5

14.7

1.25

Makhtar Ndiaye (Starter)

30

24.3

5.7

4.3

0.8

0.5

1.5

1.3

0.60

47.3

61.4

12.5

11.7

0.67

Makhtar Ndiaye (Reserve)

8

22.0

6.1

3.1

0.6

0.9

1.0

1.1

0.56

51.3

77.8

66.7

13.5

0.93

763 111 105 91 87 72

* Starting Premium is an index comparing a player’s WORP/35 as a starter to his WORP/35 as a reserve. A premium of 200 means that a player is twice as productive as a starter, while a premium of 50 means that he’s only half as productive as a starter.

© 2010 Maple Street Press, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Tar Heel Tip-Off 2010–2011 | 113


UNC HEROES OF YESTERYEAR

STATISTICS AGAINST TOP-25 COMPETITION In addition to questioning the alphabetical rotation, the other major criticism levied against rookie head coach Guthridge in ’98 (at least in retrospect) regarded his inability to develop UNC’s young bench (namely, freshmen Brendan Haywood, Max Owens, and Brian Bersticker). While Owens and Bersticker never really developed into big-time talents at Carolina (and almost certainly weren’t ready for primetime in ’98), it can definitely be argued that Haywood—even as a frosh—should have had a more prominent role on UNC’s razor-thin roster. While his per-minute efficiency was clearly better than Ndiaye’s (as seen in the 1998 Team Stats table), it’s easy to assume that Haywood’s minutes and production were skewed in the direction of the cupcake segment of Carolina’s schedule (as is generally the case with bench freshmen). But, as the table shows, the opposite is actually true—Haywood played more and (slightly) better minutes against the Heels’ top opponents. Would UNC have won a title with Haywood getting 15–20 minutes per game at the expense of Ndiaye and, to a lesser extent, Okulaja? Another classic “What If?” from the ’98 season. And, while the consensus of the Tar Heel faithful seems to be that the 1998 Heels would have cut down the nets had Dean Smith stuck around for just one more campaign, we’ll never really know if that’s true. Either way, true Carolina fans will forever be grateful to Bill Guthridge for his decades of loyal service, dedication to the program, and unparalleled big man development. Player

G

MPG

PPG

RPG

APG

SPG

BPG

TOPG

A:TO

FG%

FT%

3Pt%

PER

WORP / 35

Haywood: vs. Top 25

14

8.5

3.0

2.6

0.1

0.4

0.8

0.6

0.11

69.6

83.3

23.1

1.01

Haywood: vs. non-Top 25

24

7.9

2.8

2.3

0.2

0.3

0.9

0.6

0.36

44.2

58.8

21.6

0.84

Cota: vs. Top 25

14

34.3

8.6

4.2

7.6

1.2

0.1

3.1

2.43

49.4

73.8

30.8

19.3

3.10

Cota: vs. non-Top 25

23

32.2

7.7

3.2

7.3

1.8

0.2

3.0

2.42

49.2

88.3

30.0

20.4

3.18

Carter: vs. Top 25

14

31.0

16.1

5.1

1.5

0.9

0.8

1.0

1.50

60.7

71.7

35.3

24.5

3.76

Carter: vs. non-Top 25

24

31.3

15.3

5.1

2.2

1.4

1.1

1.1

2.04

58.1

66.0

43.8

25.7

4.11

Williams: vs. Top 25

14

34.1

18.0

3.6

3.9

0.9

0.1

2.7

1.42

46.7

90.6

29.2

21.5

3.20

Williams: vs. non-Top 25

24

32.2

16.0

3.0

4.5

1.1

0.0

2.5

1.78

50.4

91.5

47.6

23.5

3.55

Jamison: vs. Top 25

14

34.6

21.6

11.6

0.7

0.7

0.6

1.8

0.40

58.5

60.8

0.0

26.4

4.51

Jamison: vs. non-Top 25

23

32.3

22.6

9.9

0.9

0.8

1.0

1.6

0.56

57.5

69.0

60.0

31.1

5.43

Okulaja: vs. Top 25

14

31.8

6.4

5.4

2.0

0.9

0.3

1.2

1.65

36.6

45.0

33.3

10.7

0.36

Okulaja: vs. non-Top 25

24

31.0

8.9

5.8

2.2

1,0

0.1

1.8

1.24

44.3

66.0

21.1

15.2

1.45

Ndiaye: vs. Top 25***

14

20.7

4.3

3.7

0.4

0.6

1.6

1.4

0.30

46.6

38.5

20.0

9.5

0.21

Ndiaye: vs. non-Top 25

24

25.6

6.6

4.3

1.0

0.6

1.3

1.2

0.79

48.9

72.5

33.3

13.3

1.02

Big Game James Index** 120 97 91 90 83 25 21

UNC’s 14 games against the Top 25 in 1997–98 were: UCLA (#7 at the time of the meeting), Purdue (6), Princeton (22), FSU (17), Clemson (21), FSU (20), Duke (1), Maryland (24), Duke (1), Maryland (20), Duke (1), Michigan State (16), Connecticut (6), and Utah (7). ** The Big Game James Index (BGJI) is a measure of how well a player performs against top competition. A score of 100 means his performance (in terms of WORP / 35) is the same against top-25 and nontop-25 competition. A score of 110 means his performance is 10% better versus the top 25, while a score of 90 means his performance is 10% worse in those games. *** Ndiaye averaged a staggering 4.2 fouls per game vs. top-25 opponents (fouling out in seven of the 14 games) as compared to “only” 3.1 against non-top-25 foes.

“Coach,” Williams shouted. “Should I take him?” To which Guthridge simply directed, “Yeah.” The next thing anyone knew Williams had the Georgia Tech defense tied in a knot and was calmly burying a pull-up jumper. Still, Jamison was the undisputed superstar of the squad, an absolute low post beast who scored at will and dominated the backboards. Averaging 22.2 points and 10.5 rebounds per game, Jamison became the first Tar Heel in 33 years to average a double-double. He set new UNC single-season records for made field goals (316) and rebounds (389) and was an easy pick as college basketball’s National Player of the Year, carrying home the Wooden

114 | Tar Heel Tip-Off 2010–2011

Award, the Naismith Award, and the USBWA Oscar Robertson Trophy. Without question, Jamison’s signature performance came in a 97–73 destruction of rival Duke at the Smith Center. In a game that elevated college basketball’s most celebrated rivalry to new heights, the #2 Tar Heels were intent on marking their territory against the top-ranked Blue Devils. No one was more determined than Jamison. It’s not just that he made 14 of his 20 field goal attempts. It’s not just that he dumped in 35 points and added 11 rebounds against the #1 team in college basketball. It’s that he was so explosive and so efficient that he touched the ball on

© 2010 Maple Street Press, LLC. All Rights Reserved.


As Easy As A-B-C As fun as the Tar Heels were to watch, their statistics backed up that dominance. Over 38 games, they shot 51.8% overall, best in the country. Perhaps more impressively, on defense they held opponents to 38.4% shooting, proving they were not only explosive on offense but gritty and united on defense, too. Cota made a living off feeding both Jamison and Carter for dunks. By season’s end, he had 274 assists shattering Kenny Smith’s previous single-season mark of 235. Shammond Williams, meanwhile, set his own records, shooting 91.1% from the free-throw line for the year, best of any ACC player ever. Williams also finished with 233 career three-pointers, most of any UNC player in history. In late February, however, the Tar Heels’ hopes of winning the ACC regular season title took a huge blow when they were walloped 86–72 at home by NC State— without question the biggest upset in college basketball that season. Wolfpack guard C.C. Harrison drained all seven of his first half three-point attempts and scored 31 points in the shocker. “It just shows that today was their day,” Williams said afterward. A week later, it was Duke’s day against UNC. With a share of the ACC championship on the line, the Tar Heels played fantastically for 25 minutes at Cameron Indoor Stadium, and led 64–47 with a little less than 11 minutes to

Photo at top: Doug Pensinger/Getty Images  Photo at bottom: Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

No Tar Heel—not even Michael Jordan—finished as acrobatically above the rim as Vince Carter. offense for a total of 53 seconds, a legendary performance on a huge stage. Adding to the electricity of that night was Carter, who may have delivered the most impressive missed dunk in college basketball history in the game’s final three minutes. With Carolina in the middle of a 7–0 run that started hammering the nails into the Blue Devils’ coffin, Carter knocked a pass from Roshown McLeod to Steve Wojciechowski into the open court. Cota snatched the ball on the run and on a three-on-one fast break fired a hard underhand lob off the glass. Carter, with his elbows at rim level, went up for a twohanded flush that was so impressive and so nasty that almost no one in the arena realized the jam missed. “Hello!” ESPN commentator Dick Vitale shouted. “Hello! Hello!” That was just the type of excitement the Tar Heels could generate—even their misses could wind up as popular YouTube clips.

Though never a big scorer, Ed Cota had a variety of ways to get it done in the paint (including his patented floater).

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Tar Heel Tip-Off 2010–2011 | 115


play. But behind Wojciechowski and Elton Brand, the Blue Devils rallied, scored a 77–75 victory, and won the league championship outright. That set up an intriguing rubber match a week later in the title game of the ACC Tournament. Jamison was questionable due to a groin injury, but he fought through the pain to torment Duke one last time, totaling 22 points and 18 rebounds in an 83–68 romp at the Greensboro Coliseum. “The emotion was there today and the excitement was there,” Guthridge told reporters after the win. “This is a veteran team. They know how to handle things. We try to play hard, play smart, and have fun. This team did all three today.” The Tar Heels continued to do all three things over the next two weeks. A first-round NCAA Tournament win over Navy came fairly easily in Hartford, CT. A ten-point second-round defeat of UNC-Charlotte required much more effort, and overtime. Strangely, both wins also came with Dean Smith in the CBS studio as a guest analyst, adding to the peculiarity of the season. On the second weekend of the Tournament, the Heels returned to Greensboro for the East Regional, thumping Michigan State 73–58 in the Sweet 16, then outlasting Connecticut 75–64. The win over the Huskies gave Guthridge his 34th victory of the season, the most ever by a first year coach

By his senior season in ’98, Shammond Williams had developed into a guy who could beat his defender off the dribble and from deep. 116 | Tar Heel Tip-Off 2010–2011

and sent Carolina back to the Final Four for the fifth time in eight seasons. Fittingly, Guthridge was named National Coach of the Year by the National Association of Basketball Coaches. But his quest to bring home a national title went unfulfilled. At the Alamodome in San Antonio, Carolina’s usually potent offense went ice cold. As the only #1 seed at the Final Four, the Tar Heels were the heavy favorites to cut down the nets. But a Utah Utes team led by Andre Miller and Michael Doleac instead slapped a season-ending 65–59 loss on the Heels. UNC missed 20 of its 23 three-point attempts and left the floor that night feeling a huge level of devastation that they had come so close to winning it all, yet were instead left to swallow a season-ending loss in the national semifinals for the third time in four years. Still, Guthridge beamed about the character of his squad. “No coach could ask for any more than what this team has given me,” he said shortly after the Utah loss. “I would go to war with them any day of the year. I’d like to have them all as my sons. I think the world of these guys. I’m sorry we couldn’t find a way to win.” If Guthridge felt such a deep admiration for his players, it’s fair to say the feeling was mutual. Taking over the reins from Smith in such a pressure-packed and uncertain situation, Guthridge handled himself with admirable grace, embarking on a three-season journey as head coach that included two Final Four trips. Tar Heel fans will always admire the 1997–98 team for its ability to continue the program’s winning tradition with such a highly entertaining style of play. “I think that team showed that it wasn’t a new era of North Carolina basketball,” Smith said. “It was simply a continuation.” Still, especially for the players on that squad, there will always be scars that the season didn’t end with a national championship victory. In the fall of 2009, back on campus for UNC’s starstudded professional alumni game, Jamison tried to express the sting. “To this day, it hurts,” he said. “Because you see the guys who have won [it all]. And you know that you were so close and you could have attained that, and you came up short. Those are the things you continue to hit your head against the wall for. Because you came so close and you couldn’t get it done.”  MSP

Dan Wiederer has been living in North Carolina and covering the ACC since 2004. His college basketball coverage has received numerous awards, most notably from the Associated Press Sports Editors, and his writing has also been twice recognized in The Best American Sports Writing series.

© 2010 Maple Street Press, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Photo: Craig Jones/Getty Images

UNC HEROES OF YESTERYEAR


As Easy as A-B-C