North Carolina's all-time hoops roster reads like a who's who in college basketball. Michael Jordan. Phil Ford. Walter Davis. Jerry Stackhouse. James Worthy. Bob McAdoo. Len Rosenbluth. Vince Carter.
In Dean Smith, the Tar Heels have one of the game's coaching icons.
And that's just for starters.
After nearly 100 years of hoops, the Heels have had just 10 losing seasons (three came in their first five seasons). They've won titles (NCAA, ACC, NIT, Helms), produced NBA talent and been a NCAA tournament contender every decade. They're the only school to play in the title game in the '40s, '50s, '60s, '70s, '80s, '90s and 2000s.
That lasting excellence and periods of dominance make Carolina No. 2 on the list of greatest programs.
It's essentially a testimony to the Heels' overall résumé. They rank among the best teams in nearly every measure of success.
UNC has four NCAA titles (4th), been to 17 Final Fours (2nd) and has won 71 percent of its NCAA tournament games (3rd). Those 40 berths to the Big Dance? Third.
The Heels' 1,950 wins are just 16 behind Kentucky. The .7361 overall win percentage also is right on the Wildcats.
UNC has won 33 regular-season conference titles (4th), and at least two a decade since 1920. Only Kansas and Kentucky have done better.
Carolina has won at least 25 games 8 times in the last 15 years, and at least 30 four times. Maybe that's why they've been a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament 12 times, best in tourney history.
The Heels have sent 70 players to the NBA, according to basketballreference.com. Only UCLA has sent more.
Fourteen Heels have been consensus All-Americans 19 times. Four players (Ford, Jordan, Jamison and Tyler Hansbrough) have won the Wooden Award.
The most impressive statline? North Carolina didn't miss the NCAA tourney between 1975 and 2001, a streak of 27 years and the NCAA record.
Essentially, those stats are ever so slightly better than Kansas, which is No. 3 on this list. The Heels nearly match Kansas' overall success, and are better in the NCAA tournament and NBA player production. Those are ever-so-slight distinctions, but serve as the deciding factors here.
No, the 1957 NCAA title game isn't the deciding factor, but it's a good place to start.
Kansas featured Wilt Chamberlain, the game's most dominant player in his day. The Heels were the No. 1 ranked team and hadn't lost all season. Perhaps the ensuring 54-53 triple overtime Tar Heel victory wasn't what some expected, but it remains one of the game's most exciting and memorable finishes.
(To underscore UNC's rich hoops history, the 32-0 season broke the school record for wins – Heels were 30-5 about a decade before – and was the second undefeated season, matching the 1924's squad's 26-0 mark.)
The title also established Frank McGuire as a larger-than-life figure in Chapel Hill. He'd left St. John's in 1952 to come to UNC and had trouble convincing recruits to leave the New York area, but by 1955, McGuire had finally gathered enough talent to compete with N.C. State in the powerhouse ACC. The NCAA title was his crowning achievement.
His Heels won three more ACC regular-season titles in the next four years, but left after allegations of minor NCAA violations.
Those allegations turned out to be gift for Carolina.
In 1961, Dean Smith was promoted from assistant to head coach and had an inauspicious start, going 8-9 in his first season. It also was his only losing season.
Smith is the backbone of Carolina basketball. His record (879 wins, 11 Final Fours, 2 titles, 17 ACC crowns) speaks for itself, while Smith's coaching tree and dignified, humble manner only serve to enhance his stature. He and John Wooden continue to be the examples for all coaches today.
(Amazingly enough, Carolina has excelled even without Smith. If one discounts Smith's tenure, the Heels have still won more than 70 percent of their games, which is better than four teams in NCAA history. They've also won titles without Smith, coming under McGuire and Roy Williams. That's an impressive winning tradition.)
It took Smith six years to finally win an ACC title, but once it began, it rarely stopped. Between 1965 and 1986, UNC never finished worse than tied for 2nd in the ACC.
His 1966-67 squad stormed through the ACC and reached the Final Four, the first of three straight. Smith's squad reached the Final Four again in 1972 (a year after winning the NIT).
A year after leading the U.S. to Olympic gold, Smith's Heels reached the NCAA title game, but couldn't get past Marquette. Butch Lee's Warriors ripped through the Heels' four corners offense, but Smith's style had more lasting influence. The four corners soon had imitators throughout the game. Enough teams started using the slow-down, clock-eating style that it eventually helped bring about the shot clock.
Still, after another trip to the NCAA title game in 1981 (this time losing to Indiana), Smith, like most coaches who win but haven't won a title, endured criticism about his methods. He always had great talent – most recently Ford and Davis – but why couldn't UNC win?
That talk ended in 1982.
Jordan's shot helped beat Georgetown for Smith's first NCAA title, but it wasn't a shot that made Smith's career. He's always held himself to a different standard than his critics, which is partly why he's been so successful. It also started off another ridiculous streak for UNC.
The Heels won more games than any other school during the 1980s, arguably college basketball's most competitive and most outstanding era. That carried into the '90s, when only four teams won more games, but the Heels went to five Final Fours and won another title in 1993.
Sure, some of Carolina's teams were upset – the '84 squad with Jordan and Sam Perkins the defending champs in '94 both failed to reach the Elite Eight, let alone the Final Four – but that underscored just how good Carolina was. Even when the Heels thrived in the regular-season, anything less than a title was considered a failure.
When longtime assistant Bill Guthridge took over, the Heels didn't miss a beat. (Having Carter and player of the year Antawn Jamison helps.) But after just three seasons – and two Final Fours – Guthridge had enough.
New coach and ex-Heel Matt Doherty took Carolina to No. 1 in just his first season, but his eventual demise has become a cautionary tale for how to handle star players. An 8-20 season followed by an NIT berth? Unacceptable.
Maybe that's why Carolina couldn't help but bring ex-assistant and Smith disciple Roy Williams home to Carolina. In five seasons, Williams has UNC in places only Smith did before, winning a title and reaching two Final Fours.
This season, his team, led by reigning player of the year Tyler Hansbrough, is expected to be among Carolina's most talented ever. Another Final Four – and a national title – will be expected.
And it seems that for as long as Williams remains in Chapel Hill, the Heels will remain on the short list of annual contenders. And they'll certainly remain among the top 5 on this list.
After all of this, surely you've guessed No. 1. If this wasn't a ridiculous week at work, I'd move up the post for No. 1. But why mess with routine? Look for No. 1 next Tuesday.