The NCAA cloud that lingered over Chapel Hill for what felt like an eternity has finally lifted, and in turn illuminated the latest golden era of Tar Heel basketball. The scandal, combined with uncharacteristic struggles in recruiting, dampened fan perspective on the state of the program over the past several years. Nevertheless, the past three seasons of Carolina Basketball undeniably stack up among the best three-year runs in program history.
Where exactly does it rank? Glad you asked.
6. The Jamison/Carter Era (1996-1998)
1995-1996 - 21-11, 3rd place ACC, 6 seed, Round of 32
1996-1997 - 28-7, 2nd place ACC+, 1 seed, Final Four
1998-1999 - 34-4, 2nd place ACC, 1 seed, Final Four
The end of Dean Smith's tenure coincided with one of the most exciting collections of talent in Tar Heel basketball history. From Antawn Jamison's effortless offense to Vince Carter's rim rocking dunks to Ed Cota's passing wizardry, no Carolina teams before or since was made for prime time like the ones from 96 to 98. Yet, the group's accomplishments never quite matched their immense talent. In particular, the 97-98 group has always left fans wondering if perhaps the Tar Heels could have better dealt with Rick Majerus' Utah squad in the Final Four had Dean Smith stuck around one more year to coach the group.
5. The Eric Montross Era (1991-1993)
1990-1991 - 29-6, 2nd place ACC, 1 seed, Final Four
1991-1992 - 23-10, 3rd place ACC, 4 seed, Sweet 16
1992-1993 - 34-4, 1st place ACC, 1 seed, Champs
It's sometimes hard to appreciate how strong the Tar Heels were in the early nineties given the coinciding emergence of Duke Basketball under Christian Laettner. The Blue Devils would win their first and second titles in 1991 and 1992, the former of which was probably the nearest we've ever come to the doomsday scenario of a Duke-UNC championship game. Carolina would answer in 1993, earning Dean Smith his second banner and kicking off a curious trend of the Tobacco Road Rivals answering each other's titles (Duke in 2010 after UNC in 2009, UNC in 2017 after Duke in 2015).
4. The Charlie Scott Era (1967-1969)*
1966-1967 - 26-6, 1st place ACC, Final Four
1967-1968 - 28-4, 1st place ACC, Runner Up
1968-1969 - 27-5, 1st place ACC, Final four
We transition from the latter days of Dean Smith's tenure to the beginning. After a rocky first five years rebuilding the program — which saw Dean Smith hung in effigy —the fledgling legend-to-be broke on to the scene, making three straight Final Fours (including a championship loss in 1968 to Wooden’s UCLA dynasty). While the Tar Heels fell short of securing Smith's first championship, one could certainly argue that the three year stretch was perhaps the most important in all of Carolina Basketball history. The success cemented Smith as a long term option at Carolina. Charlie Scott not only was a two time All-American but also Carolina's Jackie Robinson —integrating the theretofore all white team and paving the way for the many African American Tar Heel greats that followed.
3. The Paige/Berry Era (2015-2017)
2014-2015 - 26-12, 5th place ACC, 4 seed, Sweet 16
2015-2016 - 33-7, 1st place ACC, 1 seed, Runner Up
2016-2017 - 33-7, 1st place ACC, 1 seed, Champs
Heading into 2013-2014, it was hard to avoid the feeling that the Carolina Basketball program was in decline. Key returnees PJ Hairston and Leslie McDonald were suspended for driving cars rented by Fats Thomas, the Tar Heels were suddenly having an uncharacteristically hard time luring 5 Star talent to Chapel Hill, and the threat of NCAA sanctions loomed large. Yet while Duke and Kentucky were riding one and done super frosh to success, Carolina steadily improved as the likes of Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson developed into All-American talent. The arrival of the 2014 class of Justin Jackson, Theo Pinson, and Joel Berry elevated the Tar Heels to legitimate contenders, ostensibly culminating with two straight championships appearances and Roy Williams’ third title this past April. Given the mood at the beginning of the stretch, it’s somewhat strange to view the past three years as a golden era. Nevertheless, this stretch has been one of the best in all of Carolina basketball history.
2. The Hansbrough/Lawson Era (2007-2009)
2006-2007 - 31-7, 1st place ACC+, 1 seed, Elite Eight
2007-2008 - 36-3, 1st place ACC, 1 seed, Final Four
2008-2009 - 34-4, 1st place ACC, 1 seed, Champs
If the past three years were a redemption of sorts, the stretch from 2007 to 2009 was a coronation. After leading the 2005 team to his first national title, Roy Williams had Carolina closing a decade that had started off tumultuously in dominant fashion. While holdovers like Reyshawn Terry and youngbloods like Ed Davis played a role, the consecutive 2005 and 2006 recruiting classes proved the driving force of the most dominant stretch of Roy Williams tenure to date. Tyler Hansbrough’s post dominance combined with a lethal backcourt of Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington and Danny Green gave the Tar Heels the kind of balance that was virtually impossible to deal with. Three straight one seeds, three straight ACC regular season titles, two Final Fours (and damn near 3 had it not been for a late game collapse against Georgetown in 2007) and a dominant run to the 2009 title - in reality 2007-2009 is more of a 1b than 2 on this list.
1. The Worthy/Perkins/Jordan Era (1981-1983)
1980-1981 - 28-9, 2nd place ACC, 2 seed, Runner Up
1981-1982 - 32-2, 1st place ACC+, 1 seed, Champs
1982-1983 - 28-8, 1st place ACC+, 2 seed, Elite Eight
Dean Smith’s first title, two jerseys in the front row of the rafters, the first chapter of the Michael Jordan legend, and the original redemption - 1981-1983 had it all. After losing in the title game to Bob Knight and Isiah Thomas’ Indiana Hoosiers, the Tar Heels returned to finish the job in 1982 behind James Worthy, Sam Perkins and freshman Mike Jordan. Jordan hit the shot that turned him from Mike to Michael, Fred Brown threw the ball away to Worthy and the rest is history. While Worthy would depart the following year, Jordan and Perkins took Carolina back to the elite eight before falling to Georgia. The early 80s have always felt like the definitive Golden Era, and in this case perception is reality.
*There were no defined seeds in the NCAA tournament during these seasons
+Tied with another team
The obvious caveat to these rankings is that we don’t know what the 2017-2018 team will do. Inexperience and lack of depth in the post could limit the team’s ceiling. However, the return of Joel Berry and Theo Pinson combined with the additions of Cameron Johnson and Jalek Felton gives the Tar Heels a formidable arsenal on the perimeter. If Carolina were to reach the last weekend of the NCAA tournament for the third straight year, 16-18 could vault to the very top of this list.