Broken hearts? UNC, Duke know that pain all too well in the NCAA Tournament
Somebody’s heart will break Saturday night in New Orleans.
That much we know.
Whose? Well, that’s why they play the game.
Duke is rightfully favored and has a couple of lottery picks in its starting 5. Duke also has one of the greatest coaches in the sport’s history who, you might have heard, is retiring after this weekend.
UNC has dudes, too. Not as many, and their NBA prospects aren’t quite as rosy. The Heels also have a rookie head coach who still might be the best 3-point shooter in the building Saturday night. If only the coaches could play, right?
This isn’t Mike Krzyzewski’s best Duke team, but it’s arguably better than his other one-and-done versions — including the one that won the 2015 national title. This isn’t remotely close to North Carolina’s best team, but unlike a lot of those supremely athletic “wine-and-cheese” versions immune to dirty work, this one actually plays a little defense and gets on the floor after loose balls.
So, yes, we’ve seen better Duke-UNC games (35 times in the Coach K era both teams have been in the top 10 at tipoff).
But we’ve never seen bigger.
Saturday is historic — their first meeting in the NCAA Tournament coming in the Final Four.
Unfortunately, somebody’s about to end up on the wrong side of that history.
No matter who the scoreboard frowns upon, it won’t be their first experience with heartbreak in the NCAA Tournament. How could it be? Duke and North Carolina have lost the national championship game a combined 11 times — and it’s fair to say some of those losses wouldn’t even crack their top-5 worst NCAA Tournament memories.
Sound crazy? It’s not. These were the 5 most painful NCAA Tournament losses for each.
First, a quick primer. Duke has won 5 national titles (all under Krzyzewski) and lost in the final 6 times (4 under Coach K). This just in: Good teams lose to good teams. And it hurts. But not always as bad as some of these.
5. 2012, Round 1: No. 15 seed Lehigh 75, No. 2 seed Duke 70
The Blue Devils spent most of the season in the top 10. They finished 2nd in the ACC with a 13-3 record. Their top 7 players all made it to the NBA. The lineup featured veterans (Seth Curry, Ryan Kelly) and freshmen (Austin Rivers and Quinn Cook).
They were seeded No. 2 and opened the NCAA Tournament about 60 miles away from campus in Greensboro.
Lehigh? They had exactly one dude … and CJ McCollum played like the best player on the floor. McCollum scored 30 points to engineer the biggest seeding upset Duke ever suffered in the NCAA Tournament.
4. 2014 Round 1: No. 14 seed Mercer 78, No. 3 seed Duke 71
Why is this worse than the Lehigh upset?
Well, it happened even closer to home, for one, in Raleigh.
It also ended Jabari Parker’s short stay in Durham and was Duke’s 2nd massive upset loss in 3 years. But it didn’t derail Coach K’s pursuit of chasing and signing one-and-dones.
3. 1999 NCAA final: No. 1 seed UConn 77, No. 1 seed Duke 74
If Duke had won this game, this team might be remembered as the greatest in program history.
That’s how dominant these Blue Devils were.
Senior Elton Brand was the national player of the year. Senior Trajan Langdon was Coach K’s prototypical veteran guard. Corey Maggette was an electric freshman with NBA skills. Shane Battier did a lot of everything.
Duke went 16-0 in the ACC, sweeping the regular-season and ACC Tournament titles. It spent 16 of 18 weeks at No. 1 or 2 in the country.
It roared into the NCAA Tournament with a 32-1 record — and then won its first 4 NCAA Tournament games an average of 30 points. They took out Michigan State in the Final Four and were favored by 9 in the title game against UConn.
UConn, led by a future NBA backcourt in Khalid El-Amin and Rip Hamilton, proved too much. Hamilton dominated, scoring 27 as UConn ended Duke’s 32-game winning streak.
It’s a loss that still stings.
2. 1986 NCAA final: No. 2 seed Louisville 72, No. 1 seed Duke 69
This was the class that saved Coach K and started his run of excellence.
You’ve seen the “30-for-30.” Johnny Dawkins, Mark Alarie, Dave Henderson, Jay Bilas. They were seniors on this team, which finished 37-3. Danny Ferry was a freshman contributor.
Some believe this was the best Duke team that didn’t win a national title. (I’ll stick with Elton Brand’s group.)
It wasn’t so much that Louisville upset the Blue Devils to spoil Coach K’s first trip to the title game, but how and who.
Freshmen rarely dominated in this era, but on this night, the legend of “Never Nervous Pervis” Ellison was born. The Louisville freshman dominated Duke’s senior frontcourt, scoring 25 points on 10-of-14 shooting. He also blocked 2 shots.
1. 1990 NCAA final: No. 1 seed UNLV 103, No. 1 seed Duke 73
This is the game that changed Duke basketball forever. They’ve never forgotten it because Krzyzewski will never forget it.
It’s probably the last time Duke ever looked intimidated or played afraid. Everything about that game was so un-Duke.
Great competitors — and at his core, that’s what Krzyzewski is — hate losing more than they enjoy winning. That loss fueled everything that came after.
That 1990 team responded by winning back-to-back national titles in 1991 and 1992, taking out an undefeated UNLV team along the way in a 1991 Final Four rematch.
A quick primer: North Carolina has lost 5 times in the national championship game. Some of those were heartbreaking, no doubt, but some of UNC’s best teams endured even worse.
5. 1998 Final Four: No. 3 seed Utah 65, No. 1 seed UNC 59
Few UNC teams were more loaded or fun to watch than Bill Guthridge’s high-flying first group, which featured juniors Vince Carter and Antawn Jamison.
Carolina averaged 82 points a game and won each of their first 4 NCAA Tournament games by double digits.
Everything fell apart in the Final Four against Utah. The Heels shot 3-for-23 from 3-point range. Carter played well in his final game in a UNC uniform, leading the Heels with 21, but Shammond Williams suffered his worst night, going 2-for-12, including 1-for-9 from deep.
UNC failed to break 60 points for just the 2nd time all season.
4. 1994 2nd round: No. 9 seed Boston College 75, No. 1 seed UNC 72
UNC was the defending NCAA champion, trying to match Duke (1991-92) as a back-to-back champion.
These Heels had the wares, too.
They returned Eric Montross, Derrick Phelps and 1993 title-game hero Donald Williams — and added freshmen Jerry Stackhouse and Rasheed Wallace.
They opened the year at No. 1 and spent the entire season in the top 5.
Dean Smith, who so magically worked freshman Michael Jordan into the loaded 1982 offense, again massaged this veteran lineup around Stackhouse’s explosiveness and Wallace’s tenacity. They beat Duke at Cameron Indoor to close the regular season, then won the ACC Tournament to earn a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
A horrific shooting night derailed their dreams.
Williams, so spectacular in the 1993 championship game win over Michigan, shot 1-for-12 against Boston College and UNC went home way too early after hitting just 4-of-17 from deep.
3. 1977 NCAA final: Marquette 67, UNC 59
This was before seeds, before the tournament expanded to 64 teams, before the shot clock (spoiler) and before the 3-point line.
This also was one of the greatest teams in UNC’s storied history, motivated by one of the worst postseason losses in history the year before — a first-round loss to Alabama.
Phil Ford, a 3-time All-American, was a junior who ran Dean Smith’s offense. (As a senior, Ford set UNC’s all-time scoring record and became the first Tar Heel to win the Wooden Award, given to the nation’s top player.)
Walter Davis, a future 6-time NBA All-Star, was the senior shooting star. Four other Tar Heels also played in the NBA.
Ford battled an elbow late in the season and that affected the Tar Heels.
And the legendary Dean Smith made a decision that many still question today.
Marquette jumped ahead early in the title game and led by double digits before UNC stormed back in the 2nd half, taking the lead with more than 12 minutes left. Again, this was before the shot clock — and Smith decided to turn early to his famed and trusted Four Corners.
UNC lost its momentum. Marquette regained it. The result? Smith came up short again … and questions mounted whether he’d ever win the big one.
2. 1984 Sweet 16: No. 4 seed Indiana 72, No. 1 seed UNC 68
Where to begin? Carolina entered the game 28-2. They won the ACC regular-season title with a 14-0 mark. They appeared to overcome Kenny Smith’s mid-season injury, even though the rotation was off during an ACC Tournament loss to Duke.
Bygones. At the end of the day, the Tar Heels still had Michael Jordan and Sam Perkins and they entered the NCAA Tournament as favorites to win it all.
Bad luck, bad calls — Jordan picked up 2 early fouls and eventually fouled out after playing just 26 minutes — led to an irksome early exit. Steve Alford led the Hoosiers with 27 points. This wasn’t a great Indiana team. The Hoosiers lost their next game to a Virginia team that was in Year 1 after Ralph Sampson.
No, this is Exhibit A in UNC’s What-if Hall of Fame …
Different circumstances, different officials, and this UNC team, which also featured Brad Daugherty, could have been remembered as the best in program history.
1. 2016 NCAA final: No. 2 seed Villanova 77, No. 1 seed UNC 74
Heaven to hell in 4 seconds?
That sums up what happened to UNC in the 2016 national title game.
Down 3 in the final seconds and needing a miracle, Marcus Paige provided it, somehow making a scrambling double-clutch 3-pointer against a double-team to tie the score at 74. It wasn’t Jordan’s Jumper to beat Georgetown, but it was three times as difficult. Had UNC held on and won in overtime, Paige’s shot would be remembered as one of the greatest in NCAA Tournament history.
Instead, it was upstaged on the next play.
Villanova inbounded against light pressure. Ryan Arcidianco raced up court, intentionally drew a double team and then dished to Kris Jenkins, who walked into a wide-open NBA-range 3-pointer to win it at the buzzer.
What’s worse? Losing a national title game by 30 … or by 3 at the buzzer?
Duke and UNC know heartbreak.
One will experience the worst kind yet Saturday night.