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Discounting Pennsylvania's shocking upset of the Tar Heels in the first round of the 1979 NCAA tournament, only five times since 1967 has that feat been accomplished in regular-season play, and two of those defeats were by Furman, a nearby South Carolina school that has lots of crowd support for its annual game against UNC in Charlotte. Indeed, the 1978-79 Magic Johnson Michigan States and the 1980-81 Isiah Thomas Indianas lost to Carolina in Carolina before going on to win the national championship.
Conversely, another bit of history shows that if one is going to get the Tar Heels, one should get them now, inasmuch as the team had quickly joined the roll call of NCAA champions who fell from grace in defense of their title. Post- UCLA dynasty, only one champion has been able to sustain the glory the morning after. The scenarios for teams following their championship seasons have been downright eerie: Indiana in 1976-77—started the season 5-5, finished 14-13; Kentucky in 1978-79—started 6-7; Michigan State in 1979-80—started 5-2 but lost seven of the last eight and finished 12-15; Louisville in 1980-81—started 0-3 and 3-7; Indiana in 1981-82—started 6-5. Only Marquette in 1977-78 put together a consistent season, but then the Warriors lost to Miami of Ohio in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
This season North Carolina's woes began when the team missed six one-and-one free-throw opportunities late in its opening game against St. John's and lost 78-74 in overtime. The Tar Heels' preparedness, the envy of Smith's peers, is based on dogged teaching in the preseason and an early schedule that is routinely the toughest in the land. Michigan State Coach Jud Heathcote has said that teams should avoid Carolina at all costs in December because Smith has his team "so far ahead of everybody else."
But this time Smith may have over-scheduled. Five of the first six opponents (and 11 of the first 15) went to postseason tournaments last season, and Carolina was playing four of them away from home. What's more, five key players had been injured during preseason workouts, inhibiting the learning process. Besides Perkins missing 15 days with a knee injury and Jordan suffering a broken wrist, freshmen Daugherty and Curtis Hunter and 6'11" sophomore Warren Martin were also hurt and fell far behind.
It was a semi-miracle that Carolina didn't begin 0-4. After losing to St. John's and Missouri, the Tar Heels got a dazzling, loose-ball pickup and blind turnaround desperation 24-foot heave shot by Jordan in the final four seconds to tie Tulane before they won in triple overtime. And only an inventive collapse by LSU—which led 21-9 at intermission—brought victory over the Tigers. Following a loss at Tulsa, the champions' record was 3-3.
Smith was nonplussed. "My one fear was that the team would concentrate on the won-lost and not realize the strength of the teams we were playing," he said.
Says Jordan, "Losing started to set in. I hated it. Questions pop into your mind, like when is losing going to end?" And this from a confident young man who would see his NCAA championship-winning shot in New Orleans memorialized on the cover of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro telephone directory.
Having misplaced his shooting touch, senior Matt Doherty whiffed on 31 of 47 shots through the first six games. Perkins seemed to be coasting when he wasn't being double-teamed inside; he was rudely outplayed by Missouri's Steve Stipanovich. Daugherty hadn't matured enough defensively to earn a position among the starters, whose rebounding was in disarray. Thus, Jordan and Doherty had to play out of position, at small and big forward, respectively.
Then there was the thrilling soap opera in backcourt. Critics were calling for the scalp of the inconsistent Jimmy Braddock. Meanwhile, Hale, the rookie heir apparent to last year's point guard, Jimmy Black, languished on the bench. On Dec. 21, however, Braddock may have turned the whole season around for himself, as well as his team, with a sterling floor game in his hometown of Chattanooga as the Tar Heels beat the juggernaut of the Southern Conference, Tennessee- Chattanooga, 73-66. It was exactly the confidence-builder Carolina needed before a trip to Hawaii, where the Tar Heels drubbed the Rainbow Classic field, avenging their loss to Missouri in the finals, 73-58. This time Perkins dominated Stipanovich 24 points to 12, and 13 rebounds to five.
Slumbering Sam hadn't fallen into a trance after all. Braddock hadn't thrown any passes into the Banzai Pipeline. The team hadn't panicked. And Daugherty was finally starting, enabling Jordan and Doherty to move back to their natural positions of big guard and small forward.