Dean Smith came to North Carolina in 1962, and over his first decade, he took the Tar Heels to the Final Four on four different occasions. From 1973 through 1975, UNC took a back seat to N.C. State and Maryland in the ACC but winning the conference tournament in ’75 got them back into an NCAA Tournament that was then much more restrictive in who could qualify. The 1976 North Carolina basketball team got back on top of the ACC with a regular season title and even though tournament play was a disappointment, they set the stage for a Final Four return a year later.
North Carolina was anchored by 6’9” senior Mitch Kupchak down low. A player with an NBA career in front of him, both as a player and as an executive, Kupchak averaged 18 points/11 rebounds per game. The backcourt was led by sophomore Phil Ford, who scored 19ppg and dished out seven assists a night. Kupchak and Ford were both All-ACC, and 2nd-team All-American.
And they were far from alone. Walter Davis was outstanding on the wings, and the 6’6” junior averaged 17 points/6 rebounds/3 assists. Tom LaGarde went 6’10” and chipped in 14 points/8 rebounds in the post. John Kuester was Ford’s running mate in the backcourt and averaged five assists per night.
There was little North Carolina couldn’t do well and they opened the season ranked fifth in the nation. Playing a non-conference schedule in December that was considerably shorter than we see today, the Tar Heels went 6-0. The highlight was a 90-77 win over Kentucky, even if this wasn’t a vintage Wildcat team that ultimately finished fourth in the SEC and went to the NIT.
North Carolina used to have a tradition with their immediate neighbors, Duke and Wake Forest, where the three teams played each other in Greensboro. The games did not count in the ACC standings. UNC split the two games. After a blowout of Yale, the Tar Heels were 9-1 and ranked #6 as league play formally began.
Clemson had future NBA center Tree Rollins in the middle, but North Carolina went on the road and rolled to an 83-64 win. They went to Virginia, who was an average team, and got out of Charlottesville with an 85-82 triumph.
The first home conference game at old Carmichael Auditorium was against Wake Forest. The Demon Deacons had an explosive floor leader in Skip Brown, who could move the ball and do a lot of scoring in his own right. Rod Griffin was a tough rebounder at the small forward spot. Wake was ranked #5 in the polls, but UNC handed them a 99-75 beatdown.
North Carolina went up the road to Durham to face Duke, who would end up being the only one of what was then just seven ACC teams to end the year with a losing record. The Blue Devils did have an all-conference guard, Tate Armstrong, who could pour in points. The points did flow, but North Carolina pulled out an 89-87 win.
There was no time to celebrate after this Saturday game, because N.C. State was awaiting on Sunday. The Wolfpack were just two years removed from a historic national championship that ended UCLA’s string of eight straight titles. N.C. State forward Kenny Carr was one of the conference’s best players, who exceeded both 20ppg and 10 rebounds per game. They had Phil Spence hitting the glass and were ranked #13 in the country. The fast turnaround against an opponent of this caliber was tough, and UNC lost a 68-67 nailbiter.
After a week to recoup, another big showdown awaited. This one was at home against second-ranked Maryland. The Terps had a terrific backcourt, led by All-American John Lucas and including Brad Davis. The game sizzled, and North Carolina won it, 95-93.
The Heels went on the road three days later and knocked off Wake, 88-85. They came back home and beat Clemson 79-64. As the month of January closed, North Carolina was 15-2 overall, with a 7-1 record in ACC play.
A brief stretch of non-conference games followed. They beat a good University of Detroit team, coached by Dick Vitale, 91-76. A more pedestrian performance followed against mediocre Georgia Tech (not yet in the ACC), but still ended with a 79-74 win. A 97-64 hammering of lowly Furman followed.
The rematch with Maryland in College Park loomed. The Terps were ranked #4 nationally. They were 4-2 in league play, while N.C. State was 5-2. North Carolina had no margin for error in the ACC race. UNC stepped up with an impressive 81-69 road win.
Another foray into non-conference play took UNC to New Orleans to face a good Tulane team. The offenses were clicking, and the Tar Heels won 113-106. They stayed on the road and beat a competitive Miami-Ohio program, 77-75. North Carolina was flying high at 21-2 as they returned to the conference wars for the final three games of the regular season.
A narrow 73-71 escape at home over Virginia on February 21 pushed UNC’s league record out to 9-1. When N.C. State lost to Clemson on that same Saturday, the Tar Heels had a two-game cushion in the loss column. Some of the steam was taken out of the North Carolina-N.C. State rematch two days later. The Heels kept rolling with a 91-79 win. Then they knocked off Duke 91-71 to close the season. They were 24-2, and their 11-1 ACC record ended up clearing the field by four games.
The concept of at-large bids for the NCAA Tournament was just getting introduced in the mid-1970s. For as a good a season as UNC had, winning the ACC tourney and its automatic bid, was still a big deal.
North Carolina had a bye into the semifinals, and they took care of business against Clemson, 82-74. The championship game was against Virginia. The Cavaliers had gone 4-8 in ACC regular season games, but March is a whole new ballgame. They had one of the conference’s best forwards in Wally Walker and knocked off UNC, 67-62. There were only 32 teams who got invited to the NCAA Tournament and with the all the automatic qualifiers out there, North Carolina had now placed their fate into the hands of the Selection Committee.
All of those big regular season wins proved to matter quite a bit, because the Tar Heels were still able to get an at-large bid. They were placed in the Mideast Regional (the forerunner of today’s South Regional) and matched up with SEC champ Alabama. Seeding didn’t exist until 1979, but the winner of this game would likely move on to face undefeated Indiana. So, we can think of it as something akin to a 4-5 game.
North Carolina simply did not play well. Crimson Tide center Leon Douglas went off for 35 points/17 rebounds. Kupchak rebounded, getting 11 boards, but he shot 3-for-11. Davis struggled to a 6-for-17 performance. Ford was a non-factor. Only LaGarde, with 22 points/11 rebounds, really had a good day in Dayton. The Tar Heels fell behind 40-28 by halftime and lost 79-64.
The losses to end the season were disappointing, but other than Kupchak, North Carolina had most everyone else coming back. Good things were ahead. That summer, Smith coached the U.S. Olympic team, and won the gold medal. And in 1977, Smith and the Heels would return to the Final Four.