With the regular season wrapped up and teams punching their tickets to the Big Dance, what better time to take a look back at some of the best and most entertaining college teams from the last 25 years? Earlier this week, we took a look at a Fab Five story from SLAM 52 (June ’01) and a ’99 National Champion UConn Huskies story from SLAM 29. Yesterday, we had a story from our good friend Cub Buenning about the highly talented, yet controversial ’07-08 Memphis Tigers team led by John Calipari and Derrick Rose from SLAM 114 (February ’08) . Yesterday, we had another great feature from SLAM 50 (April ’01) that revolved around the incredible ’89-90 UNLV Championship team led by Larry Johnson and Coach Tarkanian. Today, we have a great read from our friend Bonsu Thompson about the upstart ’02-’03 Carolina Tar Heels squad from SLAM 68 (April ’03). After suffering through a losing season (a huge no-no in Chapel Hill) three fresh-faced diaper dandies burst onto the scene at Madison Square Garden to defeat Kansas and Stanford in an early season tournament that catapulted them into the top half of the rankings. Led by Ray Felton, Rashad McCants and Sean May, the Tar Heels eventually went on to win a National Championship later on in their careers, forever cementing them into Carolina blue history. Enjoy this look back at a classic piece, and expect plenty more to come as the NCAA Tournament approaches.—Ed.
by Bonsu Thompson / @DreamzrReal
To say Matt Doherty’s seat was hot at the beginning of this season is an understatement. The North Carolina coach was damn near sitting on Lucifer’s loveseat. After an atrocious ’01-02 that featured a 4-12 mark in the ACC and an overall disgrace of 8-20—not to mention UNC’s absence from the final 64 for the first time since 1974—Doherty’s ass wasn’t just grass, it was on its way to being manure.
That’s probably why you heard his name in the courting mix for the highest of high school talent last year. With his hook dangling in the recruiting pool, Doherty came off big, landing New Hampton (NH) Prep 6-4 guard Rashad McCants, a Carolina native and two-time New Hampshire Player of the Year; Indiana big man Sean May, who stands 6-8, weighs in at 272 and has hands of Charmin; and 6-footer Raymond Felton, the nation’s most valuable high school pg a year ago.
Ahem! Tar Heel fans (not to mention Coach Doherty’s friends and fam) should be glad to know that UNC’s ’02-03 season rests on the shoulders of three freshmen. Forget the anxiety fans will suffer while watching them, and empathize with these young men. Their reward for dominating the high school level wasn’t a chance to learn the ropes behind big brother-like upperclassmen. What they got was equivalent to a rookie fireman being ordered to save a burning building—on his first day on the job. They don’t get to back up anyone. They only get one thing: The shoulder weight of saving face and erasing last year’s disgrace for a program that has, arguably, the proudest history in college basketball.
But the baby blue babies don’t sweat the expectations. “I don’t think there was a lot of pressure on our side,” says May. “I knew that I was gonna be out there playing no matter what. We talked about it a lot during the summer— pressure is all what you make of it.”
McCants says he didn’t hear any pipes rattling, either. In fact, at the season’s brink he was more concerned with his teammates than his squad. “I thought that most of the pressure was on Raymond simply because he was a more high-profile player and I came from a low-profile school, so nobody knew who I was,” Rashad says. “But I knew what I could do, and I knew what my teammates could do.”
Their grown-up side, birthed in their rise to high school stardom, may see all of this as a tool for staying focused on the task ahead—“Ultimately,” states McCants, “a national championship.” But the kid side of their Mini-Wheats, which reminds them they’re entering a level of ball they’ve never experienced, may be ignoring the stress potential like a child who pulls a blanket over his head for fear that the boogie man’s in his room.
November 27, 2002. Madison Square Garden, site of the Preseason NIT. The Tar Heels are a worthless 3-0, having swept “whatever” teams Penn State, Rutgers and Old Dominion. Tonight their bus has dropped them off in the Big Apple to be devoured by No. 2 Kansas. Tonight, the Tar Heel freshmen get their first real test: Preventing Roy Williams’ troops from smacking them by more than a dub. Forty minutes later, it’s Kansas 56…UNC 67. McCants goes for an at-will 25 points with 3 steals; Felton plays 30 minutes with only 1 turnover; May gets 11 boards, 5 blocks and 4 steals.
Two nights later, UNC takes Kansas’ spot against Stanford, again expected to get thrashed. Final score: Stanford 57…UNC 74. The frosh trio tallies 46 points on 17 of 31 shooting. Felton hits 4 of 6 threes and adds 7 dimes. That Sunday, North Carolina went from off-the-radar to No. 12 in the nation.
Of the three, McCants probably made the strongest impression in that two-game outburst. “I felt like I had something to prove,” admits the least hyped of the trio. “I had to let people know that I’m not just some kid that comes out here and hoots and hollers—I can play basketball.”
Rashad has more than proved he can play, leading UNC in scoring since the season’s start at 19 per. Having lifted weights since the eighth grade, McCants is sculpted enough to be confused with his football-playing classmates. He has the upper body strength to board and drive with the power of a forward. But his strength is gravy on top of his shooting touch. Through late January, Rashad was boasting averages of 54 percent from the floor and 46 percent from three. He came to the program hoping to be a quality complement to Felton’s distribution and May’s paint power. Now, says May, “He’s an animal, just so passionate. Sometimes Rashad is a quiet guy, but when we need him to lift us he’ll do it. He takes nothing for granted. If a guy doesn’t respect him, he’s going to make them respect him.”
If McCants is the quiet assassin, Felton is the mouth behind the Heels’ terror. He’s the one yelling the plays, talking shit to his foes, orchestrating the Tar Pit to represent. He rocks No. 2 but he definitely plays The One. “I love everything about his game,” offers May. “You don’t even have to throw your hands up or make noise—he gonna hit you. He shoots, passes, the way he defends and his leadership is just unreal. I’m glad I’m not playing against him.”