As North Carolina's promising season teeters on the verge of injury-induced collapse, it's starting to feel like 1977 all over again.
That was the first time Dean Smith believed he had the best team in college basketball. He'd had a lot of good ones, but there was always UCLA or someone else blocking his path to a national title. By '77, the UCLA dynasty was losing its momentum in the post-Wooden era, and Indiana was coming off its 63-1 run in 1974-75 and '75-76. It was Carolina's time to win it all.
But injuries scuttled the season. First, it was starting center Tom LaGarde, who sustained a season-ending knee injury in January. Then forward Walter Davis broke a finger in the ACC tournament and had to have surgery, missing the first game of the NCAA tournament. And finally there was the elbow injury to indispensible point guard Phil Ford against Notre Dame in the regional semifinals.
[ Related: Kendall Marshall's broken wrist mars UNC's win ]
Despite it all, Carolina soldiered on. The Tar Heels won four games by a total of 13 points to reach the national championship game against Marquette. With Ford severely limited (he scored just six points) and LaGarde in street clothes, North Carolina was upset and Al McGuire finally had his national title.
Now it's déjà blue for the Heels.
"There certainly are similarities," said Rick Brewer, who was the sports information director at North Carolina then and maintains an office in the athletic department now.
This time around, the injured indispensible point guard is Kendall Marshall. The broken wrist he suffered Sunday against Creighton was surgically repaired Monday, and it could be the last straw in a season riddled with torn ligaments, breaks and sprains.
The guard corps already was thinned by two season-ending knee injuries, to Leslie McDonald before the season and Dexter Strickland in January. Then big man John Henson missed three games with a sprained wrist suffered in the ACC tournament. He returned Sunday – just in time for Marshall to get hurt on a hard foul by Creighton's Ethan Wragge.
Now everything is in doubt.
This is the one guy Carolina cannot do without. On an otherwise typical Roy Williams team – two of everything – there is only one guy who makes the offense run. Marshall is the best passer in the tournament, a crafty and imaginative distributor who makes Tyler Zeller, Henson and Harrison Barnes look even better than they are. His own offensive game has improved as well, making it dangerous for teams to play off him.
Without him, Carolina is left with a couple of underwhelming alternatives: little-used freshman Stilman White, who was recruited late for insurance purposes only; and senior Justin Watts, who has spent most of his low-profile career playing other positions.
It's possible North Carolina can navigate the Midwest Regional in St. Louis without Marshall. The first game is against Cinderella Ohio, a winnable game no matter who is playing the point, given the personnel advantages at virtually every other position. A potential regional final matchup with No. 2 seed Kansas would be highly difficult, but Purdue nearly beat the Jayhawks without anything resembling stellar point-guard play. (Lewis Jackson was 2-of-11 from the field and scored five points. He did have five assists, but also aimlessly dribbled away Purdue's final possessions as the Boilermakers blew a late lead.)
So perhaps we could see Carolina advance to New Orleans, a historically happy place for the Heels. It's where Smith won both his national titles, in 1982 and '93. But could Carolina close the deal there without Marshall able to play – and play well?
Very doubtful. A national semifinal against anyone still playing in the East Region (Syracuse, Ohio State, Wisconsin and Cincinnati) would be an uphill battle without a point guard. And a potential national title game against, say, Kentucky – where they haven't had so much as a twisted ankle this season – would be cigarette-and-blindfold material. Putting White out there against the Wildcats would be tantamount to child abuse.
So perhaps it's just not meant to be for North Carolina this season. Fans of other schools know the feeling.
Indiana would have been repeat champs in '75 and '76 if not for Scott May's broken arm the first season. The Hoosiers might well have taken the title Smith won in '93 if not for a knee injury suffered by forward Alan Henderson. Kentucky was a runaway locomotive in 1997 until Derek Anderson blew out a knee in late January.
Good luck is always a big part of a title run, and good health is always a big part of the luck dynamic. Carolina has had rotten luck this season, similar to the plague that cost the team a championship 35 years ago.
But even down, the Heels aren't yet out. Someone will have to beat whoever Williams puts on the court this week in St. Louis.
"I'd imagine," Brewer said, "we will still show up."
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