1957 NORTH CAROLINA
TAR HEELS BASKETBALL
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Greatest College Basketball Teams of All Time: Spotlight 1957 North Carolina
The 1957 North Carolina Tar Heels basketball team was a perfect 32-0. Their coach, Hall of Famer Frank McGuire, came to North Carolina in 1952, the season after he coached St. John’s to the Final Four. Great coaching skills are not the only thing McGuire brought from New York. Ten of 13 players on the 1957 Tar Heels team were recruited from New York, including all five of the starters.
McGuire defended recruiting New Yorkers. “My job is to win…. If the scholarships go to the boys from New York, that’s where I find the best basketball talent.”
The best of all of McGuire’s “boys from New York” was Lennie Rosenbluth. Rosenbluth was a 6’5” forward, who could post-up, score from anywhere on the floor and rebound. Rosenbluth’s amazing ability has somehow been diminished by time in the eyes of sportswriters. Despite all of North Carolina’s success and all of the great players North Carolina has had, Rosenbluth dominates the North Carolina record books. He holds the North Carolina records for the best single season and career scoring averages (28 in 1957 and 26.9 for his career, respectively). He holds the North Carolina records for the most free throws made and attempted in a season and in a career (285 of 376 in 1957 and 603 of 815 for his career, respectively). Despite only playing three years (freshmen were ineligible to play varsity basketball in 1957), Rosenbluth is the third leading scorer in North Carolina history, behind Phil Ford and Sam Perkins, both of which played four years. Rosenbluth scored 2,045 points. Rosenbluth’s career rebounding average of 10.4 per game is the fourth best in North Carolina history. He is also one of only seven North Carolina players to average a double-double for their entire careers.
Yet, Rosenbluth was ranked 61st of the 100 best college players by the Sporting News and was not listed by ESPN in its list of the 25 best college players. ESPN ranks Michael Jordan 13th. The Sporting News ranks Jordan 16th, Phil Ford 22nd and James Worthy 57th. Rosenbluth didn’t have much of a pro career, but in college, he dominated more than any of these other North Carolina greats. ESPN and the Sporting News need to adjust their lists.
Rosenbluth, more than any other player, is responsible for building the North Carolina dynasty. “When I first went to Carolina, basketball was the furthest thing from people’s minds,” Rosenbluth said. “I remember my first freshman game. We couldn’t get into the gym. It was locked, and we had to get the custodians to open the doors so we could go out and play…. By our senior year the gym wasn’t big enough to hold everybody.”
McGuire, who coached a lot of great players, said that Rosenbluth was the greatest. “He can hit from the outside or the inside, and he can rebound. What more could you want from one of your players?” Rosenbluth was an All-American each of the three years he played and was the Helms Hall of Fame National Player of the Year in 1957. He was the high scorer in 27 of his team’s 32 victories.
Rosenbluth wasn’t the only great player on the 1957 North Carolina team. Junior Pete Brennan, the other forward, was also a big time scorer and rebounder. Like Rosenbluth, Brennan is one of only seven North Carolina players to average a double-double for their careers. Brennan averaged 14.7 points and 10.4 rebounds in 1957. Brennan was an All American in 1958 and played briefly in the NBA.
Junior point guard Tommy Kearns was an excellent ball-handler who wanted to take the ball to the hoop. At one point in practice, an exasperated McGuire handed Kearns a second basketball during a scrimmage and said “Tommy, if you want to hog the ball, take one for yourself.” Kearns learned to be an effective passer. Nonetheless, Kearns averaged 12.8 points per game.
On December 4, 1956, Lennie Rosenbluth set the tone for the season when he scored 47 points and pulled down 17 rebounds in a 94-66 season-opening win over Furman. The Tar Heels won their next two easily, but then had to go into overtime to pull off a 90-86 win over South Carolina. On February 5, 1957, North Carolina brought a 16-0 record and number one ranking to Maryland. The Terrapins held a four point lead with time running out, but the Tar Heels came back and won in double-overtime 65-61, thanks to 8 overtime points by Rosenbluth. Four nights later, the Tar Heels blew an eight point lead against Duke, but were saved when Tommy Kearns hit two foul shots in the final seconds to secure the 75-73 victory.
In the first round of the ACC tournament, the Tar Heels crushed the Clemson Tigers 81-61 thanks to 45 points from Rosenbluth. In the semifinals, the Tar Heels found themselves trailing Wake Forest by one with seconds remaining. Rosenbluth scored on a hook shot. He was fouled and made the free throw to give the Tar Heels a 61-59 win, the fourth over Wake Forest in the 1957 season. The Tar Heels took the ACC championship by beating South Carolina 95-75, the third win over South Carolina in the 1957 seson.
North Carolina rolled through the first three rounds of the NCAA tournament, bringing their record to 30-0 as they traveled to Kansas City for the Final Four. On Friday, March 22, 1957, North Carolina faced off against Michigan State in the semifinal game. Rosenbluth and Brennan both struggled. Rosenbluth was 11 of 42 with 29 points and Brennan was 6 of16 with 14 points. At halftime, the game was tied at 29-29. At the end of regulation, the game was tied 58-58. With just a few seconds to go in the first overtime, Michigan State led by two and had a player shooting a free throw. A Michigan State player was overheard saying “thirty and one” before the foul shot. The Michigan State foul shot, however, missed the mark. Pete Brennan pulled down the rebound and took the ball coast-to-coast for a game-tying layup. North Carolina would finally win after two more overtimes.
The following day, the Tar Heels faced 7’ Wilt Chamberlain and the Kansas Jayhawks in the championship. Playing in Kansas City gave the Jayhawks a virtual home court advantage. McGuire was undaunted. He had the 5’11” Tommy Kearns try to jump against Chamberlain for the opening tip. Chamberlain won the tip and was blanketed with a tight zone for the rest of the game. North Carolina led 29-22 at the half, but Chamberlain and the Jayhawks battled back and took a three point lead. North Carolina hacked Chamberlain in an attempt to stop him from scoring. He ended up making 11 of 16 free throws for the game. Leading by three, Kansas went into a stall for the last 10 minutes of the game. With less than two minutes to go, Rosenbluth fouled out. Kansas held on to a narrow lead, but Kearns and center Joe Quigg tied the score at 46-46. In the first overtime, North Carolina and Kansas each scored one basket, bringing the score to 48-48. In the second overtime, North Carolina missed four free throws and neither team scored. In the third overtime, Kearns scored four points to give North Carolina a 52-48 lead, but Kansas overcame the deficit and took a 53-52 lead of their own. With just six seconds left, Quigg was fouled by Maurice King. North Carolina called time out. McGuire looked around at the players and said, “after Joe makes the shots, get back in the zone.” Quigg said “I just had a great feeling I would make the shots.” He was right. He made them both and North Carolina defeated Kansas 54-53.
Rosenbluth and Brennan were named to the All-Tournament team. After it was over, all twelve of the players on the 1957 North Carolina Tar Heels graduated and six earned advanced degrees. “There have been better players than us,” Rosenbluth later said, “but I doubt if there has ever been a better team.”
Name Pos Class Pts Reb
Len Rosenbluth F SR 28.0 8.8
Pete Brennan F JR 14.7 10.4
Tommy Kearns G JR 12.8 3.1
Joe Quigg C JR 10.3 8.6
Bob Cunningham G JR 7.2 6.7
Tony Radovich G SR 3.9 1.8
Bill Hathaway C SO 2.8 5.0
Stan Groll G SO 2.1 1.5
Bob Young G SR 1.9 2.1
Danny Lotz F/C SO 1.0 1.6
How would the 1957 North Carolina Tar Heels do against the teams of today? How would they handle the shot clock and the three pointer?
Although Lennie Rosenbluth would probably be a very good player today, it is difficult to imagine a 6’5” forward scoring as many points as Rosenbluth did posting up. Rosenbluth was ineffective in the NBA and quit after only two years. The 6’6” Pete Brennan was an excellent rebounder in 1957, but he too would have a tough time today. North Carolina’s lack of height would be a major problem against modern teams. On the other hand, they out-rebounded Wilt Chamberlain and the Kansas Jayhawks in the 1957 NCAA Championship, so who knows? Although the shot clock probably wouldn’t give North Carolina much trouble (they averaged 79.3 points per game), North Carolina would have to rely heavily on the three-pointer. Rosenbluth and Tommy Kearns were both good outside shooters, so maybe, just maybe, the 1957 Tar Heels would be a dangerous team even today.
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