UNC Basketball: Who was the Best Tar Heel PG Ever?


When watching the NBA playoffs, Carolina fans can be proud of two former Tar Heel point guards who are helping their teams in the first round: Denver’s Ty Lawson and New York’s Raymond Felton. Watching these two play, led to a discussion with a friend of mine about who had a better college career. With that question in mind, I took a look back to answer who was the best Carolina point guard ever.

Before I delve into the rankings, I’ll say that through my research I felt that six point guards stood above the rest. These rankings are somewhat subjective, and there are many point guards who might be worthy of consideration. These are just the top six, according to this writer.

6) Kendall Marshall (2010-12): The Phoenix Suns’ rookie won the Bob Cousy Award as the Nation’s top point guard for the 2011-12 season when he set an ACC single season record by tallying 351 assists, a UNC record. He recorded 311 of those assists in conference play, passing former Georgia Tech point guard Craig Neal for the most in a single ACC season. Marshall was named a third team All-American as a sophomore, and a first team All-ACC freshman the year before. Marshall’s sophomore season, and Carolina career, came to an end when he fractured a bone in his wrist vs. Creighton in the Round of 32. In only two seasons, Marshall made an impact on Carolina basketball and finished his career with the highest assist-to-turnover ration in Carolina history at 3.01.

May 31, 2012; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; TNT analyst Kenny Smith before game three of the Western Conference finals of the 2012 NBA playoffs between the Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Oklahoma City won 102-82. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

5) Kenny Smith (1983-87): Smith is part of a TNT NBA basketball program with former NBA big men Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal, but before becoming an analyst, he was an awesome point guard. Smith finished his Carolina career with 768 assists, a then UNC record. His senior year, the Tar Heels finished 32-4 with a loss in the Elite 8 to Syracuse. Smith led the Heels in scoring at 16.9 points per game to go alone with 6.1 assists and 1.5 steals. The Jet, Smith’s nickname, might be known nationwide for his broadcasting, but Carolina fans shouldn’t forget his playing days.

4) Ed Cota (1996-2000): Smith’s Carolina assist record was broken by Cota, who tallied a staggering 1,030 assists in his college career. This is good enough for third on the NCAA all-time assists leader board  and Cota is the only player in NCAA history to finish his career with more than 1,000 assists, 1,000 points, and 500 rebounds. Cota played in three Final Fours as a Tar Heel, the final season for Coach Dean Smith, as well as both of Coach Bill Guthridge’s appearances. Cota recorded 10 or more assists in a game 32 times. Interesting fact: Cota never fouled out in 138 collegiate games.

3) Raymond Felton (2002-2005): Raymond Felton began his career under Coach Matt Doherty and holds the freshman record for assists in a season with 236.  Coach Roy Williams arrived for Felton’s sophomore campaign, and the Latta, SC native flourished. That season Felton set the UNC record for assists in a game at 18 in a December game against George Mason. Felton would average 11.5 points and 7.1 assists per game. Felton’s third and final season in Chapel Hill ended with a National Championship. Felton was named the Cousy Award winner, in only the award’s second year of existence, first team All-ACC, and a member of the 2005 NCAA All-Tournament team. This year marked a return to glory after some down years, and Felton was the key to a lot of that success.

Apr 26, 2013; Oakland, CA, USA; Denver Nuggets guard Ty Lawson (3) dribbles the ball next to Golden State Warriors guard Jarrett Jack (2) in the third quarter during game three of the first round of the 2013 NBA playoffs at Oracle Arena. The Warriors defeated the Nuggets 110-108. Mandatory Credit: Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

2) Ty Lawson (2006-2009): Maybe the fastest player in Carolina history, Lawson played admirably in his first two seasons as the Tar Heels made it to the Elite 8 and Final 4, but its Lawson’s work as a junior that earned him the second spot on this list. In the 2009 championship season, Lawson was a consensus second team All-American, the ACC player of the year, and another Carolina Cousy Award winner. The Tar Heels steamrolled everyone in the tournament, and despite his limitations thanks to a toe injury, Lawson set the pace. In the National Championship Game against Michigan State, Lawson finished with eight steals, a title game record. Tyler Hansbrough received a lot of the attention for the championship, but Lawson made it happen.

1) Phil Ford (1974-1978): The only possible knock against Phil Ford is that he finished his Carolina career without a National Championship, but as a junior, Ford’s Tar Heels lost in the final game to Marquette. Without some injuries, Ford would have a ring just like Lawson and Felton. Ford was a two time consensus First Team All-American as a junior and senior and the Wooden Award winner as the nation’s best player as a senior which his number 12 is retired. Ford is arguably best known by Carolina fans for the Four Corners offense, an offense that some credit with beginning the shot clock era in college basketball. Younger fans might not remember Ford well, but there is a reason he is the only player on this list to have his jersey retired.