I'm O.K. You're O.K. He's O.K. In fact, he's better than O.K., because he is Mike (O.K.) O'Koren (above), North Carolina's outstanding 6'7" sophomore forward. Although the Tar Heels, who had a 28-5 record and were second in the NCAAs last year, lost a number of players through graduation, O'Koren and All-America Guard Phil Ford should be enough to keep Carolina among the nation's elite. "I can't imagine any team with O'Koren and Ford not being ranked somewhere" says Coach Dean Smith. Neither can anyone else.
The modest O'Koren plays a better game than he talks. Last year, when he was a freshman, he often was at a loss for words when confronted with the noise and intensity that characterize the college game, but none of this seemed to bother him on the court. He was named to both the ACC and NCAA all-tournament teams, led the Tar Heels in rebounding and averaged 13.9 points. "This year I've got to prove myself again," he says. "We've got three freshmen who are better than I was last year."
Smith does not seem to think so. When the season opens, O'Koren and Ford will retain the distinction of being the only Tar Heels to have started the first game of their freshman seasons. The best of the current Carolina freshmen, Al Wood, must improve his defense before he gets to start at small forward.
With the graduation of Center Tom LaGarde and Forward Walter Davis, much of North Carolina's success will depend on O'Koren's work underneath the basket. It remains to be seen if Rich Yonakor and Jeff Wolf can provide the pivot play a contender for No. 1 needs. After LaGarde was injured last year, the Tar Heels won 11 of their last 12 games, but they seemed to thrive more on emotion than on the abilities of his replacements.
In those dozen games, O'Koren added four points to his scoring average, achieving his season high in the NCAA semifinals against Las Vegas when he had 31 points. Until help develops this year, the quick O'Koren will have to do it all again—rebound, score and defend against the big forward.
Nonetheless, Smith is confident that "this won't be a two-man team." He particularly likes Carolina's depth and defense. "We're regrouping," Smith says, "not rebuilding."
Five seasons ago, Carolina lost three players from a final-four team, with only an outstanding forward (Bobby Jones) and a fine guard (George Karl) returning. That team had a 25-8 record. O'Koren and Ford should do as well.