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Original Issue

Tar Heel Time

Emerging from the shadow cast by intrastate rival Duke, North Carolina has vaulted to the top of the polls with coach Dean Smith's best team since the Jordan years

Forget Duke's NCAA titles in 1991 and '92, its six Final Four trips in the last seven years and all that media fawning over coach Mike Krzyzewski and his photogenic players. The thing that really bugs North Carolina coach Dean Smith about the Blue Devils' success in recent seasons is that the Tar Heels are now deemed to be the Other Program on Tobacco Road, in spite of the fact that Smith has sustained an unprecedented level of success in Chapel Hill since the days when Coach K was Player K at Army. In each season of Duke's seven-year run, North Carolina has won at least 20 games and advanced to the NCAA tournament's Sweet 16. Yet neither Smith nor his players have been able to fully enjoy their success because of what has been happening eight miles away in Durham. "If Duke were on the West Coast," Smith says, "our team last year would have gotten more attention. The only thing that bothers us is that their success detracts from ours."

The more the Blue Devils succeed, the more determined Smith becomes to reclaim the Tar Heels' old supremacy in both the ACC and the national rankings before he retires—whenever that may be. Smith's legacy is very important to him, no matter what he might say to the contrary. And while Smith would never admit it, Duke's ascendancy has provided him with added incentive to keep going at the age of 62, after 764 victories, the third-highest total ever for a Division I coach.

Anyone who thinks Smith is yesterday's news might want to check out this week's poll. The Tar Heels' record stood at 24-3 after their 86-76 victory over star-crossed, injury-riddled Florida State last Saturday afternoon in Tallahassee, and on Monday they took over the No. 1 spot in the AP rankings for the first time since the 1987-88 season, thanks to losses earlier in the week by previously top-rated Indiana and No. 2 Kentucky. Smith views polls as a sort of necessary evil—"I hope our players don't even think about it," he says—but he likes the team he has now, and he likes its chances to take him to the Final Four for the ninth time in his career. That would be a total exceeded only by UCLA's John Wooden, whose teams made it to the tournament's final weekend 12 times between 1962 and '75.

Smith also likes the way 6'6" junior forward Brian Reese is beginning to slash to the hoop, the unselfish way that 6'8" senior forward George Lynch keeps on doing all the crucial if unspectacular things that mean so much to the Tar Heels, and the way that Eric Montross, the 7-foot junior center, has begun to throw his 270 pounds around in the paint. Smith believes that this could be the North Carolina team that slams the door on the Duke juggernaut (the two teams meet again this Sunday in Chapel Hill); these Tar Heels might even become as special to him as the 1982 team that won him his only national championship.

There was a scary moment in the game against Florida State, however, that threatened to spoil North Carolina's chances. With 4:34 left and the Tar Heels sitting on a 69-58 lead, Carolina's Henrik Rodl intercepted a pass and fed the ball to point guard Derrick Phelps for what should have been an uncontested layup. Instead, the Seminoles' 6'9" Rodney Dobard hammered Phelps to the floor, perhaps out of frustration that the Tar Heels were ruining Florida State's final appearance at home this season.

When Phelps, a splendid 6'3" junior from Hast Elmhurst, N.Y., went down, Smith was hit with a severe case of dèjà vu. As he rushed from the bench to check on Phelps, his thoughts immediately flashed back to 1984 and to his point guard then, Kenny Smith. When Kenny Smith suffered a wrist injury against LSU on Jan. 29 that year, North Carolina, led by senior Sam Perkins and a junior named Michael Jordan, was unbeaten and ranked No. 1 in the country. Although Kenny Smith returned four weeks later, wearing a soft cast to protect the wrist, the Tar Heels were so out of sync that Indiana was able to eliminate them 72-68 in the East Regional final.

As the North Carolina coach and trainers tended to Phelps on Saturday, Dean Smith's first reaction was to be offended by the TV cameraman who was trying to get a close-up of Phelps clutching his injured right elbow and writhing in pain. "I tried to screen him out," he said later. "It was almost gruesome. I could still see Kenny Smith going down in 1984."

Dean Smith was especially concerned about Phelps—who left the game and did not return—because of what had happened to Phelps the day before. His mother, Linda, works in New York City's World Trade Center, which on Friday was rocked by a bomb blast. Late on Friday night, following an afternoon of uncertainty, Phelps learned that his mother was all right.

As it turned out, Phelps's injury won't be as costly as Kenny Smith's was; Phelps is due back in the lineup soon. After the game, Phelps was feeling well enough to go into the showers and join his teammates in a mocking rendition of the Seminoles' trademark war chant.

The Tar Heels' glee at beating the Seminoles should be seen as a mark of respect for Florida State, which has contended for the ACC title in each of its first two seasons in the league. The loss to Carolina cost the Seminoles (21-8, 11-4) their chance to take over first place in the conference; just having that chance was a remarkable feat, considering the injuries they have suffered. Florida State's starting center Andre Reid went down for the season with a broken hand after only five games, valuable guard Chuck Graham has missed the entire year with a knee injury, and forward Derrick Carroll is out indefinitely as he recovers from a broken left foot suffered last month. But most of all, the Seminoles miss point guard Charlie Ward, who has sat out six of their last nine games with a separated left shoulder.

To succeed in the ACC you have to be extraordinarily tough. Florida State should have learned that in its first game against the Tar Heels this season in Chapel Hill, when it blew a 21-point lead in the last nine minutes on the way to an 82-77 defeat. North Carolina's rally may have been dramatic, but it wasn't all that unexpected: Under pressure Tar Heel teams do not waver from their game plan; they simply continue to execute the disciplined Smith system.

So North Carolina is back, but how long will Smith keep coming back? These days that's Topic A in Chapel Hill. If he were to average 24 victories a year, Smith would catch the late Kentucky coach, Adolph Rupp, the alltime wins leader, with 876, during the 1997-98 season. That, of course, would be the ultimate legacy. Yet Smith insists it will never happen. Is this simple humility, or does Smith intend to retire in the next few years? Asked about Rupp's record, Smith says, "You just don't understand."

Well, maybe not. In any case, Smith's immediate concern is another NCAA title. "I'm thrilled at this point," he says. "This team is sound, and it's a contender, and it's a very good defensive team." He smiles his enigmatic smile, his eyes disappearing under bushy eyebrows. Duke? Are you kidding? The Dean of college hoops wants it understood that with all due credit to the program down the road, North Carolina is still, well, North Carolina. Always has been. And in college hoops, that's about as good as it gets.



Reese (bottom) and Montross helped Carolina to a 40-31 rebound margin at Florida State.



As Seminole Sam Cassell learned, relentless Tar Heels like Pat Sullivan can get you down.



Smith (lower right) flashed his customary exuberance during a January win over Virginia.