With its talent, depth, size and outstanding crop of freshman blue bloods, defending NCAA champion North Carolina appeared ready to make the case for simply calling off this college basketball season. Some pundits pointed out that one of the few Tar Heels not returning from last season, Matt Wenstrom, had just signed with the Boston Celtics—and he was only a third-string center in Chapel Hill. Not since Patrick Ewing began his senior year at Georgetown in 1984 had a team been so roundly picked to win it all. "Carolina is like Noah's ark," said one NBA scout. "They've got two of everything."
Turns out there may be a season after all. The Heels' reign as the nation's No. 1 team hardly lasted a New York minute. By Thanksgiving morning 18th-ranked Massachusetts had knocked the stuffing out of North Carolina with a 91-86 overtime victory in the semifinals of the Preseason NIT, in Madison Square Garden. That set things up for Kansas, the Carolina of the Plains, to sneak out of New York with its second Preseason NIT title in five years. The Jayhawks did so by beating three Top 20 teams in a week, knocking off No. 12 California 73-56 and No. 9 Minnesota 75-71 before topping UMass 86-75 in last Friday's final.
Carolina certainly looked dominant at the start of its Nov. 24 game against UMass. The Tar Heels bolted to an 11-0 lead and a certain cleanheaded ESPN commentator, invoking the name of Don Larsen, began talking about the possibility of a perfect game, baby.
Maybe Dick Vitale jinxed it. UMass coach John Calipari quickly called timeout and got his team refocused. "I started two feet from them, and by the time I was finished I was three inches from their faces," Calipari said after the game. "I had to get them to worry about me instead of North Carolina, to slap them out of it. Ah, don't put that in—it'll get me fired. Shake them out of it."
By that time North Carolina coach Dean Smith had already received tired signals from three of his starters. In keeping with the Tar Heel Way, he sent in ballyhooed freshmen Jerry Stackhouse, Jeff McInnis and Rasheed Wallace, whose defensive deficiencies Smith had noted all week. Sure enough, as he said afterward, "All of a sudden, it was a ball game."
Quite a ball game. By its end, UMass had beaten Carolina to 28 offensive rebounds, and 6'7" junior forward Louis Roe had sprung for 28 points and 14 boards in 43 tongue-hanging minutes. But the Minutemen lost player after player to fouls and, with seconds gone in OT, their prize freshman center, Marcus Camby, to torn ligaments in his right knee.
But Smith was in trouble too, most of it of his own making. He left Eric Montross in the game even after the Tar Heel center picked up his fourth foul with 10:12 to play. Smith might have gone with Wallace instead and held Montross in reserve, but he chose not to. Three minutes later Montross fouled out. "I'd rather have a guy in with four fouls than have the others stand around waiting for him to come back," Smith said by way of explanation.
Seven-foot forward Kevin Salvadori soon joined Montross on the bench with five fouls as the Minutemen continued to hit clutch shots. A three-pointer by junior guard Mike Williams sent the game into OT, and another Williams bomb later sealed the win for the Minutemen.
But without Camby, UMass couldn't stop Kansas in the final. Particularly unstoppable was tournament MVP Richard Scott, the Jayhawks' only returning starter. Also, Kansas coach Roy Williams had taken special measures to keep UMass off the offensive boards. "When we got in line for breakfast this morning, we made everyone box out before they could eat," he said after the victory. Serving up everything but breakfast for Kansas, freshman point guard Jacque Vaughn sparkled against UMass with 11 points, 10 assists and only one turnover. "Starting a freshman at the point is unusual for us," says Roy Williams. "But I think he's an unusual young man."
Growing up in Los Angeles, Vaughn took a lot of heat for his Frenchified first name. "People called me Strap, Cousteau, In-the-Box—I've heard them all," he says. When he got to junior high, Vaughn would catch a 6:10 bus every morning for Tarzana, 25 miles away, where he attended a magnet school for gifted students. Later Vaughn racked up a 3.97 grade point average as a sophomore at Pasadena's John Muir High while taking physics, calculus, advanced-placement English and economics. Last spring he became the first basketball player to win the Dial Award, given annually to the nation's top high school scholar-athlete. "Sometimes I'm sort of meticulous," says Vaughn. "Too meticulous. Coach helps me see that sometimes I've got to move on."
If the 6-foot Vaughn is an anomaly because he's such a mature freshman, 7-foot Jayhawk junior Greg Ostertag is the reverse—an upperclassman who's reluctant to grow up. With his buzz-cut coif and the double zero on his uniform, he looks at first glance like a mad scientist's sloppy cloning of Montross. "The worst thing about Greg is, he causes problems for both teams," says Williams, alluding to Ostertag's suspect stamina and his habit of having freshly plucked rebounds stolen away. But Ostertag blocked 17 shots in four games in the NIT, and while he's not yet Bill Walton at the offensive end—a hopeful Williams had shown him a video of the UCLA great knocking in 21 of 22 shots against Memphis State in the 1973 NCAA title game—he is coming along.
Circumstances have helped the maturing process. Ostertag and Heidi Beale, the academic-support employee assigned to make sure he attended class, didn't overlook the extracurriculars, which led to their June wedding and a son, Cody, who turned 14 weeks last Saturday. Despite foul trouble limiting him to 14 minutes against UMass, Ostertag had 12 rebounds, two blocks and 13 points, including two on a game-clinching, fast-break dunk off a nifty feed from Vaughn.
The heroics of Vaughn and Ostertag only help to illustrate Williams's achievements since he arrived in Lawrence five years ago. He has won more games in his first five seasons than any coach other than North Carolina State legend Everett Case. But unlike Williams, Case didn't have the handicap of taking over a team with scholarship restrictions because it was on NCAA probation.
Williams is able to rebuild his teams in a hurry because his subs get a lot of experience. He believes a team develops depth not by recruiting it, but by playing its players—a philosophy he shares with Smith. "The depth we've talked so much about was tested with our foul trouble tonight," said Smith after the upset by UMass. "Thank god this is November and not March or April."
North Carolina can further console itself with the knowledge that of the previous eight winners of the Preseason NIT, none went on to win an NCAA crown. So maybe this year's tournament wasn't one the Heels should have won but one they couldn't win and still fulfill their destiny.
Vaughn was a Jacque-of-all-trades as the Jayhawks whipped UMass in the title game.
In the final seconds of UMass's upset of Carolina, Calipari and his players were in a far better mood than Smith (below).