Ready to Repeat?
It would probably be as big a mistake to go crazy over North Carolina's splendid 87-77 win over Duke last Saturday night as it was to saddle the Tar Heels with all that preseason hype about their being unbeatable. For 40 sparkling minutes in disbelieving Cameron Indoor Stadium, Carolina was, finally, the many-splendored team that everyone had been awaiting since practice began on Nov. 1. But as the Duke fans filed out, hoping for another shot at the hated Heels in this week's ACC tournament, the question still hung in the air: How did the team that was supposed to blow away the nation lose six times during the regular season and finish second to Duke in the ACC?
All season long there has seemed to be an understanding among college basketball's pundits that the Tar Heels are above criticism, that anybody who questioned their performance could end up looking foolish when the NCAA tournament rolled around. Every time North Carolina lost, the analysts chattered all the louder about the team's potential. But Clemson forward Wayne Buckingham was probably closer to the truth when he said after the Tigers' Feb. 17 upset of the Heels, "People aren't afraid of North Carolina anymore."
Last Saturday morning, sitting in his office after practice, Tar Heel coach Dean Smith admitted that this has been perhaps the most frustrating of the 33 teams he has coached in Chapel Hill. "We're probably not as tight a team as we were last year," he said.
Even before the Heels played their first game, Smith was complaining that he had too much talent. In place of forward George Lynch and reserve guard Henrik R‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√ádl, the only meaningful players lost to graduation from last season's championship team, Carolina had super freshmen Rasheed Wallace, Jerry Stackhouse and Jeff McInnis. Even when Smith decided to redshirt senior forward Pat Sullivan in order to alleviate his numbers problem, he still had nine players in a system that has always worked best with an eight-man rotation. As a result, chemistry has been a hotter topic at the Dean Dome than it has been in the campus's chem labs.
To a man, Smith and his players deny speculation that there has been bad blood between the veterans and the freshmen. But except for point guard Derrick Phelps, the upperclassmen have been so inconsistent that the rookies can't be blamed for thinking they should get more playing time. For example, it has been obvious for a long time that the 6'10" Wallace, who's hitting 63.7% of his shots and leads the team in blocks with 56, deserves to start ahead of 7-foot senior Kevin Salvadori. Yet Smith stuck with Salvadori until last week, when he benched him for the second half of the 68-61 loss to Wake Forest, then started Wallace in his place against Duke. In 32 sparkling minutes Wallace scored 14 points.
Last week Phelps acknowledged the frustration felt by the freshmen when he said, "You've just got to sit back and deal with it and wait your turn. It took a while when we were freshmen, but we finally relaxed because we knew that our time would come. I don't know what our freshmen expect this year. That's up to them. But you can see them get frustrated."
Frustration has not been confined to the freshmen, though. Perhaps the most inconsistent Tar Heel has been 7-foot senior center Eric Montross. He was a consensus preseason pick as the nation's best big man, but he headed into the ACC tournament ranked only fourth among the conference's centers in scoring, and sixth in both rebounding and blocks. At one point NBA director of scouting Marty Blake issued an uncharacteristically harsh appraisal of Montross, saying he lacked athleticism and didn't have a complete game. Blake said that, as NBA prospects go, Montross was comparable to journeyman Greg Dreiling.
One theory on Montross's poor play is that early in the season he was distracted by his friendship with Jason Clark, a 16-year-old cancer patient from Durham. Montross was so moved by Jason's plight that he put the initials JC on his basketball shoes. Jason's painful battle with the disease ended when he died on Feb. 21, and two nights later Montross ended a string of bad games with one of his best of the season, scoring 23 points and grabbing 11 rebounds against Notre Dame.
Carolina has also been hurt by injuries. Junior guard Donald Williams missed nine games and has struggled to regain his shooting touch. And at small forward, senior Brian Reese, who injured an ankle on the second day of practice, has played as if he were looking over his shoulder at Stackhouse, the team's third-leading scorer, with a 12.0 average. Only in recent games has Reese again become the slashing force he was last season.
Stackhouse claims not to care who starts, and, indeed, he looked quite pleased after the win at Cameron. The victory was particularly satisfying because Stackhouse is a friend of Duke star Grant Hill's; the two met years ago at a summer camp. Since Stackhouse arrived at Carolina, he and Hill have talked frequently on the phone and have even gone out to dinner a couple of times. "We had a bet on the first game," said Stackhouse, referring to the Heels' 89-78 win over the Blue Devils on Feb. 3. "He had to pick up the check on that one."
It remains to be seen whether the Tar Heels can use the most recent win over Duke to launch a postseason run at another title, drawing inspiration from the second-half masterpiece they delivered after trailing 40-39 at the break. They hit 60% from the field during the final 20 minutes, made only two turnovers and played such suffocating defense that Hill, who had 14 points in the first half, added only four after intermission. "We're not that good," said the ever pessimistic Smith.
The Heels do enter postseason play with renewed hope and restored respect. Asked about the chances of an NCAA tournament repeat this season, Phelps said, "With this team you never know what might happen. Sometimes we take teams for granted that don't have the same talent that we have." Then he paused, perhaps to consider the Tar Heels' performance against Duke. "We needed a big one on the road against a great team," he said. "If we keep on playing like this, we'll be hard to beat."
Stackhouse (42) and Wallace (30) have pushed the Tar Heel veterans.
Billed as the best big man in the land, Montross wasn't even tops in his own conference.
Players of the week
Carlos Rogers, a 6'11" senior, averaged 29.7 points as Tennessee State swept Middle Tennessee, Tennessee Tech and Murray State to gain an NCAA tournament bid.
Washington's Rhonda Smith, a 6'2" junior center, had 28 points and nine boards in a 79-76 defeat of Arizona and 26 points and 11 rebounds in an 87-78 win over Arizona State.
Dennis Edwards, a 6'5" junior forward for Division II Fort Hays State, poured in 50 points in a 99-82 defeat of Adams State and scored 20 in an 81-79 victory over Mesa State.