THE HEELS ON HIGH
Let's face it, predicting that North Carolina coach Dean Smith
will fail is a lot like insisting the sun will set in the East:
It just ain't gonna happen. When the Tar Heels started the ACC
season 0-3 for the first time in school history, and were still
in sixth place in the conference with a 3-5 record as recently
as Feb. 5, many otherwise savvy basketball observers clucked
that perhaps Smith was losing his touch after 35 years in Chapel
Hill. But by winning their last nine games going into this
week's ACC tournament, including a 91-85 dogfight on Sunday with
ACC regular-season champion Duke, the Tar Heels improved to 21-6
and found themselves tied with Wake Forest for second place in
the conference and in the running for a No. 1 NCAA seed. And if
North Carolina can win five more games--say, three in the ACC
tournament and then two in the NCAAs--Smith would get his 877th
career victory, breaking Adolph Rupp's alltime record.
In other words, Smith has the Tar Heels about where most
preseason prognosticators estimated they would be about now. But
nobody foretold North Carolina's catastrophic January. Coming
off a tiring Christmas tour of Holland and Italy during which
they played three games in four days, the Heels opened
conference play with an 81-57 blowout loss to Wake Forest; then
suffered an embarrassing 85-75 home court defeat in which
Maryland came from 22 points down in the second half; and
followed that with a 75-63 beating by Virginia. Forget Rupp's
mark; Smith, it appeared, would be lucky to maintain his streaks
of 22 straight NCAA appearances, 26 consecutive seasons of 20 or
more wins and 32 top-three ACC finishes in a row.
Granted, sophomore forward Vince Carter, a player who had been
expected to emerge as a star this year, had a hip pointer and
missed all but 37 minutes of the first three league games. But
the Heels' troubles seemed deeper than that. The biggest worry
was the unsure ball handling of freshman guard Ed Cota, who was
turning the ball over far too often.
Following an 80-73 loss at Duke on Jan. 29, however, the Tar
Heels started to improve. Sophomore phenom Antawn Jamison, who
had 33 points and 11 rebounds against Duke on Sunday, is the
team's mainstay, but Carter has been explosive down the stretch
and Cota has averaged only 2.9 turnovers per game since that
loss to Duke. Cota even finished the regular season first in the
ACC in assists, with 6.8 per game. (The last freshman to do that
was Georgia Tech's Kenny Anderson in 1990.)
"It wasn't any magic thing that turned it around," says Smith of
this season. "It's gradual improvement and gradual confidence."
And, he adds ominously, "we're still improving. I hope you
haven't seen the best North Carolina team yet."
DO THE CHARLESTON
After his Cougars wrapped up an 83-73 victory over Florida
International in the Trans America Athletic Conference
tournament final in Charleston, S.C., last Saturday, College of
Charleston coach John Kresse sat at the press table in the
3,500-seat arena named after him, his shirt soaked with sweat,
his voice a Brooklyn-accented croak. "Now, if we can just get a
Number 1 or Number 2 seed in the Southeast Regional [of the
NCAAs], I'll be happy," he said with a smile.
A guy can dream, can't he? Most everyone else associated with
the College of Charleston, a liberal arts enclave founded in
1770, is happy with this reality: The 17th-ranked Cougars (28-2)
are going to the NCAAs, joining intrastate representatives
Clemson, South Carolina and Charleston Southern, which won the
Big South Conference's automatic bid.
Just eight years removed from membership in the NAIA, the
College of Charleston has an .812 winning percentage and an 82-4
record at home since joining the NCAA in 1991, but it still had
to win the Trans America championship to be assured of a bid
because of its mediocre power rating (59th in the country last
week). That low rating derives in large part from the Cougars'
weak schedule. None of the top-tier programs will schedule a
home-and-home series with the College of Charleston because they
know that they would suffer a "bad loss"--one that would sink
their own power rating--if they were defeated by a team with
such a low power rating. Thus you'll notice that the Cougars'
two highest-profile victories, against Stanford and Arizona
State, came on the road in the Great Alaska Shootout in late
November. "I can't even get Clemson and South Carolina to play
us here, and I'm friends with [the two schools' coaches] Rick
Barnes and Eddie Fogler," says Kresse.
This year's senior-dominated Cougars have a slew of hungry
rebounders and a cling-wrap defense that can make life miserable
for opposing ball handlers. (Seven Cougars have at least 25
steals.) The top glass cleaner is Thaddeous Delaney, a 6'8",
250-pound senior dubbed the Shaq of the TAAC because of his
dominance in the paint.
As intimidating as Delaney has been all season with his 16.0
scoring and 9.4 rebounding averages, he says guard Anthony
Johnson, a former Cougars ball boy who leads the team in assists
and steals, "has been the difference in our season. He elevated
his game, and he is the reason we are where we are right now."
"The other players are, I think, as good as Delaney," says
Campbell coach Billy Lee. "Playing the College of Charleston is
like fighting a buzz saw. Anywhere you hit it, you're going to
The TV set in the St. Joseph's basketball office is wired to a
satellite dish, and Phil Martelli, the Hawks' second-year coach,
likes to channel-surf during idle moments. Whenever the remote
lands on a college basketball coach's show, Martelli is overcome
with boredom. "I saw the guy from Murray State had a show," he
says. "It's the same show as the guy from Duquesne and the guy
from Notre Dame. They talk about the 2 zone, the 3 play. It's
So when a local television producer approached Martelli about
doing a show this year for SportsChannel in Philadelphia,
Martelli decided he wanted to be different. Hawk Tawk with Phil
Martelli is certainly that. Martelli hosts the show, Johnny
Carson-like, from behind a desk, and presides over really bad
comedy bits--Top 10 lists, viewer mail, even Martelli the
Magnificent, a takeoff on the old answer-and-question Carnac
routines, which were a Carson staple."I'm not paid for it,"
Martelli says. "I do it because I enjoy it. If you're flipping
through the channels, it makes you stop and say, 'Whoa, what's
going on with this?'"
Of course, that last line might be applicable to this entire
improbable St. Joe's season. After creeping into the Top 25 for
the first time in 24 years, the Hawks beat Massachusetts 78-63
on Feb. 25 to secure the best record in the Atlantic 10's East
division. Their success has been all the more surprising because
they certainly are not overwhelming the opposition with talent.
St. Joe's depends on balance and solid fundamentals. It starts a
three-man backcourt of junior point guard Rashid Bey, senior
Terrell Myers and freshman Arthur (Yah) Davis, who are all
three-point threats. And though their lineup has been smaller
than that of almost every opponent, the Hawks have outrebounded
their foes over the course of the season. No player averages
more than 5.2 rebounds, but five of them average more than 4.1.
And thanks to Bey, who guides the offense with masterly
confidence, St. Joe's keeps miscues to a minimum. "They know
exactly what they have to do to win, and they don't get away
from it," says UMass guard Carmelo Travieso.
Best of all, the Hawks seem to truly enjoy their success. They
haven't been there, have never done that and aren't bothering to
pretend otherwise. "Even our staunchest supporter wouldn't have
told you this season was possible," Martelli says. "I mean,
let's not get jaded. There's too much of that. There are going
to be a lot of down times. So why not enjoy this?" --SETH DAVIS
COLOR PHOTO: JIM GUND Jamison scored his uniform number as the Tar Heels knocked over the archrival Blue Devils. [Antawn Jamison and Greg Newton in game]
COLOR PHOTO: JIM GUND The versatile Johnson has put teeth in the Cougars' buzz-saw attack. [Anthony Johnson in game]