Run-down Tar Heels
Two shocking losses sent a signal that it could be a long season
for North Carolina
North Carolina coach Matt Doherty was about to drive home long
after his team's 58-54 loss to Davidson on Nov. 20 when someone
told him that Kris Lang, the Tar Heels' 6'11" senior center, was
shooting baskets by himself inside the Dean Dome. Doherty climbed
out of his car, found Lang and spent 90 minutes casually
rebounding for him in the empty arena. "We talked about the game,
we talked about the team, we talked about life," Doherty says.
"It was a neat moment to share with your player."
These are lonely, soul-searching days at North Carolina, whose
proud program is bracing for what could be its worst season in
four decades. After being humiliated by 31 points in an
exhibition game against the vagabond EA Sports All-Stars on Nov.
4, the Tar Heels opened the season with home losses to two
cupcakes, Hampton and Davidson, the first time in the 92-year
history of the team that Carolina had lost its first two home
games. It takes plenty of missteps and misfortune for such a
giant to stumble this far, but here are a few of the reasons
that the Heels are so run-down:
--Suspect recruiting by Doherty's predecessor, Bill Guthridge.
New York City star point guard Omar Cook wanted to come to
Chapel Hill, but when Cook dithered over signing his letter of
intent in the fall of 1999, Guthridge lost patience and gave the
scholarship to 6'2" Adam Boone. Cook ended up turning pro after
one season at St. John's, but the Tar Heels might have been
better off having his scholarship free than they are with Boone,
who through Sunday had averaged 1.5 assists and had gone to the
free throw line only 12 times in 34 games. Guthridge was more
dogged in his pursuit of Neil Fingleton, a 7'5" redshirt
freshman Brit who played a total of four minutes in the
season-opening losses. The five players on the roster whom
Guthridge had brought in had scored 29 points in those two games.
--The Jason Parker fiasco. An administrative snafu prompted the
school to declare Parker, a 6'8" forward from Charlotte,
academically ineligible in August 2000. Two weeks later Parker
was cleared to play for Kentucky, for which last season he was
the third-leading scorer and the second-leading rebounder. (He's
sitting out this season with a knee injury.)
--The defection of Joseph Forte. Losing underclassmen to the NBA
is a fact of life for elite programs, but several collegians,
including Stanford's Casey Jacobsen, Missouri's Kareem Rush,
Illinois's Frank Williams and Duke's Jason Williams, had at
least as much interest from the pros after their sophomore years
as Forte did but still returned to their schools. Forte, a 6'4"
guard, was drafted 21st by the Celtics and is languishing at the
end of Boston's bench.
The fact is, North Carolina wasn't a very good team last
year--even with Forte and 7-footer Brendan Haywood--until it was
bailed out by football players Julius Peppers and Ronald Curry.
The Tar Heels don't figure to get that kind of boost this season
because Peppers, a top-rated defensive end, most likely will
spend the spring preparing for the NFL draft, and Curry, North
Carolina's quarterback, will be tied up until at least late
December because Carolina is expected to go to a bowl game.
To be sure, Doherty's job isn't in jeopardy, especially because
he just signed his second straight topflight recruiting class
(chart, right). He concedes, however, that he will have to tone
down his confrontational style toward his players. "Do you rip
your son if he studies as hard as he can but still gets a C?"
Doherty says. "Nobody's pointing fingers. We're going through a
tough time right now, but we'll get through it together."
Surprising Ball State
Cards Shuffle Two Aces
When it comes to rules, Ball State coach Tim Buckley is a
stickler. Last season Buckley, 38, suspended a player for one
game because he missed a tutoring session. This season, as the
Cardinals prepared to leave their Muncie, Ind., campus on Nov.
16 to fly to Hawaii for the Maui Invitational, Buckley ordered
the bus to depart for the airport on schedule even though senior
Brian Burns wasn't on board. (Burns made the flight after
getting a pal to drive him to the airport.) Three days later,
two freshmen showed up a minute late for an eight o'clock
breakfast and got a tongue-lashing. "It's not just about
breakfast and practices," Buckley says. "I'm trying to teach
these guys life lessons. These things are part of winning."
The message seems to be sinking in. Presented with a rare
opportunity to face elite competition on a neutral court in
Maui, Ball State, which had never defeated a Top 5 team, upended
then No. 4 Kansas 93-91 and then No. 3 UCLA 91-73 before
succumbing to top-ranked Duke 83-71 in the final. The wins
propelled the Cardinals to No. 16 in this week's AP poll, their
"It's a dream come true," says 5'10" senior Patrick Jackson, who
was Ball State's leading scorer with a 22.3 points-per-game
average and who sank the game-winning layup against Kansas with
.8 of a second remaining. "Most of us played against these
[Kansas, UCLA and Duke] guys in high school but never got the
kind of publicity they did. It felt good to show that we really
can play, not just once but twice."
The Cardinals won largely because of their preparation.
Buckley's assistants started putting together scouting reports
on the other teams in the Maui field last April, and before the
players left for the tournament, Ball State's associate trainer,
Tony Cox, began force-feeding them liquids to help them contend
with the draining Hawaiian heat. While several of their
opponents were sidelined with cramps, the Cardinals had enough
strength in their legs to average 85 points a game and make
40.5% of their three-point shots.
The Ball State players draw much of their inspiration from 6'8"
junior Theron Smith, who received only one other Division I
scholarship offer--from Florida Atlantic--when he was graduating
from Auburndale (Fla.) High. Smith, who averaged 16.3 points and
6.3 rebounds in Maui, suffers from a speech impediment that
becomes especially debilitating when he gets nervous or excited.
After averaging 12.2 points and 7.6 rebounds as a freshman,
Smith was named the Mid-American Conference's rookie of the
year. He now works with a speech therapist four times a week,
and though the impediment still bothers him, he agreed to
represent the team at the conference's media day in October. "I
was definitely scared," Smith says, "but I believe you can
conquer anything if you put your mind to it."
Smith and his mates proved the truth of that last week.
A Raw Deal from The NCAA
The NCAA's decision on Nov. 14 to deny Georgia forward Damien
Wilkins's appeal for immediate eligibility is the latest example
of how the transfer rules are rigged against players. Given that
Wilkins had to transfer from N.C. State because Wolfpack coach
Herb Sendek refused to let him come back after Wilkins explored
the possibility of turning pro, it's unfair that Wilkins must
sit out a full season while Sendek is permitted to replace him
right away. If the NCAA won't permit Wilkins to play this
season, it should also take away a scholarship from the
Wolfpack.... It looks as if Memphis's Dajuan Wagner will have
competition for rookie of the year honors in Conference USA.
Dwyane Wade of Marquette, a 6'4" sophomore who sat out last
season as a partial qualifier, was named MVP of the Great Alaska
Shootout after averaging 21.3 points, 7.7 rebounds and 4.3
assists in the Golden Eagles' three games, wins over Tennessee,
Indiana and Gonzaga.... Speaking of Memphis, coach John Calipari
hasn't heard from 6'10" Amare Stoudemire of Orlando's Cypress
Creek High since July and did not receive a letter of intent
from Stoudemire during the early signing period. Stoudemire, who
has attended six high schools, orally committed to the Tigers
last spring but is widely expected to enter the NBA draft. Other
unsigned seniors considering going pro include 6'10" Sani
Ibrahim of Oak Hill Academy in Mouth of Wilson, Va., and 6'6"
Lenny Cooke of Northern Valley Regional High in Old Tappan, N.J.
Oak Hill Academy's Carmelo Anthony, a 6'7" forward, signed with
Syracuse but is also said to be contemplating the leap.
COLOR PHOTO: JIM BOUNDS Maurice Pitts gave Tar Heels freshman Jackie Manuel a rude introduction to the big time in Hampton's opening-game win.
COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES May (42) and Randolph battled in the summer and will be rivals again at North Carolina and Duke, respectively.
The Rich Get Richer
The early-signing period for recruits ended on Nov. 21, and
while a few surprise coups were pulled off by Georgia Tech
(which signed 6'10" forward Chris Bosh), Notre Dame (6'10"
forward Torin Francis) and Texas (6'9" forward Brad Buckman),
most of the top players went to the usual places. Here's the
skinny on which schools walked off with the biggest hauls.
SCHOOL KEY SIGNEES
1. DUKE 6'10" Shavlik Randolph, 6'4" J.J. Redick,
6'9" Shelden Williams
Blue Devils allotted all five scholarships to top recruits,
so a sixth, 6'7" Lee Melchionni--a top 75-ranked
swingman--will walk on. Randolph, however, is the prize
and is perfect frontcourt player for Duke's motion offense.
2. NORTH CAROLINA 6'1" Raymond Felton, 6'9" Sean May, 6'4"
Tar Heels missed out on several big-man targets but still
put together the nation's most athletic class. Felton is
the top point guard entering college, and Sean May, like
his father, former Indiana All-America Scott, is highly skilled.
3. FLORIDA 6'7" Mario Boggan, 6'2" Anthony Roberson,
6'6" Matt Walsh
Roberson is an exciting point guard, though more of a scorer
than a pure playmaker. Walsh is a Mike Miller clone who should
thrive in Billy Donovan's up-tempo system.
4. MARYLAND 6'9" Travis Garrison, 6'1" John Gilchrist,
6'4" Chris McCray
The versatile Garrison is Maryland's first significant
frontcourt signee from nearby DeMatha High since Jerrod Mustaf
in 1988. Gilchrist will be an effective point guard once he
adds weight to his 170-pound frame.
5. MICHIGAN STATE 6'4" Maurice Ager, 6'10" Paul Davis, 6'7"
Spartans once again copped a top Flint, Mich., talent in
Trannon, who signed football letter of intent but will also play
basketball. Davis is the best post scorer in the senior class,
and Ager is a slashing scorer from the wing.