CHAPEL HILL,N.C. — CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- After longtime assistant coach Eddie Fogler left Dean Smith's staff at the University of North Carolina four years ago, there were some doubts whether the Tar Heels would have the same success recruiting they had in the past.
The whispers along Tobacco Road were that Smith had lost his touch for attracting the bluest of blue chippers. The Tar Heels lost a number of players to other high-profile schools. Alonzo Mourning chose Georgetown. Billy Owens went to Syracuse. Kenny Anderson opted for Georgia Tech.
As the recruiting success plateaued, so did North Carolina's fortunes. Until this season.
The whispers have been silenced.
The Tar Heels areloaded.
"I wish I could have their second five," one Atlantic Coast Conference coach said last week. "Or their third."
It's not clear who is where on North Carolina's depth chart going into tonight's 7:30 game against Maryland (8-4, 1-1) at the Smith Center. The fifth-ranked Tar Heels, who open their ACC season with an 11-1 record, have had 11 different starting lineups with a dozen players taking their turns in the pre-game introductions.
For Smith, going after his 700th career victory, it's a pleasant problem, but a problem nonetheless. "In the past, we've had seven clear-cut players who could have started," Smith said yesterday. "There are more this year who feel they should be playing. We have depth, but in a way, it's not good to have great depth."
The problem started when North Carolina had its best recruiting class in Smith's 29 seasons, perhaps the best recruiting class since a UCLA freshman team showcased a 7-footer named Lew Alcindor. Four of the Tar Heels' five freshmen were on everybody's high school All-America lists.
"I think there's a lot of pressure on us, on the whole team," said 7-foot freshman center Eric Montross, who spurned his state school (Indiana) and his father's alma mater (Michigan) to come to North Carolina. "Any time you come in so highly touted, people are going to expect you to be better than you are. People have to realize that we're only freshmen."
This season's great expectations are due, in part, to last season's grand disappointment. Despite an upset of Oklahoma in the National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament, last season's 21-13 record was deemed failure by some fans.
And when the Tar Heels were upset by South Carolina in the opening round of last month's Tournament of Champions in Charlotte, there was talk that Smith should banish his seniors to the bench. One of them, point guard King Rice, was booed in the team's next home game.
"I think there's more pressure on [the upperclassmen] because of the freshmen," said junior guard Hubert Davis. "It's human nature to think about individual goals, even in a team sport. But we're trying to put those aside, and I think we've done a pretty good job of it."
Said senior forward Rick Fox: "I feel sorry in a way for the freshmen. Some of them were picked to take over for us this year. Maybe the South Carolina loss was good for us. It proved to us, and to everybody around here, that we weren't as good as we thought we were."
The team's nine-game winning streak hasn't been problem-free. Freshman point guard Derrick Phelps, who took over for Rice for a couple of games, injured a knee against DePaul and has missed the past two games. Freshman forward Clifford Rozier, who started well, has slumped recently.
Stanford coach Mike Montgomery made this observation after his Cardinal lost, 90-75, to the Tar Heels in the finals of the Red Lobster Classic in Orlando, Fla.: "There's no question that he's [Smith] got a lot of talent. But it's very difficult to have guys know their roles when their roles change every night. You need a go-to guy, and they don't seem to have one."
Said Maryland coach Gary Williams: "It's easier when you have the same five guys out there most of the time. But Dean has always played a lot of people, and the kids who go there know his system."
Smith, who devised a system of a Blue team and a White team years ago, might have to come up with another color this season. He compares this season's team to 1977's, for which Rich Yoniker began as the 14th player and ended up starting in the national championship game against Marquette.
"It's an unusual situation," said Smith.
For now, the upperclassmen are trying to hold onto whatever playing time they've worked for, and the freshmen are waiting to take over.
It could be a wonderful mix or a terrible clash.
"If it was a concern, I would have gone to another school," said Rozier.