For the last eight or so years, players on the North Carolina bench have looked as if they should be wearing that bumper sticker that asks "Are we having fun yet?"
Oh sure, they've been winning with a Stepford-like consistency averaging more than 20 victories a year, with five regular-season Atlantic Coast Conference titles and their annual NCAA tournament bids to boot.
But ever since that last national championship banner was hun after the 1982 season, the Tar Heels on the sidelines have looked like kids being dragged to the dentist.
That is, until this year, when the nation's best recruiting clas has fused with a wily group of veterans to bring field goals, folks and fun together in Blue Heaven.
"There's just so much to do," gushed senior swingman Rick Fox "Each game brings a new challenge. We're just so excited."
And rightfully so. The fifth-ranked Tar Heels are 11-1, their bes start since the 1983-84 season when they jumped out to a 21-1 start on the way to an undefeated regular season in the ACC.
This year's model could be Dean Smith's best since that team which eventually lost to Indiana in the NCAA East Regional finals.
The reason? North Carolina possesses what former Oriole manager Earl Weaver calls ''deep depth,'' with potential all-stars at each position.
"I would like our chances with our third five against most othe fives, but most schools don't have that many players on scholarship," said Smith, who goes for career victory No. 700 tonight against Maryland in Chapel Hill.
Playing time has been scattered among all players, to th consternation of some, but to the benefit of all.
''There's been no selfishness,'' said Fox. "We're all abou winning."
Of chief interest to most has been the progression of th $H freshman class, which, as always, is relegated to sharing one page in the team media guide and is required to carry the team's equipment on trips.
But the rookies -- especially 6-foot-10 power forward Cliffor Rozier, 7-0 center Eric Montross and 6-3 point guard Derrick Reese -- already have shown signs of being something special.
''Our young players are developing slowly,'' said Smith, i characteristic understatement. ''They will, eventually, I hope continue to improve.''
''The recruiting class that North Carolina signed is one o distinction,'' said South Carolina coach George Felton. The Gamecocks are the only team to beat the Tar Heels this season, dropping them 76-74 in the opening round of the Tournament of Champions in Charlotte in early December.
"They've lived up to their reputation, and they could be the team of the decade for the '90s," Felton said.
It has been the seniors' responsibility to teach the kids the littl things that make up the Carolina way, like acknowledging the player who made the pass for a basket, and standing up on the bench when a player comes out.
"We've always tried to keep them with a level head," said Fox "We have to be responsible. I guess, as freshmen, they get a lot of pressure, but they've handled it really well."
Fox has done more than just lead by word. He has played well averaging 17.3 points and 6.6 rebounds, and has placed himself into position to be considered for next June's NBA draft.
''I think Rick Fox is as good as any small forward in the country,' Felton said. ''He has great skills, and the thing about him is he's so versatile. He can go inside, or he can go outside and score from the perimeter.
''Maybe he hasn't received the national attention other Nort Carolina players have in the past, but he really seems to be enjoying himself. To his credit, he's more focused on being the cog of the team, being the glue that holds North Carolina together.''
Fox, who was a sophomore on the Carolina team that won th ACC tournament over favored Duke two years ago, thinks this team is destined for the big time, meaning a berth in the Final Four, and he wants to be a big part of that.
"I see us becoming a really big contender by the end of th year," said Fox. "I thought my first year here, we were of that caliber. The second and third year, things just didn't come together. But now, as a senior and as a leader, I think I can control some of that destiny.''