Heels' Montross creates a buzz on court, at barber

February 09, 1993|By Don Markus | Don Markus,Staff Writer

He is an inviting target, from the top of his nearly shaved head to the bottom of his size-18 feet. There's the buzz haircut even his teammates tease him about. There are the often mechanical, though effective, moves to the basket. And, of course, there's the jersey number: 00.

Then again, North Carolina's Eric Montross undoubtedly would stand out, regardless of his tonsorial taste (he definitely would fit in at Navy) or his number. When you're 7 feet 1, 270 pounds and play center for one of college basketball's most celebrated programs, it's sort of hard to hide.

"I've never had it any other way," Montross said yesterday from Chapel Hill. "I love it. I've always enjoyed being this big. Maybe if I hadn't had as close a family as I have, I might have been a little self-conscious."

The junior from Indianapolis has been in the spotlight for a long time. From the high school recruiting battle that the Tar Heels won over Duke, Indiana and Michigan to his Final Four appearance back home at the Hoosier Dome as a freshman to his current position on the nation's sixth-ranked team.

The spotlight will follow Montross to College Park tonight, when North Carolina (18-3, 7-2) takes on Maryland (10-9, 1-8) in an Atlantic Coast Conference game at Cole Field House. The attention will come as well from the Terrapins, who couldn't stop Montross in a 101-73 loss earlier this season.

"The first thing you have to try to do is prevent him from getting the ball," said Maryland coach Gary Williams, whose team gave up 17 points and 13 rebounds to Montross, and had five shots blocked by him last month at the Smith Center. "The second thing you have to do is when he gets it, you want to make him catch it where he can't get to the basket. What makes it difficult is that he isn't the only option."

But slowly, which is usually the way Tar Heels coach Dean Smith likes to work, Montross has evolved into North Carolina's main option. Evidence to that came last week at Duke, when Montross touched the ball seven of the first eight times his team set up its offense. He scored twice, was fouled twice and gave the Tar Heels an early lead.

Early foul trouble against Montross -- a recently recurring problem -- and poor shooting by the rest of the team contributed to North Carolina's 81-67 defeat.

Montross finished with 22 points and tied a career high with 13 rebounds, but the Tar Heels' second straight league loss left the ACC's premier center -- and maybe the country's top post player -- feeling a bit empty.

"It's nice to get those kind of numbers when you win," he said. "But they don't mean anything when you lose."

Said Smith: "He's capable of scoring more now if we had the officiating we had 20 years ago, when, if you got hit, it was a foul instead of [officials] sucking on the whistle and letting them play."

The numbers Montross has put up this season -- 15.1 points and 7.8 rebounds a game -- are typical for players of his ability working their way through Smith's equal opportunity program. But unlike J. R. Reid, North Carolina's last celebrated big man, Montross has not bucked the system.

Though at times he still plays as if one imperfectly executed bounce pass would get him a seat on the bench, Montross has emerged as another solid, if unspectacular Tar Heel who likely will be a better player as a pro than he has been in college.

"I think the main reason for the way I've played this year is my maturity as a basketball player, as well as off the court," he said. "I knew what to expect here; that's one of the reasons I came to play for Coach Smith. I haven't varied from that way of thinking. I think this is the best place for me to play."

Montross understands his role and what shots Smith expects him to take. Unlike Reid, whose lack of fundamentals has been his glaring weakness as a pro, he doesn't cross the line of demarcation. As a result, Montross has shot 59 percent from the field during his career, mostly on dunks, follow-ups and layups.

"He's so strong, he's very hard to stop," said Maryland center Chris Kerwin, who, at 6-10 and 230, has had some success -- and failure -- against Montross.

Montross also has a rare luxury of practicing against 7-footers Kevin Salvadori, a likely future NBAer himself, and Matt Wenstrom. Though neither possess Montross' overall talents, Salvadori is a better defensive player, and Wenstrom, as he demonstrated recently against Florida State, is a capable scorer.

Having players of that size and talent behind him not only has pushed Montross in practice, but also has allowed him to not worry as much about getting into foul trouble. It even has let Smith go against one of his long-standing rules of not using a player in the first half after he's picked up his second personal, as happened against Florida State and Duke.

"That's one of the intangibles about this team and the success we've had this year," said Montross, who has fouled out twice this season. "It's a lot better going up against someone your own size in a game after doing it in practice. But I don't think I change the way I play because of the depth we have."

Though a rumor has been floating around Tobacco Road that he will turn pro before his senior year, Montross quashed it yesterday. Montross, who will graduate with a communications degree in December, said he plans to finish his four years.

"People say that college is the best time of your life," said Montross.

Even when you're an inviting target.

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