Smith's record has only one foul

JOHN EISENBERG

March 28, 1993|By JOHN EISENBERG

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The numbers that sum up Dea Smith's career at North Carolina are as bright as the lights of the big city across the river from here: 771 wins, 32 years, 23 NCAA tournament appearances, 20 top-10 finishes, 11 ACC tournament championships, eight trips to the Final Four. That's dealin', homey.

Down at the bottom of the pile, though, doing its best to spoil the dazzling effect of that numeration, is the loneliest number about which they wrote the song. That's how many national championships Smith has won -- one -- and if you think there should be more, you're not alone.

"He probably should have won more national titles," Cincinnati guard Nick Van Exel said yesterday, as Van Exel's Bearcats and Smith's Tar Heels prepared for today's East Regional championship. "I don't consider him a great coach. I consider him a good coach with great players."

It was an impudent comment and inaccurate in that Smith is a splendid coach, one of the best ever. For affirmation one needed only watch his team solve Arkansas' press Friday night. The ball never touched the court. Passes only, please. That, friends, was coaching. So was the classic backdoor play Smith diagramed to score the game's biggest basket at the end.

Every Carolina game contains a slew of such momentary masterpieces. No, Van Exel is just plain wrong about Smith's coaching. But that does give legitimate rise to the other point Van Exel made, the point that does a slow, silent burn in the minds of more than a few Carolina boosters. Why hasn't this coach won more titles?

Smith has all those glistening numbers on his record, see, but also first-round NCAA losses to such luminaries as Penn, San Francisco, Texas A&M and Georgia. He has those eight Final Four appearances, but a 5-7 Final Four record, with the losses by a startling average of 13 points.

In the one final Smith did win, in 1982, Georgetown's Fred Brown threw away a game-winning opportunity in one of the great blunders in tournament history. Otherwise, Smith might never have won a title.

And in the two seasons subsequent to 1982, with Michael Jordan and Sam Perkins in uniform, Carolina didn't advance past the second round of the NCAA tournament.

It's not that Smith has a single thing to be ashamed of, of course. But Bob Knight has three titles in five Final Four appearances. When he should win, he does. And Duke just won two in a row, demonstrating the essential ability to finish off a run, a skill Carolina has lacked.

Smith said yesterday that the loneliest number doesn't keep him awake at night, as many theorize. "It doesn't bother me," he said. "I feel good about what we've accomplished."

He should. He has turned out college grads, top teams and star players, keeping himself above the tawdry mess the game has become. He doesn't turn over tables or call his players idiots. He's a gentleman. His priorities are in order.

"All our players are happy they came," he said. "That's the most important thing."

But he is also intensely competitive, which is why he still chases the thrill after 32 years, and the loneliest number bothers him more than he lets on. There are signals. He'll discuss the issue, but you hear excuses.

He mentions a history of losing important players to injury at untimely moments, as if no other coach has. The sports information department even put out a release about it after Derrick Phelps was injured in the ACC tournament. (The release noted that Kenny Smith's broken wrist in 1984 "disrupted" team chemistry. That was a team with Jordan and Perkins.)

Smith also points out that he has encouraged many of his best players to leave school a year early because he felt they were ready for the NBA. Jordan. James Worthy. J.R. Reid. Bob McAdoo. "We might have been better" if they had played as seniors, Smith said. That's a valid point. The best player in history would tend to help.

In any event, the loneliest number is there on his record, attended by a thousand theories that can't be proved. Why does February's giant ultimately shrink in March? A lack of spontaneity? An uptight coach? Who knows?

Something is clearly not right. Smith's teams have recorded few tournament upsets over the years. They rarely beat teams seeded higher. It's a mystery. It's the pockmark on an otherwise peerless record. You'd never hear it mentioned again if the Heels were to win another title. This year's team has a real shot. It would be a nice thing if it happened. The man deserves it.

Who is Nick Van Exel, anyway?

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