NEW ORLEANS -- When it was assembled, many called this class of recruits the best in school history, maybe even the best ever. There was a dominating big man. A terrific point guard. A small forward who could jump through the roof and a big forward with arms that went on forever. And don't forget the blue-collar guy from Jersey.
No, not Michigan's Fab Five.
It was North Carolina's pre-Fab Five. They came to Chapel Hill three seasons ago and they were at the Louisiana Superdome last night -- minus one -- winning the national championship with a 77-71 victory over Michigan. Unlike Michigan's much-hyped freshmen of a year ago, this class took a little longer to come together.
"When you come to Carolina, you have to learn how to play the Carolina way," said junior forward Brian Reese. "You might think you know the game, but you really don't."
Said North Carolina coach Dean Smith, "They came in with so much hype it hurt them."
Each of the players had to go through his own period of adjustment. Of the five, point guard Derrick Phelps made the fastest transition. Reese and reserve forward Pat Sullivan had a more difficult time. Center Eric Montross was, appropriately, somewhere in the middle.
Clifford Rozier, considered the most talented of the group coming out of high school, didn't make the adjustment. Unhappy about his lack of playing time as a freshman, Rozier left North Carolina after his first season and transferred to Louisville. He was the Metro Conference Player of the Year this season.
"I've always thought that it's best to have seven or eight players, because if you have players who think they should be in there more and aren't, it's bad for team chemistry," Smith said Sunday.
Two years ago, when North Carolina lost to Kansas in the NCAA semifinals at the Hoosier Dome in Indianapolis, Smith never was able to settle on a rotation. There were so many people being shuttled in and out -- even for Smith, whose substitution patterns can be obsessive -- that things became confused.
But the upperclassmen on that team left: Rick Fox, Pete Chilcutt and King Rice were seniors on the 1990-91 team, and Hubert Davis was a senior last season. Now, senior forward George Lynch is considered the leader of this year's team, sophomore guard Donald Williams has become the team's outside threat -- and the pre-Fab Five are the foundation.
"I think everybody thought they were going to be good," said Lynch.
They have not been without problems. As freshmen, they learned from the start what life was going to be like in Smith's program: carrying the gym bags filled with basketballs to practice, playing fewer minutes than expected during games. Smith even had the freshmen play against the upperclassmen in one highly publicized preseason scrimmage.
During a 20-minute workout played during a clinic for 1,000 high school coaches and ACC officials at the Smith Center, the freshmen lost by 46 points. "I told them that if it had been a regular game, they would have lost by 92," Smith recalled with a chuckle Sunday. "I think that got their attention."
Said Reese, "A lot of us came in expecting to take the jobs away from the guys already there. I know I came in wanting to show that I could score. I didn't respect Rick Fox's job. But that scrimmage showed us what Carolina basketball is all about."
Because he was such a sound defensive player, Phelps stepped right in when Rice departed. But it wasn't until this year that the 6-foot-3 point guard from Queens, N.Y., showed that he had an offense to go with it.
Because he was so slow when he came to North Carolina, Montross' biggest problem was playing in the Tar Heels defense, which relies heavily on a switching man-to-man and makes even 7-0, 270-pounders venture out to the perimeter. Considering his performance throughout the season -- including a 23-point game against Kansas -- Montross has become a handful.
But it was Reese who needed to change his game the most. The 6-6 forward from the Bronx was a typical New York player. He loved to shoot. He loved to woof. He loved to showboat with his explosive finger roll drives to the basket. What he didn't like to do was play defense. "I used to play defense like this," he said, moving his arms daintily in front of him.
Sullivan, the least ballyhooed member of the group, had to go through his own adjustment. Unlike the others, he didn't get to play much last year, either. But his playing time increased as this season wore on, and in the tournament he was usually among the first substitutes in behind Reese or Lynch.