Talent is there, but maybe too much of it for 2nd crown

ARE TAR HEELS TWO GOOD?

November 17, 1993|By Don Markus | Don Markus,Staff Writer

The insurrection began seven years ago, when the most dominant program in the history of the Atlantic Coast Conference and one of the best in the country saw its stranglehold slipping and its closest neighbors taking control of the kingdom known as Tobacco Road.

The resurrection began before last season, when a high school phenom named Jerry Stackhouse made all the so-called recruiting gurus look foolish by picking their third choice -- the North Carolina Tar Heels -- as his first.

The coronation came in the spring when, after getting its candles blown out at Sweet 16 parties and its ego bashed at Final Fours on a regular basis since 1982, North Carolina beat Michigan at the Louisiana Superdome to win the NCAA title.

But will this rejuvenated king stay in power long enough to turn it into a dynasty?

Will North Carolina get to sit on the throne again this season, when the Final Four comes to the Tar Heels' home-away-from-home court, the Charlotte Coliseum? Will Dean Smith, the monkey forever off his back after his second national championship, help fulfill the prophecies of nearly every preseason prognosticator by winning his third?

Or will a team that is filled from top to bottom with high school All-Americans, college All-Americans and as many as five potential first-round NBA draft picks, become the most talented team in modern history not to win the NCAA championship?

It is a collection of talent that scares many college coaches, and Smith for some different reasons. And, yesterday, its talent proved overwhelming to even one of its own players when senior forward Pat Sullivan, a projected early-season starter, decided to redshirt.

"It's the most skilled talent we've ever had," said Smith, who is usually not as candid about his team. "The good news is that we have a lot of depth, but the bad news is that we have a lot of depth. I don't know if it's good for a team when the 12th man thinks he should be playing as much as the sixth and seventh."

That combination of talent, size, depth and experience has made the Tar Heels prohibitive favorites to repeat as national champions, equaling the recent accomplishment of their cursin' cousins in Durham. In 1992, Duke became the first back-to-back champion since UCLA, ending a 19-year drought.

North Carolina begins its task tonight, when it plays host to Western Kentucky in the opening round of the Preseason NIT. It should be the first of many victories in what a few are even predicting to be college basketball's first undefeated season since Indiana went wire-to-wire without losing (32-0) in 1976.

"North Carolina is in a different league than just about everybody else," said George Washington coach Mike Jarvis, who will get a chance to see the Tar Heels in person Dec. 3 when the No. 24-ranked Colonials play them in the opening round of the Diet Pepsi Tournament of Champions at -- where else? -- the Charlotte Coliseum.

Smith isn't ready to accept the championship trophy. Referring to close victories in last year's NCAA East Regional semifinal and final at East Rutherford, N.J., the 62-year-old coach wondered, "How many would be picking us if we lost to Arkansas or Cincinnati?"

There are several reasons why the Tar Heels are a unanimous choice. While North Carolina lost forward George Lynch, last year's leading rebounder and the school's all-time steals leader, it also has added three of the nation's top freshmen: Stackhouse, 6-foot-10 Rasheed Wallace and point guard Jeff McInnis.

The No. 1 recruiting class in the country joins a roster that already includes 7-foot, 270-pound consensus All-American Eric Montross, Final Four MVP Donald Williams and one of the nation's best defensive point guards in Derrick Phelps. Kevin Salvadori, a 7-foot senior who has backed up Montross the past two years, would start at all but two other ACC schools.

The Tar Heels are so deep at forward that Sullivan, a 6-8 blue-collar player who started to come into his own toward the end of last season, decided to finish his undergraduate work and come back next season when the logjam eases a bit.

Smith said yesterday that Salvadori will likely start at power forward, but it shouldn't be long before the 6-6 Stackhouse cracks the starting lineup.

"Jerry Stackhouse has played very well in the preseason, but that's not to say he would have started ahead of Sullivan," said Smith, who also is considering redshirting another player. There is strength in numbers for North Carolina, and just plain strength in Montross. Once considered an automaton with a bad buzz haircut, Montross has developed into a quietly solid and sometimes thoroughly overpowering force.

"I think Montross and Phelps will set the tone for them this year with their toughness," said Virginia coach Jeff Jones, whose No. 16 Cavaliers will get at least two chances at the Tar Heels.

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