Carolina trio isn't taking freshman year sitting down

January 07, 1994|By Barry Jacobs | Barry Jacobs,Contributing Writer

Their avenue to prominence is neither as open nor as welcoming as the route taken by Maryland's Joe Smith and Keith Booth, both starters as freshmen. But then, North Carolina's highly acclaimed trio of newcomers, rated by many as the top recruiting class in the nation, never expected it would be.

Which makes all the more surprising the extensive playing time seen by Rasheed Wallace, Jerry Stackhouse and Jeff McInnis during second-ranked North Carolina's 11-1 start heading into tomorrow's game at Maryland.

From their first day of practice, freshmen at North Carolina are systematically put in their place, egos trimmed and games tamed. Such treatment is a rite of passage in Dean Smith's calibrated program, which has long enjoyed the luxury of bringing newcomers along slowly behind a wealth of gifted veterans.

Since 1987, despite Smith's claims he routinely relies on freshmen, only three first-year players have averaged as many as 15 minutes per game. Yet Stackhouse is playing more than 21 minutes this year and Wallace 19. McInnis, a reserve point guard, averages 15 minutes.

"We blend in pretty good," said Wallace, who admits he's surprised "a little bit" by his generous playing time.

This season, with four starters returning from a 1993 NCAA championship squad, the logjam of talent was expected to place playing time at a premium for Wallace, a 6-foot-10 center/forward; Stackhouse, a 6-6 forward; and McInnis, a 6-3 guard. But Smith solved that problem during preseason practice by redshirting two forwards, senior Pat Sullivan and sophomore Ed Geth.

Suddenly the Tar Heels were only nine deep, and Wallace and Stackhouse were needed to provide frontcourt depth. They've responded well. Only veterans Donald Williams and Eric Montross have higher scoring averages than Stackhouse (12.2) and Wallace (10.2). Wallace leads the team in blocked shots, including a dozen in the past two games, and is second to Montross in rebounding (6.7). Stackhouse is fourth on the team in rebounds (5.8) and fifth in assists (32). McInnis has 33 assists.

Despite the evidence, Smith characteristically downplays his new players' importance.

"I don't know why there is so much attention on our freshmen," he said recently. "They're freshmen who are very good prospects, very good freshman players. They played in the National Festival [during the summer of 1993]. Jerry and Rasheed were 0-2, they were playing against other freshmen and sophomores. Now they're playing against juniors and seniors. I'm very happy with all three of them, but they still will make mistakes in our defense I hope they won't make three weeks from now."

The transition has been easiest for Wallace, a Philadelphian tabbed by USA Today as its 1993 high school player of the year. "Things are going pretty smoothly for me right now," he said. "Things are a lot better for us on defense. I'm understanding it a lot better."

Adjustment problems by the freshmen led North Carolina to employ zones extensively in November, when it incurred its sole loss, in overtime against Massachusetts in the Preseason NIT. "I'm not concerned about the offense," Smith said at the time. "I'm worried whether our defense can match last year's team."

Not to worry. The Heels have emerged as a strong man-to-man defensive squad, forcing 18.8 turnovers per game and holding opponents under 40 percent shooting.

Wallace especially seems to thrive in Smith's trapping defenses. That's because he is disciplined, athletic and blessed with remarkable speed for a player his size. What's more, Wallace learned at Simon Gratz High that if he ran the court, he'd have an advantage over most big men.

Already, Wallace has become adept at helping to trap guards in the backcourt, then racing back to contest shots before the opposing offense can set up. Once in position, Wallace's leaping ability and timing make him an imposing shot blocker.

"Add that to Kevin Salvadori, who's good, and [Eric] Montross, things don't ease up at all when they substitute," lamented N.C. State coach Les Robinson, whose team had 14 shots blocked by UNC on Wednesday. "You beat your man -- so what?"

The Tar Heels blocked 146 shots last season; this year they have recorded 95 in one-third as many games.

Wallace also is a polished offensive player with remarkable hands. Often one of his long arms will extend above the fray to corral a pass or rebound with the ease and command of an elephant's trunk reaching for a peanut. Then he employs a variety of moves and a soft touch to make the most of the opportunity; he's hitting 73.2 percent of his shots.

While Wallace has thrived, things have not gone as smoothly for Stackhouse, a North Carolinian who considered N.C. State, Duke, Virginia and Florida State before signing with the Tar Heels.

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