Imperfect but impressive, Carolina can quell second thoughts

February 03, 1994|By Don Markus | Don Markus,Sun Staff Writer

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- When the college basketball season began two months ago, there was talk of a perfect record and an unimpeded run to a second straight national championship for top-ranked North Carolina. Why not give it the trophy and let the rest of the country play for second place?

Now there is talk of the imperfection the once and possibly future No. 1 Tar Heels have demonstrated, the obstacles they have faced and the fact coach Dean Smith's assessment might have been correct in the first place. And the injury-plagued season of Donald Williams, last year's Final Four hero, looms large.

Of course, considering the kind of season North Carolina is having -- 17-3 overall, 5-2 in the ACC and a No. 2 national ranking -- you might wonder what all the commotion is about. But considering what was expected, not to mention who's No. 1 this week, it's not surprising there are a lot of glum faces around town.

Publicly, at least, Smith is putting on his typical, what's-all-the-fuss posture. "We're very happy to be where we stand," he said this week. "I think our team is progressing well." But privately, Smith is seeking a level of perfection that would all but guarantee the Tar Heels a better than even chance at repeating.

"In practice sometimes, if things aren't going well, Coach will say 'You're not going to have a chance to repeat if you keep playing like that,' " said senior Kevin Salvadori. "I think it's been a frustrating season for us. It's not only that our fans expected us to win again, it's that we expected to win as long as we played hard."

The perception of North Carolina's season and the mood of its fans could brighten dramatically by late tonight, if the Tar Heels can do to arch-rival Duke (15-1, 6-1) what they and six other teams have experienced themselves so far this season: being beaten as the No. 1 team.

Unlike the other four No. 1 teams that were bumped off, North Carolina wasn't supposed to lose as early as it did or as often as it has. Starting with an overtime loss to Massachusetts in the semifinals of the Preseason NIT, North Carolina has done its best -- or worst -- to live down to Smith's preseason predictions.

Back then, the game's winningest active coach laughed off suggestions that the Tar Heels seemed to have an unfair advantage over the rest of the national contenders. Five returning seniors. Four 7-footers. Three of the top 10 freshmen in the country.

"The good news is that we have a lot of talent and depth," Smith said before the season began, "and the bad news is that we have a lot of talent and depth."

The talent is still impressive, but the depth has been eaten away by two factors: Smith's decision to redshirt senior forward Pat Sullivan, as well as little-used junior forward Ed Geth, before the season; and even more significantly, the injuries that have sidelined Williams, who was averaging a team-high 20 points before getting hurt the first time.

The loss of Williams, for three games in late December and early last month with tendinitis in his foot and now for up to three weeks with a partially separated shoulder, has left the Tar Heels without their most explosive offensive player. His absence has allowed opponents to shut down North Carolina's inside game by doubling down on 7-footers Eric Montross and Salvadori, as well as 6-11 freshman Rasheed Wallace.

"What we have to do -- me, Jeff [McInnis] and Dante [Calabria] -- is start creating more offense," said point guard Derrick Phelps. "People think of Donald as only a shooter, but he got a lot of points driving, too."

Due to Williams' injuries, and his freshman talent, Smith has had an even more difficult time juggling his lineup than anticipated. The rotation will change again when Williams returns, which means players adjusting to their roles once more right before the ACC Tournament.

It is similar to what happened here three years ago, when an even deeper recruiting class was thrust into the spotlight with seniors Rick Fox, Pete Chilcutt and King Rice. Though the Tar Heels wound up making the Final Four -- losing to Kansas in the semifinals -- it was rocky getting that far. In terms of chemistry, this has been easier.

But it hasn't been totally smooth.

"It was hard at the beginning," said McInnis, the least heralded of a class that features Wallace and Jerry Stackhouse. "But after I talked with Coach Smith, I started to understand what was expected of me."

While Wallace and McInnis have adjusted, Stackhouse has had a more difficult time fitting his flamboyant style in with the staid-at-home Tar Heels.

In both of their ACC defeats, at Georgia Tech and at Virginia, the Tar Heels ran up against a red-hot opponent on the other team's home court. But Wake Forest coach Dave Odom, whose Demon Deacons were pummeled by North Carolina here Sunday, said this week, "They are the best basketball team in the country and I think they will show that as time goes on."

Tonight could be the start.

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