Looking to find solid footing

Terps' Morris, Heels out to answer doubters

January 27, 2000|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

There are two key questions surrounding Maryland's basketball game at North Carolina tonight: Will the Terps be able to make their way to Chapel Hill without further disruptions, and who's going to get better first, Terence Morris or the Tar Heels?

The game was originally scheduled for last night, but the travel plans for No. 22 Maryland and nearly everyone else on the Eastern Seaboard were disrupted Tuesday by a major winter storm. The Atlantic Coast Conference, meanwhile, has seen part of its establishment slip and slide during the first three weeks of play.

When the ACC media met in October to talk men's basketball, it voted Morris, Maryland's elegant junior forward, as the preseason Player of the Year and North Carolina as the team to beat.

Tonight at the Smith Center, Morris will try to erase concerns about a shooting slump, which has dropped his field-goal percentage to .375 in the conference, and his tender left ankle, which forced him out of Saturday's win over Clemson. All North Carolina will try to do is avoid its longest losing streak in 48 years.

While coach Gary Williams underwent some questioning when Maryland (13-5, 2-3) lost its first three ACC games, it was a few flurries compared to the blizzard of criticism that a four-game losing streak has dumped on North Carolina (11-8, 2-3) and Bill Guthridge. The last time the Tar Heels lost five in a row, at the end of the 1951-52 season, there wasn't even an ACC.

After appearing in the Top 25 for 172 straight polls, North Carolina is unranked for the first time in a decade. Several of its other streaks are in jeopardy.

The Tar Heels have been to the NCAA tournament a record 25 straight years. It's been 30 seasons since they didn't win 20 games and 36 since they last finished out of the top three in the ACC regular-season standings.

The last time North Carolina lost four straight, in February 1992, it recovered and reached the Sweet 16, and used that as a springboard for the second of Dean Smith's NCAA championships the next season. The Tar Heels still have to play two games against Duke and six more altogether on the road, but Williams argues that reports of the Tar Heels' demise are premature.

"They're capable of beating anyone in the country with that five," Williams said of Carolina's starting lineup. "You know they're going to click at some point."

Point guard Ed Cota and mercurial center Brendan Haywood are two of the top talents in the ACC. Forward Kris Lang and wings Joe Forte and Jason Capel were acclaimed high school players. Injuries and illness have combined with off-court issues, however, to make North Carolina mediocre.

Since it upset Maryland in the ACC semifinals last March, North Carolina is 11-10. Sure, the first of those losses was to Duke, but Haywood was a no-show in a first-round NCAA upset to Weber State, and the Tar Heels' last five setbacks were all to unranked opponents.

"Losing is contagious, just like winning is contagious, and we have to keep our heads up and plow ahead," a snowbound Guthridge said from his home Tuesday. "I think we're ready to bounce back."

Some of the most respected newspaper columnists on Tobacco Road don't think so, and there were suggestions that Guthridge should go after last Saturday's loss at home to Florida State. Guthridge, 62, has said that he wants to stay through the 2001-02 season, but some North Carolina followers have long been calling for Kansas' Roy Williams to come home.

"I felt some pressure when I took over, and I continue to," said Guthridge, a longtime assistant who was handed control of the program when Smith retired just before the start of practice in October 1997. "A lot of people out there are down on us. When there's interest like that, there are going to be opinions on what we should do.

"I accept the blame. When you're the head coach, that's where the blame should go."

North Carolina's woes began in the preseason.

Guthridge wanted to intensify his team's defensive pressure, but preparation was affected by the absence of coach Phil Ford, who entered a rehabilitation center after his second drunken-driving arrest. Point guard Cota and reserve Terence Newby were arrested after a Halloween night fight, and they have a court date next month.

Cota has 901 career assists, third all-time in the ACC, and a desirable target in Haywood, who has a career field-goal percentage of .649. As always, North Carolina is among the best shooting teams in the nation, but Haywood could work harder for the ball and only Georgia Tech is allowing more points per game than the Tar Heels.

North Carolina's rhythm has been disrupted by a number of injuries, and Cota missed the Florida State game with a respiratory infection. He's ready to go against Maryland, and Morris should be after missing the first game of his college career with a second-degree sprain to his left ankle.

As much scrutiny as the Tar Heels have come under, the weather has added to a pressure-packed week for the Terps, who will continue on to Florida State for a game there Saturday. Maryland has won three of its past four at the Smith Center, but this team has played fewer road games -- two -- than anyone else in the ACC, and it has yet to win on an opponent's floor.

"We need to get one somewhere along the line," Williams said earlier this week.

Terps tonight

Opponent: North Carolina (11-8, 2-3 ACC)

Site: Dean Smith Center, Chapel Hill, N.C.

Time: 7

TV/Radio: ESPN/WBAL (1090 AM)

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