Tulsa, Carolina are study in contrasts

Tar Heels have tradition, but Golden Hurricane on rise in clash of 7-8 seeds

Ncaa Men's Tournament

March 26, 2000|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

AUSTIN, Texas -- Could a regional final provide a greater contrast than the one the NCAA tournament offers in the South today?

Tulsa and North Carolina could not be more different in style, size, coaches and the attention their programs receive. The Golden Hurricane is proud of the tradition it has grown in the heartland, but should the Tar Heels succeed at the Erwin Center, they would break a tie with UCLA and earn a record 15th visit to the Final Four.

"The other team expects to beat us," Brendan Haywood said. "We're just some upstarts who are lugging our way through."

Haywood, a 7-foot, 264-pound center who looks down on nearly everyone in college basketball, spoke with a straight face, but the idea that North Carolina would finish the season in Indianapolis was not a stretch when it was ranked No. 2 in December. It was in January, when the Tar Heels lost four straight games.

Tulsa is the seventh seed and North Carolina the eighth, and, on paper, the South is one of the soft- est regional finals since the field began being seeded in 1979.

The Golden Hurricane shook its collective head on Selection Sunday, because the computer numbers said it could be a No. 5. There were howls when the Tar Heels received an at-large berth with an 18-13 record.

Tulsa is renowned for its energy. Was there a more lethargic power in the land two months ago than North Carolina? The Golden Hurricane was No. 12 last month, its highest ranking in 17 years. Before exiting the Top 25 in January, North Carolina had spent a decade in the Top 25.

Tulsa is in its first regional final. Its 12 appearances in the NCAAs are heady stuff until weighed against North Carolina, which is in a regional final for the 12th time in 20 years.

From senior point guard Ed Cota to freshman shooting guard Joe Forte, the Tar Heels start five McDonald's All-Americans. Eric Coley, Tulsa's do-it-all forward, was the prep MVP in metropolitan Muskogee. He hails from the northeast Oklahoma town of Vernon, population 70, and had to drive five miles to super-size his fries.

Three of the top six players for the Golden Hurricane are junior college transfers. The Tar Heels' history includes one, Bob McAdoo. Paul Pressey, a second-team All-American in 1982, is probably Tulsa's best player ever. The CBS analyst here is James Worthy, a Los Angeles Lakers great who might not even make North Carolina's all-time top five.

"Look at the players that have come through that program and the tradition," Tulsa coach Bill Self said of Carolina. "The pride of Carolina blue, that's something we all want if you're not coaching at a place like that. We don't have every game on ESPN or ABC or CBS.

"That's one thing that makes us tougher. These guys want that, and I think they may work harder than some people who already have that."

The next game could always be the last at Tulsa for Self, a 37-year-old who is mentioned with nearly every coaching vacancy. Bill Guthridge, 62, has two years remaining on his North Carolina contract, but there was so much disenchantment with his performance that a Web site that publicizes the program called for his head in January.

"Coach has taken more flak than he should have," Haywood said of a slump that saw North Carolina go 7-9 in its 16 games before the tournament. "He says it's his responsibility. He was giving us good game plans, but we weren't executing as well as we should have."

The Tar Heels are now. While Tulsa has taken out regular-season champions from Conference USA (Cincinnati) and the Big East (Miami), North Carolina improved its defense and ran its offense long enough to spit out big seeds from the Pac-10 (Stanford) and SEC (Tennessee).

Despite its rich legacy, North Carolina has a roster watered down by injuries. The Tar Heels would like a half-court game, while the Golden Hurricane wants to push the pace. Tulsa has just one starter over 6-5, and Coley, a quicker version of Duke's Chris Carrawell, could check everyone from Cota to Kris Lang.

"We take a lot of pride in taking people out of what they do," Self said. "We've done that for the most part this year. There is no secret strategy. We have to create enough havoc so that they [the Tar Heels] don't think about throwing the ball inside."

Cota and Haywood are the only Tar Heels who figured in their last trip to the Final Four. Two years ago in San Antonio, 70 miles down Interstate 35, North Carolina was ambushed by another tough defensive team from the Western Athletic Conference, as Utah held Antawn Jamison, Vince Carter and company to 59 points.

More was expected of that North Carolina team. Did the pressure on this one lessen when it didn't meet its customary standards in January and February?

"Probably," sophomore forward Jason Capel said. "We were pretty much written off. We're having fun now."

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