Embattled leader

North Carolina: Senior point guard Ed Cota took the brunt of the criticism as the Tar Heels were losing more games than they had since 1952. With Carolina on a postseason surge, that recent history is being revised.

Final Four

March 30, 2000|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

When a four-game losing streak in January sent North Carolina out of the Top 25 for the first time in a decade, the program's elder heard the criticism. It was a basketball team without direction. He could no longer inspire the youngsters in his charge, and his job performance lacked passion.

Bill Guthridge? Good guess. But point guard Ed Cota was being ripped nearly as much as his coach.

"I was taking a lot of heat from a lot of different people," Cota said. "Everyone was saying how I wasn't a great leader. When you struggle, people are going to find someone to point a finger at. That's a role I had to accept. If we had lost two [regular-season] games, they would have said I was a great leader."

Analysts will make that proclamation if the Tar Heels can post two more victories.

Florida is the semifinal foe in a record 15th Final Four for North Carolina on Saturday. A victory at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis, and another Monday over Wisconsin or prohibitive favorite Michigan State, and Cota and North Carolina will have completed a rapid transformation from biggest underachievers in the nation to NCAA champions.

The last North Carolina team to lose more games than this one was the 1951-52 version. Cota agrees that the Tar Heels should never have gone into this tournament with an 18-13 record.

There is a talented -- albeit mercurial -- center in Brendan Haywood. Forward Kris Lang was an equally important recruiting coup, and sophomore classmate Jason Capel, the small forward, was another consensus prep All-American. After he abused Tulsa in the South Region final, freshman shooting guard Joe Forte was ordained this week's next Michael Jordan.

North Carolina, however, would have been home in Chapel Hill Sunday had Cota not brought them back from a seven-point deficit to Tennessee in the South semifinals last Friday. He produced the tying and go-ahead baskets, and kept the Tar Heels alive.

Cota's legacy is one of the more compelling subplots this weekend.

The first player to lead the Atlantic Coast Conference in assists four straight years, Cota is third on the NCAA's all-time list. The record-holder is Duke's Bobby Hurley, who also happens to be the last point guard to play in three Final Fours.

He can't get the two national titles Hurley did, but at least Cota can get one. He can also place the spotlight on his accomplishments instead of on the assault charges that have overshadowed his season.

Cota and Terrence Newby, his tightest teammate, faced three charges of assault inflicting serious injury and two charges of simple assault for their involvement in a Chapel Hill brawl last Halloween. A court hearing has been postponed several times, most recently after a defense request. Motions were supposed to be heard next Monday.

Guthridge suspended the two for 10 days in November, and the incident hindered North Carolina's preseason preparation. Guthridge wanted Cota's voice on the floor while he sought to get more out of his other veterans, add Forte to the mix and install some up-tempo schemes.

The only Tar Heels left from the 1996-97 season, Cota and the seldom-used Newby provide a bridge to the Dean Smith era.

As a freshman and sophomore, Cota had the luxury of setting up Antawn Jamison and Vince Carter. In 1997, Smith's final season, Cota was the ACC Rookie of the Year but North Carolina was a semifinal victim during Arizona's surge to the NCAA title. The Tar Heels were No. 1 for eight weeks the following season, but were undressed by Utah in the NCAA semifinals.

There was a bigger upset in the first round last year, when North Carolina lost to Weber State. Cota entertained the notion of entering his name in the NBA draft, but returned to North Carolina. The Tar Heels were No. 2 after they won the Maui Invitational, but then came the free fall that left Cota second-guessing himself.

"Throughout the year, I did that, trying to figure out the problem," Cota said. "I always have to point a finger at myself. I'm probably my biggest critic. After a while, that gets old. I had to look at what the other guys were doing wrong. It was the team.

"I knew I was doing my part out there. It was just a matter of everyone else knowing their role. I had to have a lot of patience. Coach [Guthridge] did too. It's crazy how much patience he had with these guys. If I was in his position, I would have been ready to slap people and hit people. He took it upon himself to just take his time with us, and we finally responded."

North Carolina bottomed out with a Smith Center loss to Florida State Jan. 22. A virus caused Cota to miss that game. Then the Tar Heels got better when he distributed the ball less and shot more.

For all of his 1,022 assists, Cota did not come to North Carolina as a floor general.

Cota, who will turn 24 in May, drifted through his first two years of high school in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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