Heels are down, but Terps not ready to count them out

Carolina brings 5-6 mark to Cole, but Terps fear longtime ACC giant

January 09, 2002|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK - Maryland senior guard/forward Byron Mouton has seen the struggles that are consuming the North Carolina Tar Heels.

Watching videotape of Carolina in preparation for tonight's visit at Cole Field House, Mouton has witnessed the inexperience, poor shooting, spotty rebounding and sloppy ball handling, all of which have led the Tar Heels into the unfamiliar world of mediocrity.

As for Carolina's record (5-6, 1-1) and the apparent end of its reign among the elite in the Atlantic Coast Conference, Mouton sounded as if he is waiting for a better team to emerge in Chapel Hill. As for No. 4 Maryland taking the wounded, unranked Tar Heels casually, Mouton ruled out the possibility.

"We expect a good Carolina team. It might be one game they win to turn their whole season around and give them the confidence they need to push it through the season," Mouton said. "That game can't be against us."

That game could come against anybody. Just ask Duke and Virginia, two ACC powers who, as top four teams, were beaten on back-to-back days last weekend by unranked Florida State and North Carolina State, respectively.

A victory on Maryland's floor tonight, especially if the Terps (11-2, 1-0) get a decent contribution from senior center Lonny Baxter - he practiced yesterday after spraining an ankle eight days ago and missing a 92-69 victory over Norfolk State on Thursday - would qualify as a stunning upset by Carolina.

This is how painful life has been for the Tar Heels, who have won 15 ACC tournaments (more than any other school) and have been to 27 straight NCAA tournaments and recorded 31 consecutive 20-victory seasons, each an NCAA record.

Carolina opened the year by going 0-2 at home for the first time in the program's history, with the losses coming against Hampton and Davidson, no less. It has lost by 20 to Kentucky, has barely beaten Binghamton and has fallen to College of Charleston. Only a recent three-game winning streak that began against then-No. 15 St. Joseph's gave Carolina a rush of hope.

Then came Saturday's 84-62 collapse against Wake Forest. That was the worst drubbing Carolina has ever suffered at the Dean Smith Center and the most lopsided rout Carolina has endured at home since Feb. 15, 1975, when the Lefty Driesell-coached Terps won, 96-74.

"I couldn't make a proclamation that we had turned the corner at 5-5, that we were a Top 20 team that was ready to conquer the world, but I thought that, for us, we were playing good basketball [before the Wake loss]," North Carolina coach Matt Doherty said. "I hope we can go up there [to Maryland] and put up a good fight and have a chance."

Inexperience will not help Carolina, which has suffered the losses of shooting guard Joe Forte, point guard Ronald Curry and power forward Julius Peppers. Forte left school early for the NBA, while Peppers and Curry focused on football. Peppers has made it official that he is concentrating on the coming NFL draft. Curry has not said whether he will return to the basketball team after finishing his days as Carolina's quarterback.

The Tar Heels lean heavily on seniors Kris Lang and Jason Capel, who anchor the frontcourt effectively along with promising freshman forward Jawad Williams.

But it's the backcourt, where freshman point guard Melvin Scott has yielded the starting job to sophomore Adam Boone, that needs to grow up fast. Sophomore shooting guard Brian Morrison is shooting just 36.2 percent. Freshman swingman Jackie Manuel is shooting just 29.5 percent.

The Tar Heels are ranked last in the ACC in scoring offense, field-goal percentage and turnover margin. That does not bode well against a Maryland team that is tops in the league by holding opponents to 36 percent shooting and only 25.4 percent from three-point range.

Look for Maryland's seasoning in the backcourt, where senior Juan Dixon, junior point guard Steve Blake and backup Drew Nicholas have been together for three years, to dictate the action, regardless of whether Terps coach Gary Williams decides to sit Baxter or play him on a limited basis.

"Lonny is still trying to get back to a hundred percent. Hopefully, he can play tomorrow," Williams said. "Lonny wants to play. Him not playing is like missing a meal."

Tahj Holden figures to replace Baxter in the starting lineup again, and reserve Ryan Randle could have another busy night after collecting 25 minutes against Norfolk State. The Tar Heels also have to contend with Chris Wilcox on the blocks. Lang (knee) and Capel (hamstring) are bothered by nagging injuries, making the task even tougher.

"This is a chance to defend our home court, and Carolina is one of the two teams that have dominated our league in the last 30 years. We have to be ready to play," said Williams, who expects a good effort from Carolina. "It's awfully early to give somebody the 10 count. They've had some adversity, and that can mature you in a hurry."

Doherty expects the Terps to come after his team with a heavy dose of full-court pressure and half-court traps, in an effort to create easy baskets and turn the game Maryland's way as quickly as possible. Carolina is committing 16.1 turnovers per game.

"They've had six days to sit back, watch tape and salivate," Doherty said of Maryland. "I think they are going to bring it."

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