Tar Heels back on their feet

College basketball: There have been stumbles along the way, but proud North Carolina appears to be returning to its winning ways after last season's 8-20 finish.

College Basketball

January 21, 2003|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. - The imposing display of championship banners and retired jersey numbers still hangs from the rafters, making the Smith Center seem more like a college basketball Hall of Fame than a state-of-the-art arena.

Last winter, as North Carolina suffered through the worst season in its history, those powder blue mementos were a painful reminder of how quickly, and how far, the Tar Heels had fallen under second-year coach Matt Doherty.

But something positive came out of the blight of North Carolina's 8-20 nightmare.

The Smith Center, named after legendary coach Dean Smith and built as a monument to the accomplishments of the sport's all-time winner, transformed from a cold, color-coordinated museum filled with laid-back fans into a raucous home court that supported a passionate coach and his young team.

Not only has the decibel level been raised a few notches this season, but so too has the talent level of the Tar Heels. While North Carolina has had a few bumps en route to an 11-5 record going into tomorrow night's home game against No. 12 Maryland, the Tar Heels have also delivered more than their share of bruises.

The most recent came at home Saturday, when North Carolina raced out to a 20-3 lead over then-sixth-ranked Connecticut and spent the rest of the game holding off the Huskies, finally emerging with a 68-65 victory when a three-point shot bounced off the rim.

For a team that is still the youngest in the Atlantic Coast Conference and one of the youngest in the country -with freshman forward Rashad McCants and freshman point guard Raymond Felton leading the turnaround-the margin for error between winning and losing remains a fragile equation.

There has been one constant: the emotional lift the crowd seems to give the team at each of its home games.

"I think a lot of our diehard fans see the excitement of the unexpected," Doherty said last week. "They see the excitement of a youthful team growing through mistakes. In an odd way, I think they enjoyed that last year and again I think they're enjoying that this year. They know the results will come."

McCants and Felton - as well as freshman center Sean May, who broke his foot early in the season and is not expected back until late February - have given the Tar Heels more than just the athleticism they lacked last season. McCants, in particular, plays with a bravado reminiscent of many of the former stars whose jersey numbers are hanging above.

With explosive bursts to the basket and scoring binges, McCants reminds many of Jerry Stackhouse, especially after recently letting go of his emotions. The 6-foot-4 swingman spent the first half of the Clemson game waving his arms to the crowd and talking trash to the Tigers. In the second half, he prevented Clemson from getting its first win at North Carolina by taking over the game down the stretch.

Asked why he had held back his emotions until then, McCants said, "I didn't feel it was appropriate to show my emotions because my emotions are kind of different than everybody else's in terms of dunking, screaming, just showing a lot of rage on the court."

McCants seemed to be acting like one current Tar Heel in particular - Doherty.

Doherty's combative coaching philosophy has been a source of controversy throughout his tenure. It was cited as the reason for North Carolina's late-season fade two years ago, as well as for sophomore guard Joseph Forte leaving early for the NBA after the season. Doherty also made it clear that he wanted a different kind of player than his predecessor, Bill Guthridge, had recruited.

Doherty's first recruiting class, which included guard Melvin Scott of Baltimore, became the foundation for the revival. But it is this year's class that has returned the Tar Heels to the radar screen.

North Carolina gave notice by upsetting Kansas, winning the Preseason NIT and getting ranked as high as 14th before losing at Illinois and at home to Kentucky, before hitting a low point with a loss at Miami on Jan. 4.

"I knew we were going to hit some rough spots, play some good teams," said McCants, who leads the ACC in scoring at 19 points a game, is second in three-point field goal percentage (45.5) and third in field-goal percentage (53.5 percent). "At the same time, I knew we were going to bring this program back to prominence."

The loss of May, a 6-9, 270-pound player who is the son of former Indiana star Scott May, was certainly a setback.

"I don't how far along we would have been if I hadn't gotten hurt," said May, who hopes to return for next month's game with Maryland. "It's something that happened, but as our team grows with me not playing, it's going to be better.

May's absence has put much of the scoring load on McCants, Felton and sophomore Jawad Williams, a 6-8 forward who was headed to Maryland until Doherty arrived. Williams is considered the de facto captain of this year's team since seniors Will Johnson and Jonathan Holmes are role players.

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