All For One

Two years after selfishness and egotism ruled the court, North Carolina finds itself No. 2 in the national polls and in first place in the ACC.

Maryland Vs. North Carolina

February 27, 2005|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. - Twenty years ago on Oscar Night, best actress Sally Field gushed in her acceptance speech that "I can't deny the fact that you like me, right now, you like me!"

North Carolina won't get the red-carpet treatment at Comcast Center tonight, but it doesn't matter. Its three leading men have subdued their egos, six others have embraced supporting roles, and the Tar Heels are directing the Atlantic Coast Conference race.

No. 2 in the polls, North Carolina figures to be the people's choice in NCAA office pools, all because what is regarded as the nation's most talented team has learned to, well, right now, like one another.

FOR THE RECORD - In Sunday's editions, an article on the University of North Carolina basketball team incorrectly stated the reason Raymond Felton missed the Tar Heels' opening game this season. Felton was serving a one-game NCAA suspension.

If Maryland has a dysfunctional five, you should have seen what greeted Roy Williams two years ago, when he left the empire he had built at Kansas and finally returned to the sideline where he had served as an assistant to Dean Smith for 10 seasons.

The Tar Heels had a renowned freshman class in 2002-03, but big man Sean May went down with a broken foot, and point guard Raymond Felton and dynamic wing Rashad McCants won only six ACC games. Matt Doherty was forced out after just three seasons in charge of his alma mater, and the rookies came across as spoiled brats.

"My freshman year, there was just a bunch of guys going out and playing," said May, who described the schism between what are now North Carolina's upper classes. "Me, Ray and Rashad were close, but Jawad [Williams] wasn't in the mix, Melvin [Scott] wasn't in the mix. We weren't as tight as we should have been.

"Last year, Coach [Roy Williams] brought that up, but it still wasn't there. I don't know why, we just weren't clicking. This year, we got off to a bad start, but that brought us closer together. Even in our losses, you haven't seen us wither away [and go] in our own direction, like we would have last year. Anytime things went bad, guys went into their shell, but those days are gone. This is about as close as a team can get."

North Carolina's NCAA aspirations appeared shaky back on Nov. 19, when it opened with a loss at Santa Clara, but Felton was out with a minor hand injury. The only slip-ups since have come at Wake Forest and Duke, other candidates for the NCAA's four No. 1 seeds.

The Tar Heels are coming off a 10-point win at North Carolina State in which they seemed oblivious to the absence of McCants, who will miss his second straight game today with an intestinal disorder. Scott replaced McCants in Raleigh and broke out of a shooting slump with four three-pointers, a typical response on a team on which the veterans grasp that they had best maximize their chances.

A senior from Baltimore's Southern High who started last season, Scott lost that spot to Jackie Manuel, a better defender. The Tar Heels returned their top seven players, and six are getting fewer minutes than last season, as they comfortably go nine deep. Some blowouts have padded North Carolina's statistics, but even in the ACC, Felton is the only one averaging more than 30 minutes.

In Felton, May and McCants, North Carolina has more finalists for the Wooden Award than both the Big Ten and Conference USA, but North Carolina's best NBA prospect is 6-foot-9 freshman Marvin Williams, who's from Bremington, Wash. He has made a team-high 83.9 percent of his free throws and lessened the load on May, who has improved his conditioning and produced more with less playing time.

May, who has raised his field goal percentage from .463 last season to .536, says his teammates are quicker to get him the ball. Roy Williams said he has talked about sharing the ball "every day since I've been alive," and this team has taken the message to heart.

"This is a lot of fun," Felton said of running the point for North Carolina. "We've got 13, 14 guys who can score. That makes my job easier, but the hard part is keeping all those guys happy. Most of the time, everybody is touching the ball, making the extra pass."

McCants took 15 shots a game last season. Now he takes 11. He has improved his defensive fundamentals, but made just 31.3 percent of his three-pointers in ACC games and remains the Tar Heels' wild card. Is he their next Michael Jordan, or their next Joe Forte, the first-round draft choice from 2001 who wasted an NBA opportunity and is now in the National Basketball Development League?

"I got on him during the Maryland game about overhandling the ball, and he was sensational after that," Williams said of last month's 34-point romp over the Terps. "I'm not sure he would have handled that [criticism] last year. I've talked to the entire team about instinctively, if your teammate's open, you should throw him the ball. That's hard for a really good scorer, because they have an abundance of confidence, but he does have more confidence in his teammates."

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