Dean Smith has found that freshmen can do more than haul ball bags
Iowa State is the Big Eight surprise
In the Oct. 2, 1983, edition of The New York Times, North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith took his first and only stab at journalism, with an op-ed page piece titled WHY FRESHMEN SHOULD NOT PLAY. It was a 1,500-word treatise on the benefits of making college athletes ineligible to participate in varsity sports as freshmen.
During much of his 35-year tenure on the bench in Chapel Hill, Smith has treated freshmen as little more than baggage handlers in designer uniforms. His philosophy has been clear: The best thing about freshmen is that they'll eventually become seniors. At least they used to. Then last season Jerry Stackhouse and Rasheed Wallace were selected third and fourth, respectively, in the NBA draft before they had even become juniors at Carolina. Their exodus created considerable hardship for Smith, who was left with only five scholarship players coming back this season. But for those who view North Carolina as the monolithic IBM of college hoops, it looked like a chance to gleefully watch Big Blue take a fall for a change. "We have an open date in our schedule next year, and I'm sure I will be getting a lot of phone calls," said Smith last May, for once apparently justified in downplaying the Tar Heels' chances.
Before this year only eight freshmen had ever started the first game of a season for North Carolina. There were two in the starting lineup for the Tar Heels' 1995-96 opener, and at least two freshmen have started every game since. Forward Antawn Jamison has been the biggest surprise: At the end of the regular season last weekend he was hitting 62.0% from the field to become the first freshman ever to lead the ACC in field goal percentage. Jamison was also averaging 9.8 rebounds, including a 20-rebound performance against Virginia that made him the first North Carolina player to pull down that many in one game in 17 years. These numbers have drawn regular comparisons to former Tar Heels star James Worthy and, this being North Carolina, regular responses from Jamison of I'm not worthy.
He was instrumental as usual on Sunday, with nine rebounds as the Tar Heels beat similarly undermanned Duke 84-78 to run their record to 20-9 overall and 10-6 in the ACC. In the process they disappointed preseason doomsayers by extending many of Smith's remarkable streaks. North Carolina clinched its 26th straight 20-win season and ended the regular season third in the conference, which marked the 32nd straight time the Heels have finished third or better in the league. "We've been doubted from Day One this season," said junior guard Jeff McInnis after scoring 25 points against Duke. "Fans and writers said that with a bunch of freshmen in our lineup this would be the year to beat up on Carolina, but we've made them bite their tongues."
The other members of the tight-knit troika of Tar Heel freshmen, who actually call themselves the Three Musketeers, are swingman Vince Carter and forward Ademola Okulaja. Carter, suffering somewhat from the stigma of being labeled the 29th next Michael Jordan at North Carolina, had nonetheless averaged a promising 7.3 points a game through Sunday. Okulaja is a banger who averaged 5.4 rebounds and shot 50.0% from three-point range.
Smith has played more zone defense this season—even opening the game against Tulane on Dec. 1 in a zone, the first time he had ever done that—but that's about the only coddling his young troops have gotten. "Our freshmen have all been a pleasant surprise," says Smith. "I still believe in what I wrote in the paper, but I have to admit that this year anyway I'm awfully glad they're eligible."
The Big Bight is in its final season as an eight-team conference and, this year at least, seems to have become Kansas and the Seven Dwarfs. The Jayhawks stumbled on Saturday at Oklahoma, losing 85-79 to the Sooners, but they still finished conference play with a 12-2 record, three games ahead of their nearest pursuer. They are almost a lock to go into the NCAA tournament as the No. 1 seed in the Southeast Regional. Almost every other team in the Big Eight has been up and down like a yo-yo, with the exception of Iowa State, which has been one of the biggest surprises in the nation this year.