Let's face it, predicting that North Carolina coach Dean Smith will fail is a lot like insisting the sun will set in the East: It just ain't gonna happen. When the Tar Heels started the ACC season 0-3 for the first time in school history, and were still in sixth place in the conference with a 3-5 record as recently as Feb. 5, many otherwise savvy basketball observers clucked that perhaps Smith was losing his touch after 35 years in Chapel Hill. But by winning their last nine games going into this week's ACC tournament, including a 91-85 dogfight on Sunday with ACC regular-season champion Duke, the Tar Heels improved to 21-6 and found themselves tied with Wake Forest for second place in the conference and in the running for a No. 1 NCAA seed. And if North Carolina can win five more games—say, three in the ACC tournament and then two in the NCAAs—Smith would get his 877th career victory, breaking Adolph Rupp's alltime record.
In other words, Smith has the Tar Heels about where most preseason prognosticators estimated they would be about now. But nobody foretold North Carolina's catastrophic January. Coming off a tiring Christmas tour of Holland and Italy during which they played three games in four days, the Heels opened conference play with an 81-57 blowout loss to Wake Forest; then suffered an embarrassing 85-75 home court defeat in which Maryland came from 22 points down in the second half; and followed that with a 75-63 beating by Virginia. Forget Rupp's mark; Smith, it appeared, would be lucky to maintain his streaks of 22 straight NCAA appearances, 26 consecutive seasons of 20 or more wins and 32 top-three ACC finishes in a row.
Granted, sophomore forward Vince Carter, a player who had been expected to emerge as a star this year, had a hip pointer and missed all but 37 minutes of the first three league games. But the Heels' troubles seemed deeper than that. The biggest worry was the unsure ball handling of freshman guard Ed Cota, who was turning the ball over far too often.
Following an 80-73 loss at Duke on Jan. 29, however, the Tar Heels started to improve. Sophomore phenom Antawn Jamison, who had 33 points and 11 rebounds against Duke on Sunday, is the team's mainstay, but Carter has been explosive down the stretch and Cota has averaged only 2.9 turnovers per game since that loss to Duke. Cota even finished the regular season first in the ACC in assists, with 6.8 per game. (The last freshman to do that was Georgia Tech's Kenny Anderson in 1990.)
"It wasn't any magic thing that turned it around," says Smith of this season. "It's gradual improvement and gradual confidence." And, he adds ominously, "we're still improving. I hope you haven't seen the best North Carolina team yet."
Do the Charleston
After his Cougars wrapped up an 83-73 victory over Florida International in the Trans America Athletic Conference tournament final in Charleston, S.C., last Saturday, College of Charleston coach John Kresse sat at the press table in the 3,500-seat arena named after him, his shirt soaked with sweat, his voice a Brooklyn-accented croak. "Now, if we can just get a Number 1 or Number 2 seed in the Southeast Regional [of the NCAAs], I'll be happy," he said with a smile.
A guy can dream, can't he? Most everyone else associated with the College of Charleston, a liberal arts enclave founded in 1770, is happy with this reality: The 17th-ranked Cougars (28-2) are going to the NCAAs, joining intrastate representatives Clemson, South Carolina and Charleston Southern, which won the Big South Conference's automatic bid.
Just eight years removed from membership in the NAIA, the College of Charleston has an .812 winning percentage and an 82-4 record at home since joining the NCAA in 1991, but it still had to win the Trans America championship to be assured of a bid because of its mediocre power rating (59th in the country last week). That low rating derives in large part from the Cougars' weak schedule. None of the top-tier programs will schedule a home-and-home series with the College of Charleston because they know that they would suffer a "bad loss"—one that would sink their own power rating—if they were defeated by a team with such a low power rating. Thus you'll notice that the Cougars' two highest-profile victories, against Stanford and Arizona State, came on the road in the Great Alaska Shootout in late November. "I can't even get Clemson and South Carolina to play us here, and I'm friends with [the two schools' coaches] Rick Barnes and Eddie Fogler," says Kresse.
This year's senior-dominated Cougars have a slew of hungry rebounders and a cling-wrap defense that can make life miserable for opposing ball handlers. (Seven Cougars have at least 25 steals.) The top glass cleaner is Thaddeous Delaney, a 6'8", 250-pound senior dubbed the Shaq of the TAAC because of his dominance in the paint.