During his 36 years as North Carolina's coach, Dean Smith preferred that there be only one voice speaking for the Tar Heels. So he forbade his assistants from commenting to reporters about the team, which helps explain why Bill Guthridge could spend 30 years sitting next to Smith on the Tar Heels' bench and still be able to walk the streets of Chapel Hill in relative anonymity. "That's part of why I loved my job," Guthridge says. "I could go to the grocery store, I could go to the movies, I could go out to eat. Some people would recognize me, but not many."
Let the record show that Guthridge's last supper was on Oct. 8, when he and his wife, Leesie, quietly celebrated their 28th anniversary at a restaurant in Raleigh. By the time they got home that night, the news of Smith's retirement had broken and there were 24 messages on the Guthridges' answering machine. Smith held his press conference the next day, and the Guthridges' have since taken an unlisted phone number.
Little else about the Tar Heels is different from a year ago, however. Six of the top seven players return from a team that won the ACC tournament and reached the Final Four. While Smith's sudden abdication caught the Heels off guard, it also infused them with a healthy dose of attitude. "We know people are going to be doubting us," says junior power forward Antawn Jamison, a two-time first-team All-ACC selection. "It's going to boil down to the players and our dedication on the floor. We know what we have to do."
It's hard to believe, in light of North Carolina's history, that there were doubts about the Tar Heels last year. The day after North Carolina lost to Virginia to drop to 0-3 in the ACC for the first time ever, Jamison and teammate Vince Carter returned from practice to their dorm rooms to find taped to their doors newspaper articles chronicling the team's woes. At the midway point of the conference season, the Heels were 3-5 and in sixth place, and many of the players felt abandoned. "It was amazing," Carter says. "We weren't winning, and all of a sudden it seemed like our fans weren't behind us."
North Carolina won 16 straight from that point on before succumbing to Arizona in the NCAA tournament semifinals. A big reason for the Tar Heels' turnaround was the marked improvement of freshman point guard Ed Cota, who was named the ACC's rookie of the year. Though he could stand to improve his outside shooting—he attempted only 25 three-pointers last year and made just eight of them—Cota's ability to provide a steady hand at the point could be the key for what will be a much quicker unit this season. Serge Zwikker, the lumbering 7'3" center, has graduated, and while he provided North Carolina with a powerful inside presence, his slow-footedness also hindered the Heels' ability to push the ball upcourt and apply defensive pressure. "It killed Dean the last couple of years not to be able to press," Guthridge says.
The backcourt will be in good hands with Cota and senior shooting guard Shammond Williams, who averaged 14.1 points a game and knocked down 41.9% of his three-pointers last season. They'll be spelled by 6'5" freshman Max Owens, a talented shooter who can create his own shot off the dribble. Up front, the quicker pace should benefit Carter, a 6'7" swingman who has mixed breathtaking athleticism with maddening inconsistency in his first two seasons at Chapel Hill. The biggest question mark, though, is at center, where 6'10" senior Makhtar Ndiaye will get first crack at replacing Zwikker, with 6'9" Ademola Okulaja standing by. A 7-foot freshman, Brendan Haywood, might also figure into the mix by season's end.
Though the Tar Heels thus appear to be in splendid shape for the first year A.D.—After Dean—Guthridge is wary of making any predictions. When asked how his sideline comportment will differ from Smith's, Guthridge replied, "I have no idea. It'll be interesting to see." Sounds like a man looking to find his own voice.