They have the likely Player of the Year, may well be the Team of the Year, have now won the Game of the Year, though their coach hasn't held the job for so much as a year. Why not, then, make Bill Guthridge, the 60-year-old rookie steward of North Carolina's top-ranked Tar Heels, Coach of the Year? Every bit as remarkable as North Carolina forward Antawn Jamison's season and the throwback cohesion of the Tar Heels' six—yes, six—starters and last Thursday's unneighborly 97-73 defeat of Duke has been the absence of trauma following North Carolina patriarch Dean Smith's decision to retire in October, only days before fall practice began.
"Bill, you're killing the rest of us coaches!" said Maryland coach Gary Williams upon encountering Guthridge on the court moments before the Terrapins fixed the Heels with their only loss of the season, 89-83 in overtime on Jan. 14, a defeat for which Guthridge characteristically took the blame. "We all bitch to our athletic director about how tough this job is," Williams said, "and you walk in and go 17-0!"
After Sunday's 107-100 double-overtime victory at Georgia Tech, in which senior guard Shammond Williams scored a career-high 42 points, North Carolina was actually 24-1 and as implacable as it had been through most of Smith's 36 seasons. Three times under Guthridge the Tar Heels have rallied from double-digit deficits to win, most recently after being 17 points in arrears at Wake Forest on Jan. 31. "It was eerie how confident Coach Guthridge was, never having been in that situation," says assistant coach Dave Hanners of the first of those comebacks, against Purdue on Nov. 29. "It was as if Coach Smith was still here."
Of course, Guthridge had been in similar situations, as Smith's aide-de-camp for three decades. So too had North Carolina's six veteran starters—frontcourtmen Jamison, Makhtar Ndiaye and Ademola Okulaja, and backcourtmen Vince Carter, Ed Cota and Williams, all of whom take their turns, in alphabetical order, sitting on the bench at the beginning of each game. On Dec. 27, with the Tar Heels down by five at Georgia with 1:54 to play, Okulaja, a junior, went up to Jamison, his classmate, as the Heels broke a timeout huddle. "How much do you think we'll win by?" he asked. The record doesn't reflect Jamison's reply, only the result: North Carolina by two in overtime.
The Tar Heels had no hole to dig themselves out of against Duke last week in Chapel Hill. Early in the second half North Carolina built a 20-point lead over the then No. 1 Blue Devils, only to see that lead melt away, largely from heat emanating from the senior Ndiaye's head. After being called for his fifth foul, Ndiaye slammed the ball to the floor, an act for which he was assessed a technical; this led to four Duke points from the free throw line and a basket on the ensuing possession, which left North Carolina's lead at only four with nearly six minutes to play.
Not to worry. Cota, a sophomore, either scored or assisted on five of the next six Tar Heels possessions, and North Carolina closed out the game with a 24-4 run. The crowd at the Dean E. Smith Center left having witnessed more than even the most partisan Heels fan could have hoped for in a single evening: North Carolina blowing out Duke not once, but twice.
As penance for Ndiaye's heedlessness, the Tar Heels had to do extra running at their next practice. A North Carolina rule dating back to the early days of the Smith regime holds that if a player gets a technical, every player has to run; if a coach does, the coaching staff runs. "Every rule Coach Smith set down is still here," says Jamison. "Nothing at all has changed except for the coach. And you really can't tell we have a new coach."
The few outward differences are piddling. Guthridge isn't quite as obsessively diplomatic as Smith was; after the Tar Heels' easy defeats of Middle Tennessee State and Richmond earlier this season, he observed postgame, "We're more talented than they are." Where Smith typically began his workday with midmorning staff meetings and kept late hours, Guthridge convenes his assistants at 8:30 a.m., well after his crack-of-dawn jog.
After a two-month grace period to allow Smith to respond to all the mail he received upon resigning, Guthridge has finally moved into his predecessor's office. The sign reading RESERVED AT ALL TIMES is gone from the old coach's space in the staff parking lot outside the Dean Dome, with the spot now available to anyone in the athletic department, first-come, first-served. Smith attends only home games that aren't on television, but several times a week he comes into the office, where Guthridge and the players often seek out his counsel. "As an assistant I gave him many suggestions, and now he's giving me suggestions," says Guthridge, who adds that he prefers the old arrangement. "You don't have to live with the consequences of suggestions. You do have to live with the consequences of decisions."
When Smith met Guthridge and Seattle SuperSonics coach and Tar Heels alumnus George Karl for lunch at the Carolina Alumni Center on the day of the game against Duke, there were no X's and O's being scratched out on cocktail napkins. "Oh, Dean'll be there," Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski nonetheless said before the game, despite all the protestations to the contrary. "It's going to be like one of those Alfred Hitchcock movies. You're going to have to find Dean."