On the corner of Tar Heels coach Bill Guthridge's desk sits a clay jar upon which is painted the word EXCUSES. For the last two decades, whenever a player came to see Guthridge armed with some alibi about why he'd been late for practice or missed a class, Guthridge would offer him a chance to write up his story and tuck it inside the jar. Shame prevented anybody from doing so, and the EXCUSES jar remains empty to this day. "With our team's lack of experience, I might be tempted to fill up the jar this season," says the 61-year-old Guthridge, warming to the irony. "I hope our fans are patient, but I don't expect them to be. Win and they're behind you, so I don't believe I'll be as good a coach as I was last year."
After tying a school record with 34 victories and reaching the Final Four in his first season as head coach, Guthridge has seen 73% of the Heels' scoring vanish, thanks to graduations and the early exits of Antawn Jamison and Vince Carter to the NBA. Only two starters return, and nobody who's back scored more than 8.1 points a game in '97-98. The Tar Heels do have junior point guard Ed Cota, who led the ACC in assists for the second straight year, but he attempted fewer than six shots a game and describes his shooting as "a lost art." While senior forward Ademola Okulaja, who shot just 41.4% from the field a year ago, will have to assume more offensive responsibility, the team will rely heavily on its freshman class, contrary to what was once Carolina tradition. Small forward Jason Capel could become the first freshman to lead the Tar Heels in scoring, and Capel's summer AAU teammate Ronald Curry should see ample playing time in early December, after he finishes quarterbacking the football team. With a squad that is shorter on seasoning but deeper than a year ago, Guthridge plans to simplify the offense and spring Carolina's traditional trapping pressure defense, which has been notably absent in Chapel Hill over the last two seasons.
None of the current Tar Heels were even alive in 1974, the last time the school failed to reach the NCAA tournament, and Carolina hasn't finished out of the top three in the ACC standings since '64. On the first day of October practice Guthridge urged his young troops not to worry about extending these sacred streaks. He could also have reminded them of a similar scenario three autumns ago, when Jerry Stackhouse and Rasheed Wallace left early for the NBA. That team turned to unproven freshmen like Carter, Jamison and Okulaja, who grew up quickly and kept the runs alive. The following year the Tar Heels started 0-3 in the ACC before rallying to win 16 straight games and reach the Final Four. "Nobody wants to be on the team that breaks the streaks," Cota admitted recently while glancing at the banners in the Smith Center rafters. "But we've proven that when we're doubted, we can be even more dangerous as underdogs."
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