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In this year of burgeoning big men, a list of the strengths at North Carolina begins with its (fiat-) top-of-the-line model center, 7-foot senior Eric Montross. The Tar Heels also have three other starters and two top reserves from the team that won the 1992-93 national championship. In a year when the rules no longer dictate that players must penetrate or pass off every five seconds, the Heels happen to have metronomic point guard Derrick Phelps, now freer than ever to govern the tempo. Moreover, from the recruiting class of '93, Carolina suits up three blue-chippers—6'10" center Rasheed Wallace, 6'6" forward Jerry Stackhouse and 6'3" guard Jeff McInnis—none of whom lost a game as a high school senior.
In short, the Heels are so loaded that their blue team could contend for the ACC crown. So loaded are they that they're "a bigger favorite than Vegas was three years ago" (Virginia Commonwealth coach Sonny Smith), "head and shoulders above the rest" (North Carolina State coach Les Robinson) or, in a word, "prohibitive" (Wake Forest coach Dave Odom). So loaded that Tar Heel coach Dean Smith, searching for dark clouds in the Carolina blue sky, thinks his team's biggest problem is being, well, so loaded. "We have too much," says Smith. "Our 12th man thinks he should play, and that's not the best way to have a team."
If the Tar Heels weren't already big enough favorites, consider that the Final Four will be held in Charlotte. So, how could North Carolina fail to cut twine before the home folk on April 4? Let us count the ways. Donald Williams, the Heels' deadeye shooting guard, could be sidelined by perpetual goose bumps, recalling the chants of "Jordan! Jordan!" he heard while winning the Most Outstanding Player award at the '93 Final Four. The 270-pound Montross, daydreaming during practice about some giraffe he photographed on a safari, might accidentally plow over 7-foot forward Kevin Salvadori and step on Phelps, forcing Smith to play Wallace and McInnis, who are, after all, only freshmen. The third powerhouse freshman, Stackhouse, might fail to average the 4.6 dunks he threw down at Oak Hill (Va.) Academy last season.
Or, maybe, just maybe, some team might outmatch or outluck the Tar Heels in the NCAA tournament. For the sake of sport, let's consider the contenders.
Heading the list is Arkansas. The ravenous Razorbacks whetted their appetite for Carolina in an 80-74 semifinal loss at the East Regional in March. Playing the Hogs is supposed to be "40 minutes of hell," but swingman Scotty Thurman, the team's leading scorer, and playmaker Corey Beck gave the Heels only 40 minutes of heck, contributing just 12 points and six assists between them. Both are back, however, and they are hungrier. So is 6'7", 245-pound forward Corliss Williamson, who dropped 15 pounds while touring South America with the national under-22 team over the summer. With 6'11" freshman Darnell (Tank) Robinson in Fayetteville, Williamson won't have to feast alone on the boards. "We're much more prepared to play a team with size, like Carolina, than we were a year ago when it was just Corliss out there battling those big old guys," says Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson. Whether the now taller Hogs will play with the same frenzy as last season's team did is uncertain. So, too, is their home court advantage, now that they have moved from Barnhill Arena, a 9,000-seat torture pit, to Bud Walton Arena, which seats 18,600.
At Duke, the crucial question also hinges on heart and home: How much can the crazies at Cameron Indoor Stadium crank up the intensity of 6'8" senior Grant Hill? Hill might replace Bobby Hurley at the point, but he won't fill Hurley's shoes unless he becomes more fiery. "I have to tell Grant to be selfish," says Blue Devil coach Mike Krzyzewski. "At the training table, take two rolls. Take two pieces of chicken. And don't let the freshmen have dessert." Coach K has some large mouths to feed too: He could well play a lineup that averages 6'9".
Like Arkansas and Duke, Kentucky has the size to bang with the Heels. The Wildcats also have a class of sophomores that might one day be the equal of Carolina's seniors. Second-year forwards Jared Prickett and Rodrick Rhodes can carry a team; 6'9" Walter McCarty can carry a tune. While at Harrison High in Evansville, Ind., McCarty sang the national anthem a cappella before a couple of games, but he wasn't allowed to play at Kentucky last season because of Prop 48. Now he must help replace go-to guy Jamal Mashburn on a team that came up just a little bit short each of the last two seasons.
At 6'11" and 250 pounds, center William Cunningham brings Temple eye to eye with the Tar Heels, though coach John Chaney is still waiting for "that light to go on in [Cunningham's] head where he understands what we're trying to do." Aaron McKie, who averaged 20.6 points and 5.9 rebounds last season, and explosive Eddie Jones (17.0 points and 7.0 boards), give the Owls a formidable front-court, and the new 35-second shot clock will make Chaney's inscrutable matchup zone even harder to crack.
With its 77-75 victory in the finals of the '93 ACC tournament, Georgia Tech was the last team to beat North Carolina. Delivering the haymaker was 6'8" forward James Forrest, who averaged 19.5 points and 7.5 boards last season and showed the ability to stick and move from inside and out. "If he could dedicate himself, James could be a Charles Barkley-Shawn Kemp type player," says coach Bobby Cremins. "He's cocky, but he's lazy."
Cremins is rededicating himself to Georgia Tech. After taking the South Carolina job last spring, he started thinking and rethinking and re-rethinking his decision, and he returned to the Yellow Jackets two days later. He will contemplate his career no more—or so he says: "I will never have another job interview. This is it. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing."