Aching 'Heels

Saturday, January 19, 2002

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Blue Heaven hasn't been this gray in more than 60 years.

The North Carolina basketball empire built and fostered by Dean Smith has taken a major detour five seasons after he retired as the winningest coach in Division I-A history.

The Tar Heels have been a March Madness fixture for an NCAA-record 27 straight seasons, but that amazing streak is in serious jeopardy.

At this point, the NIT is a distant goal.

"We turn the ball over and we're not a great shooting team," coach Matt Doherty said. "And we're not a great rebounding team. Those are pretty vital stats in the game of basketball."

A 31-point exhibition loss to EA Sports All-Stars, and embarrassing season-opening home defeats against Hampton and Davidson were the first signs of trouble.

Consecutive blowouts against Wake Forest and Maryland were more evidence that this year's version of the Tar Heels might be hard-pressed to win 10 games, let alone 20.

The Tar Heels dropped to 5-9 (1-4 in the ACC) with their road loss against Florida State on Wednesday, their fourth straight defeat. The 1938-39 Tar Heels also started 5-9.

North Carolina's last losing season was 8-9 in 1961-62, Smith's first.

"I look at it like it's our North Carolina program and not Dean Smith's program or anybody's else," Smith said, "and certainly it pains me when we don't play well."

Streaks to chase

Besides the program's postseason streak, the Tar Heels have won 20 or more games for a record 31 straight seasons and finished in the top three in the Atlantic Coast Conference 37 years in a row. They've also been to the Final Four a record 15 times and produced 31 first-round draft picks, including Michael Jordan in 1984.

Until now, the transition from Smith to Bill Guthridge to Doherty had been fairly smooth.

Guthridge, Smith's longtime assistant, took the program to two Final Fours in three seasons. Doherty led the Tar Heels to an 18-game winning streak and a No. 1 ranking, and he was chosen as The Associated Press coach of the year for 2000-01.

The Tar Heels ended up tying Duke for the ACC regular-season crown, but they lost five of their final 10 games. Still, that finish was nothing compared with this year's start, which has left Tar Heels -- past and present -- searching for answers.

"I am not playing and I hear it every day," former North Carolina star Brad Daugherty said. "When you live on a campus like North Carolina everything revolves around what's going on with the program.

"There is pressure created, even if it's subconsciously. Just hearing that stuff at a distance can make you tight. And that is no way to play basketball."

The simple answers to North Carolina's poor play are a lack of overall talent and depth, and recruiting missteps dating to Smith's last season in 1997.

The program has also been gutted more than any other by early defections to the NBA. Since 1995, the Tar Heels have lost Jerry Stackhouse, Rasheed Wallace, Jeff McInnis, Antawn Jamison, Vince Carter and Joseph Forte before their eligibility was up.

Losing talented players

"Matt and I talked when he took the job that, looking down the road, he was concerned about this year and how we would be able to compete," athletic director Dick Baddour said.

First-team All-American Forte, who averaged 23.7 in 16 ACC games last season, went to the Boston Celtics after his sophomore season. Seven-foot center Brendan Haywood, now playing with Jordan and the Washington Wizards, was a fixture in the middle for the Tar Heels, graduating as the ACC's career field-goal percentage leader (63.7 percent) and North Carolina's career shot-block leader (304).

Doherty also lost point guard Ronald Curry and power forward Julius Peppers, both of whom starred on the football team and chose to pursue NFL careers.

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