- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 28, 2000

AUSTIN, Texas Start Oct. 15 and fast-forward five months to this morning. Everything, it appears, is right on schedule for North Carolina's basketball team.

The Tar Heels are going to their 15th Final Four and third in the past four years. Guiding the journey is a starting five of former high school All-Americans veteran point guard Ed Cota, rookie sharpshooter Joseph Forte and the tall, talented frontcourt of Jason Capel, Kris Lang and Brendan Haywood.

Except this season didn't move in fast-forward in fact, it moved pretty darn slow, "slow" doubling as a good way to describe North Carolina's play. The often disinterested and athletically disinclined Tar Heels hibernated all winter, losing nine of their final 16 games before jolting awake in the NCAA tournament.

But what a jolt it has been.

"I've had a lot of faith in this team all year," third-year coach Bill Guthridge said Sunday at the Erwin Center, where Carolina defeated Tulsa 59-55 for the South Region title. "I'm sorry it took us so long to get going, but it couldn't have been at a better time."

Eighth-seeded Carolina (22-13) used a series of inspired post-ACC tournament practices to gear up for the South Region, from which it emerged with victories over No. 9 Missouri (84-70), No. 1 Stanford (60-53), No. 4 Tennessee (74-69) and No. 7 Tulsa.

Strangely, the unranked Tar Heels are a perfect fit for this Final Four, which sports the lowest average seed (5.5) since seeding began in 1979. While only two seeds of No. 5 or worse reached the Final Four during the 1990s (No. 6 Michigan in '92 and No. 5 Mississippi State in '96), three have made it this year.

Carolina faces No. 5 Florida in one semifinal Saturday; No. 8 Wisconsin plays No. 1 Michigan State in the other. The Spartans, ranked second, might be called the only tournament favorite to reach Indianapolis' RCA Dome except for the Tar Heels, based on preseason expectations.

"The key was just sticking together as a team," said Lang, a sophomore power forward. "Keeping confidence in one another and believing in one another that was key. Not listening to the media or the fans around us."

Asked if that task was particularly difficult two weeks earlier, when Carolina eked into the tournament on its strength-of-schedule, Lang said, "For the media and the fans. But for us, we believed we could do it."

That belief began the day after a 58-52 loss to Wake Forest in the ACC quarterfinals. The Tar Heels stayed in Charlotte, N.C., to practice at a local college, then went home and practiced particularly hard. Then at first-round site Birmingham, Ala., the first practice was so intense Guthridge had to call it short.

"It's all confidence level," Lang said. "Through our practices, we slowly built our confidence up."

And Guthridge changed, too not to mention endured. After weathering a season of criticism questioning his competency, Guthridge endured the death of his 96-year-old mother, Betty Guthridge, earlier this week.

"I don't think my mother even knew that I was the head coach," Guthridge said. "I told her, and my sister did too, but with Alzheimer's you never really know if she heard."

Guthridge, a 30-year assistant to Dean Smith, was named national coach of the year as a rookie in 1998, guiding Carolina to a 34-4 record, an ACC title and a Final Four appearance. But critics argued that "Coach Gut" had little to do with the success of that juggernaut, which boasted top-five NBA Draft picks in Antawn Jamison and Vince Carter.

After this year's ACC tournament, Guthridge reportedly grew more vocal with his players though Sunday night he played down both personal and team-oriented changes.

Asked if his style is still evolving, the understated 62-year-old allowed, "Probably. And I think each team is different. You have to handle each team differently. But I don't know how much I've changed. I still have the same philosophy."

Nonetheless, there have been tangible hard-line decisions. No-nonsense walk-on defensive end Julius Peppers has become entrenched as the sixth man, and other reserves essentially have been eliminated. Junior Max Owens played just one minute Sunday, while Forte played the other 39 at the position, scoring a career-high 28 points.

The blossoming of Forte, a graduate of DeMatha High School, has coincided with that of Haywood, who led the nation in field-goal percentage this season. A 4-for-10 performance Sunday nudged Haywood below 70 percent for the season (69.3), but the 7-foot junior has attempted at least 10 shots a game during the tournament, and he scored a career-high 28 points in the first round.

Ultimately, it's funny how much improvement Carolina needed to make before it could begin its tournament run. After all, this team started the season No. 6 in the national poll and rose as high as No. 2. But it says something that the Tar Heels' season has ended with slow rededication rather than fast-forwarding past the problems.

"It says a whole lot," Guthridge said. "They hung in there all year long, and they are reaching their potential."

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide