- The Washington Times - Friday, January 7, 2005

Carolina blue once again is one of college basketball’s primary colors.

North Carolina is back from the abyss — a k a the Matt Doherty era — in coach Roy Williams’ second season. The third-ranked Tar Heels have won 12 straight while defeating name opponents with alarming ease.

After capturing the prestigious Maui Invitational with victories over BYU, Tennessee and Iowa and also beating Kentucky at home and Indiana on the road, the Tar Heels (12-1, 1-0 ACC) enter the heart of their ACC schedule tomorrow with a home date against No. 22 Maryland.

The game gives the Tar Heels another chance to show they are ready to regain their reign along Tobacco Road and find the on-ramp for the Final Four.

Chapel Hill was college basketball’s epicenter during Dean Smith’s Hall of Fame career, which included 11 Final Fours and two national titles. Now top disciple Williams, who led Kansas to back-to-back Final Fours immediately before taking over at his alma mater last season, is on the verge of another successful run. He inherited a program that missed the NCAA tournament the two previous seasons, endured a horrific 8-20 record in 2001-02 and saw Doherty’s tenure end in a players’ revolt.

Williams immediately restored respect with a 19-11 season (8-8 in the ACC) and an NCAA tournament trip that ended with a second-round loss to Texas. People around the program feel this season’s dazzling start is the next step in restoring a program that once routinely produced greats like Michael Jordan, Antawn Jamison and Vince Carter.

“We’re right where we need to be,” said center Sean May, who has transformed from a soft post player to a physical force underneath this season. “This team can get so much better. We haven’t really shot the ball like we need to. Our defense hasn’t been the greatest. But we’re a lot better than last year, and we’re nowhere near peaking.”

The only loss came in the season opener at Santa Clara while point guard Ray Felton was serving a one-game NCAA suspension for playing in an uncertified summer-league game. Since then, the Tar Heels have won seven games by at least 30 points and have an overall victory margin of 28.3. Only once have they won by less than 13, in a 70-63 victory at Indiana.

The Tar Heels have improved individually and collectively, with a strong four-man bench that allows Williams to employ his signature frenetic pace. May, a 6-foot-9 junior, re-sculpted his loose frame and is quicker and stronger. Sharpshooter Rashad McCants has improved his shot selection while becoming more consistent instead of wildly streaky. Felton is becoming a playmaker and not just a phenomenally talented but erratic point guard.

“The biggest part is, they are more familiar with what we want them to do,” said Williams, who has criticized his stars’ me-first mind-sets in the past. “And 1A would be that that familiarity gives them confidence. They know the difference between a good shot and a bad shot.”

The Tar Heels average 92.7 points, 10-plus higher than last season. UNC is shooting a gaudy 52.6 percent and 43.9 on 3-pointers.

Jawad Williams, who was hurt and limited to role-player status last season, is shooting at a 65.9 clip while averaging a team-high 17.1 points. May is shooting 58.8 percent from the field. Felton is making 55 percent (22 of 40) of his 3-pointers while averaging 7.8 assists and also has an assist/turnover ratio of nearly 2-1.

“I have no doubt if No. 2 [Felton] had played in the first game, they would be No. 1 in the country right now,” said Vermont coach Tom Brennan after the Tar Heels clobbered his usually strong mid-major team by 28. “They are fabulous. … I think they have really bought into Coach Williams.”

Marvin Williams is a 6-9 freshman who gives Carolina a second inside threat with May. Nine players average at least 15 minutes, including point guard Melvin Scott, swingman Jackie Manuel and guard David Noel. The development of Noel and Manuel, a healthy Jawad Williams and the addition of Marvin Williams allow the Tar Heels to run and apply constant defensive pressure.

May is averaging 16.1 points and a team-high 8.8 rebounds, and the re-shaped big man is causing havoc with inside moves and unusual quickness for someone his size.

“He is making plays this year that he could never have made last year because he didn’t have the balance or the stamina,” Roy Williams said. “It is directly related to how hard he worked in the offseason.”

But the biggest change of “buying into” Williams’ defense-first philosophy and team offense involves McCants. The slashing swingman fired whenever ready while averaging 20.0 points last season. Now he is down to 16.6 and is the second-leading scorer behind Jawad Williams.

“He’s playing a lot more comfortable in his second season under Coach Williams,” said Kentucky coach Tubby Smith after McCants torched the Wildcats for 28 points in Carolina’s 91-78 win. “He’s understanding where to take his shot and be patient. We didn’t really have an answer for him.”

McCants’ maturity parallels the Tar Heels’ overall development.

“Last year if he was the second-leading scorer, he would probably have been hunting his shot and looking for a way to put himself back on the map,” May said. “This season all he cares about is winning.

“That’s our philosophy this year: Let’s just win, and everything will take care of itself. I think everybody is starting to buy into that. And that’s why we look so much different than we did last year.”

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