In a cramped corner of the visitors' dressing room at Cole Field House last month, North Carolina senior guard Ed Cota bemoaned where the young Tar Heels were headed.
That was three weeks ago. Maryland had just completed a rare regular-season sweep of North Carolina with an 81-64 win. The Tar Heels were flustered, careless with the ball, generally troubled.
Even coach Bill Guthridge, the soft-spoken, grandfatherly optimist, said he would be hard-pressed to find anything positive about the way Carolina played.
Three weeks later, the Tar Heels are 24-8. And the way they've won their first two games in the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament to reach Sunday's final with Duke is something to behold.
The young big men, Kris Lang and Brendan Haywood, are shoving people around inside. Shooting guard Max Owens, who led UNC with 23 points to beat Maryland 86-79 in Saturday's semifinal, is showing a soft touch. Ademola Okulaja, who was 4 of 7 from 3-point range, helped Carolina finish 9 of 16 from behind the arc.
"I think we're a totally different team right now," Cota said. "The past two games, everybody's been on the same page. Everybody's been doing the defensive moves we need to do to win games. "
"We're concentrating more on defense. That's the key to us winning games."
The dominance of Duke nationally and fifth-ranked Maryland's strong year have made North Carolina a relative ACC afterthought. The Tar Heels went to the Final Four last year with a team that sent three players to the NBA.
When the Tar Heels play well, though, it's hard not to like what they do. Were it not for a poised final 10 minutes from the Terrapins, North Carolina was on the way to blowing out a No. 5 team by 25 or 30 points. Two straight Owens jumpers and two converted free throws from him ha UNC ahead 64-41 eight minutes into the second half.
"I've been pleased with our team all year long," Guthridge said. "I think we've done a good job. I think sometimes Ed has gotten frustrated. But I know overall certainly he hasn't, because he's really done a good job of bringing the young players along. And he's done a great job, obviously, on the court and with leadership."
| Steve Francis and Maryland couldn't rise to the occasion against the Tar Heels. (AP)|
There is a glow about Cota. Three weeks ago at Maryland, it seemed the Tar Heels were forgetting the feel of being in top form. Now that feel is coming back. It's like a new discovery.
"I think it's just a confidence, going out and playing real hard. And believing we can win," Cota said. "We've got a great team. We've got a lot of talent on this team. We're young. I think we can still go far."
As Cota spoke, the tone of his voice sounded like someone trying to make a few converts. It is unusual for a Carolina team to have relatively low expectations.
Said Maryland coach Gary Williams, "It must be a great feeling for Carolina to be an underdog for a change."
To that, Guthridge said, "I think so. But I'd like to go in with last year's team, too. And so much can happen in a tournament. And I'm not one who believes in 'We're peaking at the right time' because there are peaks and valleys throughout one single game, let alone the season."
Beating Maryland was a case in point. It nearly slipped away from the Tar Heels. But the closest Maryland could charge back was within four points with 26 seconds remaining.
Coach K: "We're hurting."
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said the Blue Devils head for the final well short of good health. Guard Trajan Langdon, a lethal 3-point shooting force who missed Duke's 83-68 semifinal defeat of N.C. State with a foot injury, will not play Sunday. At least his prognosis for the NCAA Tournament is good. Meanwhile, forward Shane Battier must be conscious of his sore ankle.
"Right now this team is hurting. And I'm pleased that starting with the Carolina game (an 89-77 defeat Jan. 27) we've played so well," Krzyzewski said. "It's like any team.You get some injuries and you get worn out a little bit. Everyone has gone through that in the league. Some people have had it a lot worse."
Typical of Duke, though, the player who replaced Langdon in the starting lineup made a major difference. Corey Maggette, a freshman, led the Blue Devils with 24 oints.
"His role really didn't change today," Krzyzewski said. "It was (a matter of) the amount of minutes all our perimeter players would have. I feel very confident about playing Corey. He's been a great player for us all year long. It's just that now, Nate (James), Chris (Burgess) and William (Avery) all have extended minutes. So fouls are even more important to us."
A book, a rumor, and denials
There's been acrimony inside the North Carolina camp regarding author Art Chansky's claim that Dean Smith had arranged upon his retirement for Kansas coach Roy Williams to succeed Guthridge as the Tar Heels' next coach.
Guthridge had been Smith's longtime assistant. Williams is a native North Carolinian who also was on Smith's staff and always will be linked to the Tar Heel program.
Chansky's claim was written in his book Dean's Domain.
The issue prompted Williams to release this statement Friday from the Big 12 Tournament:
"I am the basketball coach at the University of Kansas and have agreed to coach at no other institution next year, or five years from now. This rumor saddens me because it is not fair to Bill Guthridge or to me. These statements, or insinuations, are not true at all."
- For the first time in seven games, Duke won by less than 20 points.
- N.C. State, in losing by 15, ended a stretch in which Duke's average victory margin in those seven games was 31.3 points. The seven wins formed the longest streak in Duke history for consecutive 20-point wins.
- Wolfpack coach Herb Sendek on N.C. State's chance of an NCAA bid despite an 18-13 record: "I think the members of the NCAA committee have one of the hardest jobs there is. I would hope, with the demonstrated strength of the top three (in the ACC) and the parity that exists thereafter, we would get as many as five teams in the NCAA Tournament. I would hope that reasonable people looking at it, from different perspectives, would think we're among the 64 best teams in the country."
- Although Maryland was disturbingly flat just when North Carolina's game flowed, Williams loved the way the Terrapins finished. "I think the last 10 minutes of the game take care of any doubts about our team," Williams said.
- There were tense moments in the early minutes between Krzyzewski and the officials. He engaged himself in a verbal war surrounding a couple of charging calls against Duke. Ultimately, he incurred a technical foul. "I haven't had a technical for two years," he said. "Whatever I said, I'm sure I deserved it."
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