The Heels are really clicking

Led by three Olympians, North Carolina is 10-1 and counting on being No. 1
January 17, 1977

Through that door and past those two secretaries is the spacious, comfortable office of North Carolina Basketball Coach Dean Smith. Let's sneak a look inside.

Hmm, this is unusual. There seem to be no mementos of his teams' 10 straight postseason tournaments, nine 20-victory seasons, eight consensus All-Americas, seven Top Ten finishes, six ACC regular-season titles, five ACC tournament championships, four Eastern Regional crowns, three NIT appearances or two international tournament victories. No partridge in a pear tree, either. In fact, there is not a "one" of anything, at least not as in "No. 1." For all his enormous success, Smith has never coached the top-ranked team in the country, not even for a week.

Although Smith would be loath to admit it publicly, this shortcoming could be corrected next March at the NCAA tournament in Atlanta. The Tar Heels would be ranked No. 1 right now if they had not suffered a one-point overtime loss to Wake Forest in the season-opening Big Four tournament. Since then the team has roared to nine straight victories, raising its record to 10-1 and lowering its postseason betting odds.

Already there have been warning drumbeats from as far away as Portland, Ore. After Carolina blitzed three opponents in the Far West Classic last month, Coach Neil McCarthy of runner-up Weber State flatly declared, "They should be No. 1." The night before, following an awesome 86-60 thrashing of Oregon, wounded Duck Greg Ballard had said, "That's the best team I've ever played against." And yes, as a senior, Ballard knew UCLA when.

The Tar Heels brought their point closer to home last week, opening the ACC season with victories over Clemson (91-63) and Virginia (91-67). Coming into the contest, Clemson was nationally ranked itself, with nine triumphs in 10 games and a 35-point victory margin. But afterward, Coach Bill Foster shook his head and said, "They made us look like we'd never even practiced together."

With four starters back from last year's 25-4 club, the Tar Heels have practiced together a lot. And three of the players have Olympic gold medals after playing for Smith in Montreal last summer.

Like most coaches, Smith plays games one at a time and says so ad nauseam. He not only refuses to look very far ahead to where he might be going, but he also won't even look behind to see where he has been. When the school pep band struck up the Olympic theme after the Clemson game last week, Smith acted like Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca. "I wish they wouldn't do that," he said. "That was last summer when we had Scott May and Adrian Dantley." In other words, don't play it again, Sam.

Even if he could make use of his 12 Olympic players, Smith would not take much for granted. "Oh, we'd be one of the 32 teams in the NCAA field," he allows, "but we wouldn't necessarily make the final four. Too much can happen."

But the three Olympians he does have—Guard Phil Ford, Forward Walter Davis and Center Tommy LaGarde—may be enough. On the bench he even has a fourth Olympian, Randy Wiel, a 25-year-old former policeman from the Netherlands Antilles who was a sprinter in the 1968 Games.

Recently the Tar Heels have been blowing out opponents like birthday candles. "We're killing teams and it's hilarious," says Guard John Kuester, the fourth returning starter. "People must get tired of reading that every game was our best of the year." Says LaGarde, "Things might go wrong for a while, but not for an entire game." One reason for the team's fast start is the rapid development of freshman Forward Mike O'Koren. "I learned quickly that it's more than putting the ball in the hoop," he says. "The first week of practice I was dribbling downcourt when all of a sudden somebody stole the ball and everybody else was running in the opposite direction."

O'Koren's Jersey City background has forced him to make other adjustments. "Hush puppies?" he exclaimed in a school cafeteria line one day. "I thought hush puppies were something you wore on your feet."

Despite his ignorance of Southern cuisine he has fit in well enough on the court to shoot a team-leading 58% from the field, highlighted by an 18-for-21 performance in Oregon. And O'Koren has also learned what is at stake in his first college season. "It's funny," he says, "but a year ago I was hoping to win the county and now it's the country."

If Carolina takes the national title, it will be because of performances as well balanced as the Flying Wallendas'. All five starters are scoring in double figures and shooting at least 55% from the floor and 71% from the foul line. And led by the spirited Ford ("Phil Cadillac" one coach has called him) the Tar Heels have almost twice as many assists and steals as their flustered opponents.

Each of the starters is capable of a big scoring night, but in Smith's well-ordered system "nobody is selfish enough to try." While restraining individual skills, the emphasis on team play does foster brotherhood. The players believe in each other so much that most of them include a current or former teammate among their list of "most-admired sports stars." Even more brotherly, perhaps, is the enthusiastic support the starters give their substitutes.

A lack of quality reserve strength could be a roadblock on the way to Atlanta, especially in the frontcourt where LaGarde is still developing at center after three years at forward. Fortunately for Smith, the team's dominant play has resulted in an average winning margin of 17 points and lots of court time for the bench.

Against Clemson last week the reserves played the Tigers even over the game's last six minutes. Smith was not around to enjoy it, however, having been banished with three technical fouls in the first half. He accepted his punishment with equanimity, later recalling that his only other ejection had occurred five years ago, against Clemson also, "the last time we went to the final four."

There are a few other good omens. It was exactly 20 years ago that North Carolina last won the NCAA title and 25 years ago that a substitute guard with a nasal twang named Dean Smith played for (or rather sat and watched) national champion Kansas.

But history, as Smith would like very much to say right now, never won anybody anything. Aggressive defense is more important and the Tar Heels have that, too. They play it as if every player had an extra arm to reach and swipe at opponents.

With all this, the team could provide Smith that "one" thing he has never had. But even if it does, Ford, at least, will not be completely happy. "Knowing we can't be undefeated makes me disappointed," he says. So long as the Tar Heels win their last game, the little guard can probably live with it.

PHOTOSoaring above the masses, forward-turned-center LaGarde makes his move on Clemson.

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