In the Oct. 2, 1983, edition of The New York Times, North
Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith took his first and only
stab at journalism, with an op-ed page piece titled WHY FRESHMEN
SHOULD NOT PLAY. It was a 1,500-word treatise on the benefits of
making college athletes ineligible to participate in varsity
sports as freshmen.
During much of his 35-year tenure on the bench in Chapel Hill,
Smith has treated freshmen as little more than baggage handlers
in designer uniforms. His philosophy has been clear: The best
thing about freshmen is that they'll eventually become seniors.
At least they used to. Then last season Jerry Stackhouse and
Rasheed Wallace were selected third and fourth, respectively, in
the NBA draft before they had even become juniors at Carolina.
Their exodus created considerable hardship for Smith, who was
left with only five scholarship players coming back this season.
But for those who view North Carolina as the monolithic IBM of
college hoops, it looked like a chance to gleefully watch Big
Blue take a fall for a change. "We have an open date in our
schedule next year, and I'm sure I will be getting a lot of
phone calls," said Smith last May, for once apparently justified
in downplaying the Tar Heels' chances.
Before this year only eight freshmen had ever started the first
game of a season for North Carolina. There were two in the
starting lineup for the Tar Heels' 1995-96 opener, and at least
two freshmen have started every game since. Forward Antawn
Jamison has been the biggest surprise: At the end of the regular
season last weekend he was hitting 62.0% from the field to
become the first freshman ever to lead the ACC in field goal
percentage. Jamison was also averaging 9.8 rebounds, including a
20-rebound performance against Virginia that made him the first
North Carolina player to pull down that many in one game in 17
years. These numbers have drawn regular comparisons to former
Tar Heels star James Worthy and, this being North Carolina,
regular responses from Jamison of I'm not worthy.
He was instrumental as usual on Sunday, with nine rebounds as
the Tar Heels beat similarly undermanned Duke 84-78 to run their
record to 20-9 overall and 10-6 in the ACC. In the process they
disappointed preseason doomsayers by extending many of Smith's
remarkable streaks. North Carolina clinched its 26th straight
20-win season and ended the regular season third in the
conference, which marked the 32nd straight time the Heels have
finished third or better in the league. "We've been doubted from
Day One this season," said junior guard Jeff McInnis after
scoring 25 points against Duke. "Fans and writers said that with
a bunch of freshmen in our lineup this would be the year to beat
up on Carolina, but we've made them bite their tongues."
The other members of the tight-knit troika of Tar Heel freshmen,
who actually call themselves the Three Musketeers, are swingman
Vince Carter and forward Ademola Okulaja. Carter, suffering
somewhat from the stigma of being labeled the 29th next Michael
Jordan at North Carolina, had nonetheless averaged a promising
7.3 points a game through Sunday. Okulaja is a banger who
averaged 5.4 rebounds and shot 50.0% from three-point range.
Smith has played more zone defense this season--even opening the
game against Tulane on Dec. 1 in a zone, the first time he had
ever done that--but that's about the only coddling his young
troops have gotten. "Our freshmen have all been a pleasant
surprise," says Smith. "I still believe in what I wrote in the
paper, but I have to admit that this year anyway I'm awfully
glad they're eligible."