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College Basketball Notes : Tar Heels Take Their Lumps, but They Keep Rolling Along

February 05, 1989|KEN MURRAY | The Baltimore Evening Sun

For Dean Smith, the curse has become a blessing. For North Carolina, the run of bad luck has turned into a windfall of pleasant surprises.

Three months ago, when his best player was scratched with a stress fracture, Smith talked of survival for the Tar Heels. Now, at the halfway point of the Atlantic Coast Conference season, he could dare to talk about destiny, if he so desired.

Ranked third in the country, tied for first in the ACC, the Tar Heels (18-3) appear poised to make a postseason charge all the way to Seattle and the Final Four. Just ask Georgia Tech's Bobby Cremins.

"I thought a month ago they were the best team in the country," Cremins said recently during the ACC's weekly conference call. "They're an excellent club. J.R. Reid is playing great. So is Scott Williams. They've got a lot of pieces. King Rice is an important part of that. They're playing with confidence and shooting the ball well.

"They came within a game of going to the Final Four last year. I think they're capable, they've got to get the right breaks, but they're capable of going all the way. No question they can play with anybody in the country. They're tough, really tough."

When Reid suffered a stress fracture of his left foot that required surgery last October, Smith worried about his team's chemistry. Then the Tar Heels went out and won eight of nine games before their 6-foot-9 All-American forward returned in mid-December.

Next, they lost Williams to a sprained ankle in late December. The 6-10 center missed two games and all but eight minutes of another. The Heels won all three. Then point guard Jeff Lebo suffered a severely sprained ankle in a mid-January loss to Virginia. With Rice at the point, the Heels went 3-0.

Instead of being decimated, they became a team with no irreplaceable parts. They have both quality and quantity in an awesome front line. And now they have supplanted Duke as the ACC team that could go the furthest come tournament time.

It's the year of the manager in the ACC. First, North Carolina State suited up team manager Roland Whitley, a 5-11 freshman guard who never played high school basketball, to alleviate a player shortage. Then on Sunday, after Clemson Coach Cliff Ellis suspended seven players for violating team rules, he gave a uniform to freshman manager Dennis Hopf to fill out a depleted roster.

When Hopf entered a 92-62 loss at Duke in the final two minutes, he received a big hand from Duke's notoriously irreverent fans. "I thought our students were fantastic about it," Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "They cheered when he shot. It was a neat couple of minutes when everybody forgot about wins and losses. It was a neat experience."

Hopf, who averaged 16 points as a high school senior in Clarkston, Ga., last year, was in long enough to get off an airball and to draw a walking violation. "I'm glad it wasn't 'Hoosiers' and they were close enough to win," Krzyzewski said. "When I saw him in warmups, I thought this would be a hell of a thing, for them to be close enough and him come into the game."

Hopf was named player of the day on CNN Sports Sunday night, and Ellis said there might even be an encore performance down the road.

Whitley has had a degree of success, meanwhile, with the Wolfpack. He has played in seven games, including Sunday's rout of Maryland, for a total of 18 minutes. He has scored six points, going 4 for 4 at the foul line. Unfortunately, he failed his biggest assignment when he was sent in to take a foul at the end of a game against SMU.

Yet North Carolina State Coach Jim Valvano isn't about to complain, especially considering how much trouble he's had with one of Whitley's predecessors. A former Wolfpack student manager, John Simonds Jr., is one of the principal sources for the as-yet-unpublished book, "Personal Fouls," which makes allegations about cheating in Valvano's program.

After playing the 9:30 p.m. game on an ESPN doubleheader three times in the last four weeks, Indiana Coach Bob Knight said it wouldn't happen again. Monday's 104-89 victory over Iowa would be the last late night appearance for the Hoosiers, he promised. "We don't need this," he said. "It's ridiculous to be here at this hour."

The Big Ten shares ESPN's Monday night spotlight with the Big East, which gets the early game. Not all Big Ten coaches share Knight's view, however.

"It depends in what chair you're sitting," said Purdue's Gene Keady. "If you've won three national titles, you're not concerned. But the rest of us will take any recognition we can get."

Michigan State's Jud Heathcote said he'd like to see every school on ESPN twice a year. Then, in afterthought, he said, "If Bobby doesn't want it, we'll take his spot."

Eddie Sutton, whose coaching future at Kentucky is uncertain pending the outcome of an NCAA investigation of 18 allegations of wrongdoing, said he'd consider jumping to the NBA or finding another college job if he were fired. He also is threatening to write a book about the behind-the-scenes maneuvers at Kentucky in the wake of the investigation.

Sutton's attorney, Terry McBrayer, played down the book idea, however. "He's not much of a kiss-and-tell kind of guy. He's more interested in coaching -- here," said McBrayer.

The 10 players who bolted from the San Jose State basketball team in protest over the coaching methods of Bill Berry are paying San Francisco lawyer Melvin Belli $200 apiece to represent them. Belli already has labeled Berry "a regular Hitler."

Last year, no fewer than five teams held the No. 1 ranking at various times (Syracuse, North Carolina, Kentucky, Arizona and Temple), but only Arizona reached the Final Four.

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