When Dean Smith considered his North Carolina team before the season began, he had good reasons both for high hopes and grave doubts. There was talent practically oozing through the walls of Carmichael Auditorium, but a great deal of it was held together by pins and grafts.
Few outside the team realized how seriously James Worthy's ankle had been broken midway through his freshman season, that even now nearly 14 months later -- major questions about the healing process remain.
"The key is June, after the pins come out, "Smith said, "If he's running and jumping in June, we'll be very grateful."
Carolina's new starter at point guard, Jimmy Black, suffered the death of his mother and what could have been a career-crippling neck injury within a week in June. Some bone from his left side had been grafted and Smith was afraid it would be January before he could practice.
It healed sooner than anyone expected," Smith said. Black took his neck brace off the first day of practice, opened the season at the point and has quietly been as valuable as anyone. He is the one player Smith almost never rests while the game is in doubt.
Some healthy Tar Heels kept Smith uncertain. Even he never foresaw Mike Pepper as the starting wing guard on a final four team when he arrived as a freshman four years ago. "He recruited us," Smith admits.
Al Wood is an Olympian, a hustler and shoother almost without equal at times. But small forwards cannot carry entire teams by themselves. Centers can, and here Smith was lucky and brilliant with basketball's latest unpolished gem, Sam Perkins.
A year ago the basketball recruiting network was abuzz with word of this left-handed prodigy, a senior from upstate New York who had been playing seriously for little more than a season, who was 6-foot-9 but whose reach was such that he played as though he were 7-foot-2. Flatfooted, he arms upraised in a defensive position, he nearly touches the rim.
Perkins was reared in New York's Bedford-Stuyvesant by a deeply religious grandmother who considered basketball both dangerous and evil. He did not play until he was 14, about 6-foot-5 and coaxed into playground games by a restoration-project worker named Herb Crossman.
He fell in love with Crossman and this new game almost immediately. But Crossman and his wife moved to Latham, N.Y., some months later and Perkins -- back home -- regressed on and off the court. Before his senior year, it was decided that Perkins also would move to the town near Albany and that the Crossmans would be his legal guardians.
Perkins has flourished ever since.
"I noticed how talented he was during the summer games," said the Bullets' Mitch Kupchak, referring to the scrimmages Carolina that alums such as himself, Walter Davis, Phil Ford, Tommy LaGarde and other NBA standouts had in Chapel Hill with returning Tar Heel lettermen and recruits such as Perkins and Matt Doherty. "But he wasn't too aggressive. The guys said coach would take care of that.
"I know now all my rebounding records are gone."
Nobody challenges Perkins' turf without a fight, but he plays almost delicately. Like most of Smith's players, he would rather do something clever for a basket than something intimidating. He only dunks when necessary, preferring an assortment of short hooks and an outside jump shot that very likely is the key to Carolina beating Virginia Saturday in the NCAA tournament semifinals in Philadelphia.
Perkins is one of the few centers who can uproot the Cavaliers' Ralph Sampson from near the basket, who can make him play honest defense and possibly open the area inside for Worthy to move against somebody smaller. Home and away during the regular season, Carolina had leads deep into the teens against Virginia and lost both games.
Every Heel is both anxious for another Virginia game with even higher stakes and careful not to stir the University of Ralph with anything inflammatory. The fact that both Virginia and Carolina have made the final four pleases Perkins.
"Everyone (beyond it) thought the ACC was overplayed," he said, "that it was shouted about too much. We had to prove them wrong."
Wood was adked if the Carolina veterans tested Perkins early.
"Test him?" Wood said. "He kept testing me. He kept swipin' away my shot."
Perkins holds the Carolina freshman scoring (528 points) and rebounding (272) records and, as a sign that a fire burns under that icy-looking face, shot more free throws (138) than anyone in the ACC this season. With a season-long shooting percentage of 63, he is what North Carolina State Coach Jim Valvano would call "player good enough to make the games he plays in seem unfair."
His grandmother has seen Perkins play once, at Carolina. "She thought it was kinda rough," he said. "I still think she wishes I didn't play."
Kansas State had that opinion late in its 14-point loss to Carolina in the NCAA West regional championship Saturday. One Wildcat had his shot slapped back in his face; a few seconds later it happened again. Finally, on the third try, the arc was high enough for Perkins to be called for goaltending.
"He learned exceptionally fast," Smith said. "We put in a variation of our four corners and Sam was comfortable with it after the second time in practice."
Smith's schedule forced everyone to mature in a hurry. Veteran Smith watchers insist he has never been more intent on branding his stamp on a team. They see this in Worthy, a power forward, leading fast breaks and sometimes controlling the delay game. And Black developing into a fine leader.
"When you look at the schedule one game at a time," Smith said, "it doesn't seem so bad. But all together, you say: 'Gosh.' I only try to get that kind of schedule for an experienced team."
Or perhaps one that, healthy, can become very good with very little experience. And just might be ready to put the Cavaliers away the third, and most important, time around.