It was a rough day for Dean Smith. For 30 minutes this afternoon, after his North Carolina team had routed Kentucky, 82-69, Smith had to invent different ways to avoid talking about how good his top-ranked team is.

"They missed Sam Bowie."

"It's still too early to get excited."

"We need to improve."

If the Tar Heels (6-0) improve very much on the clinic they put on for 18,116 at the Meadowlands Arena, the national championship tournament may not be terribly exciting. Today, Kentucky did what it wanted to with its zone defense the first half. It fouled out Jimmy Black, the Carolina point guard and catalyst, with 5:40 left in the game. It shot 51 percent from the floor.

And it never came close to winning.

With James Worthy putting on a display of virtuoso basketball--26 points, eight rebounds, six assists--and Sam Perkins scoring 17 of his 21 points against the Wildcats' weak attempt to play a man-to-man defense in the second half, this was a Carolina walkover.

"They're certainly the No. 1 team right now," said Kentucky Coach Joe B. Hall after his second-ranked team dropped to 6-1. "For us to beat a team like that, we have to shoot better, defense better and rebound better."

Certainly, the Wildcats are a better team with 7-foot Sam Bowie in the lineup. Today, Bowie, out with a fractured left leg, could only bang his crutches in frustration every now and then as he watched the first matchup between the top-ranked teams since Indiana defeated Marquette in the 1976 NCAA Mideast Regional final.

"We played extremely well today," Smith said in a rare moment of self-appreciation. "The first half, they were giving us the outside shots and we were missing them. We figured sooner or later the percentages would even up."

Kentucky's plan was to stay in its zone for as long as it could and dare Black, Michael Jordan and Matt Doherty to shoot from outside.

For the first 20 minutes, the plan worked fairly well as Black went zero for five and Jordan, playing the nervous freshman, missed his first three shots. Perkins, sagged on, was only one for four.

But zone or no zone, Worthy worked away inside, making acrobatic moves, twisting to get his shots off and, on several occasions, dropping off little passes when he was double-teamed. By halftime, Worthy had 18 points and Carolina led, 38-35, even though it shot only 47 percent from the field, compared with 55 percent for the season.

"We just had to settle down, take it easy," said Perkins, briefly conceding that, in spite of claims to the contrary, Carolina did not view this as just another game. "Once we got the shots we wanted in the second half, we were fine."

Carolina made several changes in the second half. First, it surprised Kentucky by abandoning its corner trap on defense and sticking strictly to straight-up, man-to-man defense. Second, it began hitting outside shots, most notably by Jordan who, after shaking off his early jitters, sank eight of his last 11 shots to finish with 19 points.

Carolina's first three possessions set the tone: Jordan, not boxed out, followed a Black miss. Worthy drove inside, missed, then followed his own shot. Kentucky tried to go to its man-to-man and Perkins, eyes alight, shot a left-handed hook down at the basket. It was 44-35 and Kentucky never got any closer than eight points again.

"Once we went to man we were in trouble because we just couldn't match up with them inside," said Dirk Minniefield, the Kentucky guard who was held to eight points. "When you have two big men who do as many things as their guys do, you are tough to handle."

Worthy has become especially tough to handle. Last season, he played with a surgical nail in his left foot, a leftover from a broken leg two years ago. This year, healthy, he and Perkins dominate inside with their quickness and passing ability. Kentucky tried. Charles Hurt had 18 points, Jim Master 14 (12 in the first half) and Derrick Hord 10. But Carolina had the answers. It outrebounded the supposedly stronger Wildcats, 37-25, Perkins getting 11. And, when Kentucky threatened to make a run, cutting a 57-42 lead to 65-57 with just under six minutes to play, the Tar Heels excelled in their delay game.

In a slight variation of the four-corners that Smith calls 4C's, UNC moved the big men closer to the baseline and the small forward and big guard outside. Smith put in the offense last year to take advantage of the quickness of Perkins and Worthy.

Today, it was apparent why. In nine possessions in the delay, the Tar Heels scored 19 points. At one point, they went backdoor four straight times for layups.

"Trying to come from behind against Carolina," said Hall, "is the toughest thing in the whole world."

When it was over, Carolina had shot 61 percent in the second half and, Worthy admitted, "We're a pretty good team. If we keep improving, we have the potential to be as good as last year's team."

Last year's team went to the NCAA final, where it lost to Indiana. But Isiah Thomas is not around anymore and Worthy is healthy. So today's result may have been a harbinger, Bowie or no Bowie.

Smith knew that coming in. But he tried to downplay the game's importance. Still, when he jumped off the bench and ran to midcourt midway in the first half to scream about a call, it was apparent he was as interested as anyone in finding out how good this team might be.

"It's only one day," he insisted. "We might play Kentucky tomorrow and they might blow us out. All this means is we were better than Kentucky today. It doesn't mean we're a great team."

Sure, Dean, sure