The play could not have been run better. The ball swung to the top of the key. Kenny Smith dribbled once, picked up the ball and tossed an expert lob pass towards the basket.

A year ago, the cutter would have been Michael Jordan. Up, up, up he would have gone to grab the ball seemingly out of the ceiling. Then, in one motion, he would have slammed the ball through the hoop while everyone shook his head in wonder.

Not this time. The cutter was Warren Martin and as he went up for the ball, it hit off the heel of his hand, rolled down his arm, took one bounce and went out of bounds as several players dived for it.

Coach Dean Smith took the whistle out of his mouth, backed away a couple of steps as if escaping the scene of a crime, and nodded his head as if to say, "Okay guys, I know you are trying."

A few minutes later, Smith wasn't smiling. "There have been a lot of days so far this year where I've left practice feeling depressed," he said. "But there have also been two days where I've left thinking, 'We can be a good team.' But that's two days, only two."

One year ago, Smith told the players on his North Carolina basketball team they had a chance to be the greatest college team of all time if they worked hard.

"Obviously, I'm not going to say that to this group," he said. "That doesn't mean we can't be a very good team and it doesn't mean we can't accomplish our goals. But the talent and the experience is very different."

While his perennial critics will point out correctly that Smith finds reason for concern every fall, there is no question that the Tar Heels are closer to being mortal this year than at any time in the recent past.

Jordan -- the third pick in the NBA draft -- is gone. Sam Perkins -- a four-year starter, a two-time all-America and the fourth pick in the draft -- is gone. Matt Doherty -- a four-year starter and the second player in Atlantic Coast Conference history to get 1,000 points, 400 rebounds and 400 assists -- is gone.

Carolina's cupboard isn't bare, but certainly isn't stocked the way it has been the last four years. During that time, the Tar Heels won 117 games, an average of slightly more than 29 wins a season. They reached the NCAA final in 1981, won the championship in 1982, reached the final eight in 1983 and the round of 16 last season.

The early demise of that team, the one he thought could be the best ever, shocked Smith. "In the NCAAs, anything can happen because anyone can lose one game," he said. "It isn't like the NBA, where you have four of seven. But it shook me when that team lost. I just didn't expect it."

If you looked at the talent this year, you might pick the Tar Heels as low as fifth in the ACC. But the uniforms still say "North Carolina," and Smith still is coach. Because of that, a lot of people believe Carolina will win the conference title or come very close. It has been 18 years since Smith's team failed to finish first or second in the league.

"We still expect to be a very good team," said junior center Brad Daugherty, now Smith's most experienced player. "But we know that last year there were nights we got by and won just because of our talent. This year, if we just show up some nights we could get hammered. It makes you concentrate that much harder."

According to the players, it also has made Smith that much more intense. Practices traditionally are short and to the point. No wasted motion, lots of running, lots of drills. Smith, 53, controls every move with sharp blasts of his whistle and pointed comments to players.

Now, there are more fundamentals, more drills. The usual array of defenses has not been put in yet. So far, it has been strictly half-court, man-to-man defense and an offense that is predicated on one screen after another. When you don't have players who can get open just on athletic ability, you have to use screens to get them open.

"We've gone back to square one because of the inexperience," Smith said. "Last year we had three guys who were as fundamentally sound as any players you'll find anywhere. We just don't have that this year."

Carolina is a team full of high school all-Americas. Kenny Smith, Buzz Peterson, Martin, Daugherty, Joe Wolf, Dave Popson and Curtis Hunter all were big-time recruits. But it also is a team with little playing experience outside of Smith, Steve Hale and Daugherty. Martin and Hunter were redshirted last year, Wolf and Popson are sophomores, Peterson has changed positions and has been hurt throughout his career.

"We're doing everything slower this year," said Hale, who will be the starting wing guard. "We haven't put in any wrinkles yet. Last year, the foundation was set with Michael, Sam and Matt. They were the leaders, they set the examples. This team doesn't have any leaders just yet. We're looking for a foundation to work from."

There are many who will tell you that Smith likes nothing better than starting a season with people predicting tough times. "Anybody who says Carolina isn't going to be good is full of malarkey," Maryland Coach Lefty Driesell said. "They've got the best center in the league and the best point guard in the league. If you've got that, it doesn't matter who plays the other three positions. Anybody can play them.

"I'm picking them to finish first."

Smith doesn't make predictions. He does smile remembering 1979, when his team was picked third and won the regular season championship and the tournament, and 1981, when it was picked third and won the tournament. He also knows there is something to be said for lower expectations because they mean less pressure.

"When you're No. 1 in the country there isn't any place to go from there," Hale said. "Most of us on this team have never played a college game as a real underdog. It'll be kind of fun to be in a position to pull what people might think is a real upset. All of us have always played on winners. This year it may be tougher, but we expect to be a winner again."

The all-time winner is Smith. He has won 524 games in 23 years and every championship there is to win -- NCAA, National Invitation Tournament, the Olympics. He already is in basketball's hall of fame. Now, after four years of teams that could match the talent of any others in the country, he finds himself coaching one that will have to scrap to be successful. Yet, his players say they have never seen him so motivated.

"I think he's surprised some of the older players with how hard he's worked us," Daugherty said. "I'll tell you one thing I've figured out this fall: if Dean Smith was 6-8 and about 20 years younger, he'd be one vicious basketball player. He is one tough competitor."

Smith laughed at Daugherty's description. "What is it about human nature that makes us so competitive?" he said. "I've always said what I like the best is putting a new team together each year. You get a new team each year in college." His eyes narrowed suddenly. "I'll tell you one thing: when I played, I played very hard."

Smith says he will keep coaching as long as it continues to excite him. Smiling, he adds, "I might give it up to run against Jesse Helms." Smith is an outspoken opponent of the conservative North Carolina senator, who won a bitterly contested campaign last week against Gov. James Hunt, whom Smith supported.

For now, Smith is a lot more worried about the progress of his basketball team than politics. He knows he is on the verge of a superb recruiting year and, regardless of what happens this season, Carolina will be back in everyone's top five next year.

But that is next year.

"As a coaching staff, we owe it to this group to be as good as we can possibly be," he said. "There are so many great players who want to play in the ACC that no ACC school should ever, quote, rebuild. We're regrouping but we expect to be good.

"If people say I like this kind of situation, that's rather ridiculous. I liked last year's situation. Last year, our only goal was to be the best team to ever play. That's unrealistic this year, but what I tell the players is we have to play the course, not the opponent. We can't worry about what everybody else is doing, we just have to worry about ourselves."

They might as well do that. Because regardless of Carolina's situation, no one else is going to worry about the plight of the Tar Heels. "We know we can't sneak up on anybody," Kenny Smith said. "Regardless of who we've lost, we're still North Carolina. That means we're still the hunted, no matter what."