As the clock dipped under five minutes in the Maryland-North Carolina game here Wednesday night, a glorious moment in basketball slipped by unapplauded: nothing happened. Off the court, that is. All Dean Smith did was clap his hands instead of raise one to signal that gawdawful four corners. Except for one tasteless choking gesture toward a UNC foul shooter, Lefty Driesell also was nicely passive.

For those wonderful and tense final five minutes, the players played.



The coaches did not intrude unnecessarily, because they no longer can in regular-season ACC games. There is a line on the floor beyond which they cannot step that keeps them from acting more foolish than their profession already demands; in most conferences, teams cannot play stallball for more than 45 seconds.

In case you missed it, the 40-minute college game has returned to being 40 minutes.

Ain't life sometimes grand!

Until the NCAA tournament, when shot clocks are banned and every Dean, Lefty and Bobby can -- and probably will -- order keepaway at the earliest possible time.

Life still ain't perfect.

Ever so slowly, like an ant against pressure defense, basketball moves forward. When players were plodders and nobody much beyond students anxious to escape frostbite cared, the game could survive with scores in the 30s and minutes of intricate passing schemes.

All of a sudden, some Elgin (Magic) Bird showed the infinite possibilities of the body -- and deep thinkers in basketball were forced to tinker. People would pay to watch balletic beauty with a ball, but not if players who could fly were grounded by coaches protecting a three-point lead -- and their jobs.

Michael Jordan could pass 15 times on each possession, but that would be an athletic waste as enormous as clipping an eagle's wings or forcing Sinatra to hum. The only way to prevent many coaches from stalling was to legislate a shot clock.

This helped.

Trouble was, nearly everyone turned off the clock in the last five minutes. So most coaches simply delayed their stall, bouncing off the bench and throwing up an open-palm stop sign as soon as the clock ticked to 4:59. Like a record when the cat leaps onto the needle arm, games took a screeching and irritating twist.

Blessedly, most teams until the NCAA tournament now play with some form of shot clock clicking from beginning to end.

Some other early season impressions: Georgetown is the best team in the country and nobody is No. 2. Or 3. Or 4. Then there are about 58 teams of near-equal ability that good fortune, good health and good inspiration from the sideline will affect more than usual.

The demise of North Carolina was premature. Its loss of Jordan and Sam Perkins was not, as many thought, akin to Riggins and Theismann saying bye-bye to the Redskins. Dean Smith will continue to outrecruit and outthink nearly every coach in the country, especially since that shrine of an arena on campus will open shortly.

In Brad Daugherty, Carolina still has one of the best giants in the ACC; in Kenny Smith, it still has one of the superior lead guards. That's almost always a winning core, and even more so when the supporting cast includes several other high-school hot shots Smith has molded into fine role players.

Even so, the Tar Heels hardly seem invincible.

They still find surreal ways to win.

When Maryland had a three-point lead and a guy who nearly never misses at the free throw line with 23 seconds left, some North Carolina faithful who should know better began a sad retreat out of Carmichael Auditorium. With Smith's teams, the excitement often just starts in the final half-minute.

No one is more competitive than Smith. He all but assumes mild miracles such as Wednesday's will routinely strike in Carmichael -- and with good reason. Two Tulane players once collided in the final seconds of regulation, the ball bounced to Jordan and he sank a 25-footer to tie the score.

The Heels won in triple overtime.

Last season in Carmichael, Danny Meagher missed the first shot in a one-and-one with nine seconds left and Duke ahead by two. Matt Doherty quickly tied the game and North Carolina won in double overtime.

In the most recent -- and last -- Maryland nightmare in Carmichael, an 83 percent foul shooter, Keith Gatlin, missed in a bonus situation with the Terrapins ahead by three with 23 seconds left; still up by one, a 78 percent foul shooter, Adrian Branch, was similarly erratic eight seconds later.

Behind by a point with five seconds left, Maryland was predictably predictable. How will Driesell try to pass inbounds? Smith already knew. But he allowed the Terrapins to set up, just to make sure, before calling time to reinforce the steal plot that worked.

Smith's players also missed critical foul shots down the stretch; Lefty's missed more. Same scene so many times over the years. Maryland seems the better team, until the final score insists otherwise.

The ACC seems to have no player especially compelling this year and no team that would dominate another league. One through five, the Big East likely is tougher.

Still, the colleges are more appealing than ever because their game is beyond the coach's control as much as is both reasonable and proper. Thinking, as always, Smith insists the future offers even brighter sport.

"Three or four years down the line," he said, "I believe so many zones near the end of games will force us to use a three-point play."

That cannot happen soon enough.