If you pick up your newspaper this morning to check on the state of college basketball, all will appear to be normal. Check the polls. Sitting comfortably at No. 2 will be North Carolina. Record: 11-1. Dean Smith insists that his team is ranked too high, but that is as much a part of the act as the baby blue uniforms.
But this has not been your typical season at North Carolina. Are the Tar Heels as talented as anyone in the country? Yes. Do they have the potential to be right there when things get serious in March? Absolutely. Did they sign one of the top high school seniors in the country in November? Of course.
And yet, there is a strange aura of vulnerability in Chapel Hill. Maybe, as the Tar Heels begin Atlantic Coast Conference play tonight against a born-again Maryland team, that will disappear. But maybe not.
Consider some of what has transpired in the last 10 months, dating back to last March when North Carolina, after dominating the ACC (14-0), failed to win the league tournament for a fifth straight year and then failed to reach the Final Four.
For the first time in many years, Smith was criticized in North Carolina after the March losses to North Carolina State and Syracuse. What's more, it stung. Smith remembers playing golf with a writer this past summer who had labeled the Tar Heels chokers and taking great pleasure when on hole 18 the writer choked and the coach made a birdie.
During the summer, J.R. Reid, who had emerged as such a star during his freshman year that Smith felt obliged to criticize Sports Illustrated for putting him on the cover, failed to make the Pan American team. Then, mysteriously, he decided not to play on the World University Games team. Something about summer school. Was the fact that the University Games team was being coached by Duke's Mike Krzyzewski, a rival Smith has a cool relationship with, a coincidence?
Perhaps. At any rate, Reid played for the South team in the Olympic Festival in Chapel Hill and had a very poor game in the final, won easily by the North. One wonders exactly what is Reid's role at North Carolina. Great player that he is, there has been talk -- made public recently by Smith -- about his leaving after this season. How happy is Reid at North Carolina? How happy is North Carolina with Reid?
The summer was a mere prelude to the fall. First, there was tragedy. In October, sophomore center Scott Williams received a phone call one night informing him that his father had just murdered his mother and then turned the gun on himself. Smith flew to Los Angeles with Williams for the funerals and there was some talk about Williams sitting the season out. But player and coach agreed finally that losing the outlet basketball provided him would not be healthy. Williams cannot bring himself to talk about what happened, which is certainly understandable.
Shortly after returning from Los Angeles, Smith began to experience very serious nose bleeds. His doctors told him they were being caused by high blood pressure brought on by anxiety over the Williams tragedy and far too many cigarettes. They ordered him to cut back to eight cigarettes a day. In the meantime, he missed four days of practice, a first in 27 years as a head coach.
Then there was the arrest in Raleigh of Reid and Steve Bucknall. The two Tar Heels got into a barroom brawl that apparently ended with Reid spitting on an antagonist. Smith suspended the players before the trial for one game -- the opener against Syracuse.
Smith said that, innocent or guilty, the players shouldn't have been in Raleigh. "We go over there to play once a year," he said. "That should be enough."
A week later, Smith, his wife and his parents ventured to Durham on a Sunday morning to go to the Duke Chapel for church. When the service was over, Smith went to get the car to pick up his parents. As he pulled out, the car, a brand-new Cadillac, was sideswiped by a Duke campus bus. The bus was undamaged. The car went for $2,000 in repairs.
Whether Bucknall and Reid ever pointed out to Smith that going to Duke once a year was enough, no one knows for sure.
The pumped-up Tar Heels opened the season without Reid and Bucknall and, in a rare underdog role, came from way behind to upset then No. 1-Syracuse in overtime.
A week later, Reid and Bucknall were convicted of simple assault and Smith, uncharacteristically, commented snidely, "If spitting is assault then I've been assaulted in Raleigh walking onto the floor for games there."
North Carolina State Coach Jim Valvano couldn't resist a return salvo. "I knew when this happened," he said, "that before it was over, it would turn out to be our fault, one way or the other."
Through it all, the Tar Heels have kept winning. They were upset at Vanderbilt -- a place where Indiana lost last year -- and they have struggled with some teams they usually would blow away. But they still have Reid, who can take over a game; they have veteran guards in Ranzino Smith and Jeff Lebo, both of whom can shoot; they have a major talent at center in Williams and quality young depth in redshirt freshman Pete Chilcutt and true freshmen Rick Fox and King Rice. They still are the favorites to win the ACC.
And yet the aura of invincibility just isn't quite there. This team doesn't have North Carolina's usual quickness. It does not attack defensively the way Smith likes to. Watch as the Tar Heels pack in tonight. Check to see how far they extend their half-court defense. Don't be shocked if they turn the ball over.
And don't be shocked if they lose. They won't lose a lot these Tar Heels, but they might lose a few. And that's a few more than usual.