CHAPEL HILL, N.C., OCT. 16 -- Just when Dean Smith had his golf game really cooking, wouldn't you know, it's time to go to work.

"I'm not ready for this," Smith, tanned and smiling, said as Monday's opening practice began his 30th season at North Carolina. "Buck Adams {pro at the Country Club of North Carolina} gave me a lesson and I'm hitting it better than I ever have."

And then, a bit wistfully, Smith said, "Maybe, if the days are nice, I'll sneak out once every three or four weeks for 20 minutes and hit some balls, so I don't lose it."

Truth is, he was itching to get started on a new season. He wouldn't confess to either but two reasons were apparent -- he has what is rated the hottest group of freshmen in the country and he's coming off a season that was a missed beat in North Carolina's tradition of excellence.

Recruiting analysts get big-eyed raving about Smith's freshmen. Because of those five newcomers, a team that struggled to win 21 games last season and lost a couple of key players is being touted as a top 10 club, in some cases top five.

Smith admits the freshmen are talented but he's not interested in comparing pedigrees.

"What difference does it make whether some newspaper writer ranks a player as the 14th best or 16th best in the country?," he asked.

Lofty expectations are nothing new to Smith. "We've lived with that," he said. "But it's not fair to the freshmen. You're always hearing about the next Michael Jordan. Know who the first one was that I heard about? Ricky Jones. He's playing at Clemson now and I don't think Ricky will be preseason all-ACC. I think Jordan would. And that's not fair to Ricky."

So what impact will this "fab five" have this season? They'll get their chances. Go ahead and pencil in seven-footer Eric Montross at center but he's probably the only freshman who will start on opening night. A couple of others will probably see plenty of duty -- and make North Carolina considerably better than it was last year.

One wonders if Smith might be tempted to do with this group what he did with another in 1987 to show everybody just how wet they are behind the ears. The public's expectations were running so high for freshmen J.R. Reid, Pete Chilcutt, Scott Williams and Jeff Denny, the coach decided to show one and all what freshmen are all about. He loaded all of them onto one side and held a Blue-White game. "We beat them by about 60," he said, "It's legit to say these freshmen are good prospects," he agreed. "But to say they're the best group in history {as some have} is not fair to them."

But they do represent a new start for North Carolina after a dramatic tumble last season. Understand, this was a tumble most teams would love to take. But the Tar Heels are accustomed to winning 27, 28, as many as 32 games every year and they won only 21 last year.

This is a curious roster Smith has assembled. It's his youngest team. It has no in-state players on it, and that's a first. And it lists three 7-footers, which is three more than Smith has had in his career. Only one, Montross, is that tall, though. Smith lets his players choose the height at which they will be listed but he knows the actual measurements. Someone asked Smith if 30 years ago he thought he would still be coaching the Tar Heels. He said, "I don't blueprint my future, and that includes 30 years ago. Or is it 29?"