Dean Smith was airborne. A call at a critical time last week had gone against North Carolina and sent the old coach into youthful contortions. Off the floor Smith went, fist thrown high, his body surging and twisting into a Jordanlike 360-degree spin. Slyly, back from orbit, he later gave the hand-to-throat choke sign to an official whose eyes were focused elsewhere.

When such displays are added to slam-dunk contests, take Smith as the underpriced sleeper in the master's division. Also close to certain is this consummate competitor not leaving basketball until he gets the 170 victories necessary to pass the 875 of Adolph Rupp and make him the winningest college coach of all time.

In Smith's early years as a head coach, John Wooden still was obscure and the NCAA invited just 24 teams to its tournament. Less than two weeks shy of 60 and in his 30th season, all at North Carolina, Smith has won 296 more games than Alabama-Birmingham has played.

Looking forward to today's game (1 p.m.) against Maryland at Cole Field House, however, rarely has Smith or North Carolina seemed so young. Call this season's theme: El Deano and the Teen Angels. Even though none of them has made much of an impact in any meaningful category, the Fabulous Freshmen remain the hottest topic. Around campus. Around the Atlantic Coast Conference. Around the country.

Look at what Smith's got, the know-it-alls keep saying. He finally hopped off his throne, worked at recruiting for a change and signed the best crop of high school players in the history of college basketball.

That may all prove to be wise and accurate. What Smith has just now is what he almost always has had: a senior-dominated team headed for the NCAA tournament with a good shot at the Final Four and a future that seems even more exciting.

Exasperated, Smith says: "I'm trying to make this the North Carolina basketball team, not the North Carolina freshman basketball team. . . . The kids themselves are great. But I thought we'd get a little more contribution out of them. I thought maybe two or three would be in there getting 20 minutes a game. That hasn't happened yet."

Combined, Eric Montross, Clifford Rozier and Pat Sullivan average about the 12.5 points senior Pete Chilcutt manages himself. Yet those freshmen gather most of the off-the-floor frontcourt attention. Same with the backcourt, where senior King Rice has almost three times as many assists as turnovers but must endure whispers from fans that go: "Wait till Derrick Phelps takes over at point guard."

One reason for the extraordinary interest in the freshmen is that Smith recruited an exceptional one for each position: a center (Montross), two forwards (Rozier and Sullivan), a shooting guard (Brian Reese) and a ball handler (Phelps).

Usually, Smith limits himself to no more than one James Worthy, Sam Perkins or Michael Jordan per recruiting class. Sometimes, as in 1973, a Walter Davis is joined by a John Kuester and a Tommy LaGarde. This time, Smith got more greedy than usual.

In ways obvious and subtle, the freshmen have made an impact. Together, they are averaging about 20 points and 12 rebounds. Each game, the potentially thrilling inside players, Montross and Rozier, seem to become more comfortable with North Carolina's system and more unnerving to opponents.

Before Montross, nobody at North Carolina had worn the number 00. Much was made of that, the state going slightly agog until it was determined that Montross at 19 was being no more flashy than his coach had been at about 14. Sure enough, Smith long ago had been a double-zero, for his junior high team in Kansas.

Smith's folks have a picture to prove it.

"I was a star," Smith said. "I was 5-10. Then I quit growing and everybody passed me. To show you I wasn't any good in college {on Kansas teams that included one that won the 1952 NCAA title} I was the guy who had to change numbers each year. I was 33 as a sophomore. I had 22 as a senior."

Also, North Carolina this season sprouted its first 7-footers under Smith. Three in all: Montross, sophomore Matt Wenstrom and redshirt freshman Kevin Salvadori. For years, opponents have accused Smith of listing his players as shorter than they actually are.

Each player has the option to adjust his official height by an inch, up or down, Smith explained, adding: "This year, they all wanted to be 7-footers."

Humility is a lesson learned early at North Carolina. This year, it was a 50-27 pasting by the upperclassmen delivered during a 16-minute scrimmage before an audience of about 3,000 high school players and their coaches.

Over 40 minutes, that projects to a 57-point whomping.

"We came in with big heads," Rozier said. "We were the next this 'n' that in our various states. They dogged us. We couldn't score, get the rebound. They made us look bad in front of a lot of people. Brought us down to size. Made us want to listen to him."

"Happens every year," said senior Rick Fox. "Most of the scrimmage was like a bomb going off in their faces."

Trying to win now and create the experience necessary to remain excellent next season -- and the next and the next -- Smith has substituted even more liberally than usual. Especially in the first half. So frequently do players rise from the bench, hustle to the scorer's table and replace others who trot back to the bench that the process resembles a seamless snakelike wave.

It's worked. After a 15-point victor over Wake Forest Wednesday, North Carolina was 18-4. Almost surely before the ACC tournament, it will match last season's total of 21 victories, possibly during the four-game stretch that begins with Maryland and ends with Georgia Tech on the coach's birthday, Feb. 28.

And -- get this -- that 21-13 record was considered a bummer. It was the first time since 1965-66 that North Carolina had hit double figures in losses. It was the first time North Carolina had nobody on the first or second all-ACC teams.

The reason, Smith said, was defense. The stat he holds most dear is points per possession, and allowing more than 0.8 is unacceptable. Last season, the average for the season was 0.87. Three teams -- Colorado State, Maryland and Kentucky -- averaged 1.06.

"I was embarrassed," Smith said. "Generally, that's what got us places. I looked at tapes and said: 'Gosh, what have I done here?' We weren't getting that continuous effort defensively."

Smith prefers interviews on the day of a game rather than the day after. So, about five hours before the N.C. State game in nearby Raleigh, a scribe was walking into Smith's office as Rozier was leaving.

There had been a 20-minute tape session that emphasized Rozier's problems boxing out, to gain better rebounding position, on defense. That night, during a six-point loss, Rozier played five minutes, took no shots, had one rebound, one turnover and two assists.

In 95 out of 100 other major college programs, Rozier would have played enough to get at least 10 to 12 shots. Knowing that, he still chose patience and North Carolina.

"I might have been the first in the nation to commit," he said. "I had my papers there two days before the signing date. . . . I grew eight inches in one year and two the next {to 6-10}. And I feel like I'm still growing now."

Floridian Rozier and New Yorker Reese were the most eager to come, Smith said, with the Montross family of Indianapolis the most thorough about examining schools. Phelps's home in Pleasantville, N.Y., was the most inaccessible. The anecdote Smith loves to tell involves Sullivan, of Bogota, N.J.

"Pat's little brother is in about the eighth grade," said Smith. "He wouldn't even go into the room when Duke came to visit. He wouldn't even sit in there."

Smith is not so old as to have forgotten his days as a freshman.

"I couldn't even play a game," he said. "We'd practice every night at 6:30. But no games. The Big 8 had that rule. The Big 10 also. Other places you could play two.

"The ideal would be what we used to have here {before freshmen became eligible in 1972}. Sixteen freshmen games. Junior college transfers also should sit out a year, because some of their credits aren't accepted. Then we wouldn't have all these quick fixes everybody dreams of."

Coach, College............W-L......Pct.

Jerry Tarkanian, UNLV...586-119... .831

John Chaney, Temple.....434-126... .775

Dean Smith, UNC.........706-207... .773

Jim Boeheim, Syr........364-111... .766

Pete Gillen, Xavier.....135-46.... .746