Today's blizzard here, which dumped a record 20 inches of snow outside the Dean E. Smith Center, might not have been such a bad sight for the University of North Carolina basketball program.

Being isolated from the outside world can be beneficial when you're in the midst of a slump like the Tar Heels athletic department is--a string of misfortunes that dates from last football season.

Wednesday's scheduled home men's basketball game against Maryland was postponed until Thursday because of the unexpected storm, perhaps just the right amount of time for UNC Coach Bill Guthridge and his staff to solve his team's recent and just as unexpected losing ways.

Last Saturday's home loss to Florida State was Carolina's fourth in a row--the Tar Heels' worst losing streak since the 1991-92 season. At 11-8 overall and 2-3 in the Atlantic Coast Conference, UNC has fallen out of the Associated Press top 25 for the first time since the preseason poll of the 1990-91 season.

And, like the near white-out conditions that immersed the entire Triangle region of the state today, there's no indication of when the misery might end.

The recent basketball plunge is a continuation of a string of negative events that have plagued the UNC athletic department since last fall. A football team that was ranked among the nation's top 10 in 1997 and '98 plummeted to last place in the ACC and 3-8 overall last season, sparking rumors that Coach Carl Torbush would be fired. Victories over N.C. State and Duke in the last two weeks of the season helped save Torbush's job, but he fired three assistants shortly after it was announced that he would stay on.

Following that disappointment was an incident in which assistant basketball coach Phil Ford was arrested and charged with driving while intoxicated in nearby Durham, and later it was disclosed that Ford had been arrested on the same charge in Michigan in 1997. Ford was placed on a leave of absence until he underwent treatment at a rehabilitation center, at which point he rejoined the team.

Then, senior guards Ed Cota and Terrence Newby were suspended from the basketball team following their arrests on charges stemming from a late-night brawl Halloween night. They proclaimed their innocence and were reinstated, but they face a Feb. 24 court date.

After such a string of events, many saw winning on the basketball court as the best way to lessen that pain. That happened early, when the Tar Heels won the Maui Invitational and improved to No. 2 in the national polls. But UNC has gone 8-8 since returning from Hawaii--losing six of its last nine and their last two at home.

The Tar Heels are on the brink of their first five-game losing streak since the 1951-52 season and their first three-game losing streak ever in the Smith Center. They already have matched their record for most home losses in a season.

For a team that had enjoyed a record 172 consecutive weeks in the top 25 prior to this week and that has won at least 20 games a season for a record 29 consecutive seasons, the current decline is startling--perhaps even more surprising than Tuesday's blizzard, the worst in this area since 1927.

Part of the team's troubles stem from a lack of depth, injuries and illness--Cota missed Saturday's game because of a virus--and there appears to be a lack of leadership. The losing streak, too, is magnified by the fact that rival Duke, located just eight miles down the road, has won 15 straight games and its first six in the ACC.

Athletics Director Dick Baddour has considered all the happenings a bad coincidence and has insisted that the department will overcome the adversity. But a growing number of fans has become disgruntled, first staying away in droves from the Tar Heels' final three home football games and then booing Guthridge and his players in last Saturday's loss.

Sure, the women's soccer team won its 15th NCAA championship in 18 years last fall, but that stands as perhaps the lone shining moment for UNC athletics program since December.

There's some precedent for hope for the men's basketball team. The 1996-97 Tar Heels lost their first three ACC games but won 19 of their next 21 games to advance to the Final Four. The '91-92 team advanced to the NCAA tournament's round of 16 after losing four straight near the end of the regular season.

Snow storms end eventually, as do losing streaks. But in the case of both today in Chapel Hill, the end seems a long way away.