Tar Heels bond all the way to No. 1

Saturday, February 17th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) _ The North Carolina Tar Heels needed more than extra practice when Matt Doherty got into town.

The new coach inherited a strong team, but something wasn't right. The players didn't like each other much.

``We had too many attitudes and egos,'' senior center Brendan Haywood said.

Doherty, a starter on North Carolina's 1982 NCAA national title team, wouldn't stand for it.

The Tar Heels, with virtually the same team that lost in the Final Four last season, had to get along or else. So Doherty helped the players bond, forcing them to go to football games and to dinner together.

It worked. With a new attitude _ and some better basketball, of course _ the Tar Heels are the nation's No. 1 team seven months after Doherty took over for the retired Bill Guthridge.

``Our chemistry just wasn't there last year until the end,'' junior forward Jason Capel said. ``But this year you could see in the preseason we were going to be a close team. We did a lot with each other and just the whole coaching change made us a lot closer as a team.''

The Tar Heels came into the season with many questions. Their 14 losses last season were the most since 1951-52, but they also had a surprising run that ended with a national semifinal loss to Florida.

Guthridge's sudden retirement jolted the program, which took another blow when Roy Williams _ Dean Smith's hand-picked successor as coach _ decided to stay at Kansas.

Some fans, boosters and alumni cringed when the Tar Heels insisted on hiring one of their own. When Doherty arrived, the 38-year-old had only one year of coaching experience, at Notre Dame.

No one's complaining now.

The Tar Heels (21-2) have an 18-game winning streak _ their longest in 15 years _ heading into Sunday's game at Clemson. The most recent Associated Press ranking was the school's 500th in the top 10.

``I came here to put a banner up,'' Capel said. ``We came close last year, but under different circumstances. I like the way this year is going a lot better.''

Capel and his teammates said last year's squad was fragmented and waited until the postseason to start playing unselfishly.

The only major loss from that team was point guard Ed Cota, who led the Atlantic Coast Conference in assists for four seasons but was quick to criticize the play of teammates.

``It's almost the same personnel, but last year we weren't a close-knit unit,'' Haywood said. ``We were a bunch of individuals who played basketball together.''

While the Tar Heels look as if they've got a good chance to return to the Final Four in Minneapolis, the season didn't start the way they wanted.

After mediocre performances to open the year against Winthop and Tulsa, the Tar Heels dropped consecutive games to No. 5 Michigan State and No. 22 Kentucky.

The 23-point home loss to the Wildcats Dec. 2 left the Tar Heels at 3-2 and showed that freshmen point guards Adam Boone and Brian Morrison needed more seasoning.

Help came days later from quarterback Ronald Curry, the nation's top high school player in both sports four years ago. He missed last basketball season with a ruptured Achilles' tendon.

Doherty handed the ball to Curry against Miami and the Tar Heels haven't lost since.

But the coach insists the key to the season came three weeks later when North Carolina beat No. 24 UCLA 80-70 on the road. Julius Peppers, Curry's football teammate who led the nation in sacks, also joined the basketball team.

``From that point on they responded and they listened and applied what we're trying to teach them,'' Doherty said. ``You can't ask for anything more. They work hard, they listen and they try to apply what you say on and off the floor.''

Since that win over UCLA, the Tar Heels have beaten No. 17 Maryland, No. 3 Duke and No. 23 Wake Forest away from the Smith Center. They are 11-0 in the ACC.

North Carolina's star is sophomore Joseph Forte, second in the ACC in scoring at more than 21 points a game. Doherty has no problem comparing the 6-foot-4 guard to Michael Jordan, whom the coach played with at North Carolina for three seasons.

``They both hit big shots,'' Doherty said. ``There are similarities in that they both feel comfortable when the game is on the line with the ball in their hands.''

The Tar Heels also have a powerful inside game with the 7-foot Haywood and 6-11 Kris Lang. The 6-6, 270-pound Peppers is a force coming off the bench.

``You may drive by them on the outside, but then you're faced with Jericho's Wall,'' Wake Forest coach Dave Odom said.

While Guthridge was reluctant to develop much of a bench in his three successful years after replacing Smith, Doherty has shown confidence in his younger players and even seldom-used veterans like Max Owens.

Owens doesn't get much time as Forte's backup, but made three straight 3-pointers in 11 minutes in a 96-82 victory over Maryland last Saturday.

``You are looking at a guy who was a McDonald's All-American who averaged just about five shots a game here,'' Doherty said of his own college career. ``You realize when you come here that not every high school All-American is going to be a college All-American. There are going to be other good players.

``You come here to be a part of a special program and win national championships and ACC championships.''