Tar Heels Head Into January at .500
Posted January 4, 2002 8:01 a.m. EST
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — North Carolina is at just .500 in early January for the first time in 48 years. But there is hope the Tar Heels can overcome one of the more disastrous starts in school history.
Stunning season-opening home losses to Hampton and Davidson led to an 0-3 hole, a loss of confidence, grumbling fans and thoughts of what No. 1 Duke would do to this group of fumbling and bumbling Tar Heels.
Angry and confused, baby blue supporters wondered if North Carolina could stay within 40 points of the Blue Devils, not whether the Tar Heels would crack the top 25 by season's end.
Now, a modest three-game winning streak in late December that included victories over lightweights North Carolina A&T and Texas A&M has the team at 5-5 heading into the bulk of the Atlantic Coast Conference schedule.
North Carolina is still a fragile team, but better shooting and ballhandling and improved play by three freshmen have coach Matt Doherty cautiously optimistic before Saturday's game against No. 23 Wake Forest.
"I am back shaving with steel razors and my wife is giving me a real steak knife and not the plastic one," Doherty said. "I feel a lot better because I think our team is playing with confidence, they're playing loose, they're executing better and they've played hard."
The last time North Carolina was at .500 heading into January was during the 1953-54 season, when the Tar Heels were 3-3. The team then won four in a row before finishing 11-10.
Doherty, a member of North Carolina's 1982 national title team, is still a young head coach, and certainly doesn't have the experience of predecessors Dean Smith and Bill Guthridge.
But Doherty didn't push the panic button when the young Tar Heels got off a rocky start in December and fell to 2-5 after a loss to College of Charleston on Dec. 21. He did what Smith and Guthridge would have done - let seniors Jason Capel and Kris Lang lead.
"I feel like I've handled this well," Doherty said. "Do I like losing? No. But through that stretch the important thing was to keep the team positive and to keep the team together. I thought we did that - me, the staff, the seniors, the other players. Jason and Kris deserve most of the credit.
North Carolina's two major streaks - 27 straight NCAA tournament bids and 31 consecutive 20-win seasons - are far from guaranteed, but they're not as farfetched as a month ago.
"This winning streak has given us a reason to believe, it has given us a breath of fresh air," Capel said. "We've worked so hard and now we're seeing the benefits from it. To have a young team, to be able to overcome and stick together and believe in each other and to grow as a team, it's a good feeling."
In December, Doherty also made a few subtle moves that have paid off.
He trimmed his offense to make things simpler for his younger players, switched freshman Jawad Williams from the outside to under the bucket to take advantage of his rebounding ability, and helped 3-point ace Brian Morrison regain his confidence.
Doherty also developed some depth when Lang went down with a knee injury.
"The thing that jumps out has been our unselfishness," Doherty said. "We're moving the basketball, limiting our turnovers and making shots.
"You know, we lost our first game and we've got a lot of young guys. They got nervous and that's natural. They weren't sure where they were supposed to be, they weren't sure of their teammates. We just had to get more comfortable with each other and more confident. We tried to give them more freedom on the floor and they are enjoying that."
North Carolina's season could turn one way or the other again in the next seven days, considering the Tar Heels play the Demon Deacons, No. 8 Maryland and No. 4 Virginia.
"I'm not saying we've cleared through the woods at all, and this league can be brutal," Doherty said. "You can play well in the ACC and still lose."
"Everybody goes through slumps and this team went through a slump," added Capel. "Hopefully, we've shot our way out of it. We're taking good shots now and we're setting each other up for good shots. When you do that good things are going to happen."