After 28 years directing the University of North Carolina basketball program, Dean Smith hasn’t changed one bit. Smith can still selectively recruit a top prospect, then spend three years downplaying that player’s abilities until he acquires Smith’s favorite characteristic: “senior leadership.”
When you’ve been as successful as Smith has been, there isn’t much reason to change. Especially not this season.
Smith’s 10th-ranked Tar Heels, who take a 3-1 record into Thursday night’s Big East-Atlantic Coast Conference Challenge game against the University of Connecticut in Chapel Hill, N.C., have one of the most heralded freshman classes in college basketball history. With Eric Montross, Derrick Phelps, Brian Reese, Clifford Rozier and Pat Sullivan, Smith could start an all-freshman team and the Tar Heels might still be a Final Four contender.
Rozier, Montross and Reese were among the consensus top 10 high school players in the country last year.
“The worst thing I know about their freshmen is that they’re all great,” UConn Coach Jim Calhoun said. “Sometimes kids come out of nowhere, because you don’t see them (during recruiting). Most of their freshmen have been very visible at Nike camp or AAU tournaments. They have, arguably, one of the best recruiting classes in the last decade, if not among the top five or six in recent memory.”
But even if it seemed Smith had to start five freshmen, he wouldn’t do it. At North Carolina, you learn the Smith system first -- even if your name is Michael Jordan or James Worthy.
Smith doesn’t even like talking about his freshmen.
“The best thing happened when we first scrimmaged the freshmen and the guys coming back won by 57 points,” Smith said recently. “That kind of woke up the freshmen and made them realize they had a lot to do.”
Carolina’s veterans include some of the top players in the ACC: Pete Chilcutt, George Lynch, Rick Fox, King Rice. Smith will not push them aside for the freshmen.
“Our freshmen have gotten entirely too much attention,” Smith said. “I think they’re outstanding prospects, but if we bring in three one year and two another year, we wouldn’t have this (hype). For some reason, it has really gone overboard. And yet the nice thing about it is they are intelligent and they know they’re not quite ready. They’re not expecting a great deal of playing time. It could be difficult otherwise. They have come in and contributed and we’re certainly happy we have them. But I never dreamed it would be like this.”
Although Carolina’s youth gives Smith reason to keep expectations down, the pedigrees of the new Tar Heels have pushed Smith’s team back to the forefront of the ACC. The challenge for Smith is to find the right chemistry between old and new.
But that’s the reason Smith designed his system in the first place.
“It hasn’t been a problem,” Rice, Carolina’s senior point guard, said of finding the right mix. “We’re a close team. We don’t pay too much attention to what the media says. The new guys on the team know who the main guys are and they’re just trying to improve. They realize they have a lot to work on and improve on. They’re good to be around but I think they realize they need us to become better players and for the team to be successful.
“Our freshmen want to play more but they realize that it’s different playing here than anyplace else. They have to do it at both ends of the floor and do some things they probably wouldn’t be asked to do at other schools.”
North Carolina freshmen carry the team’s equipment when the Tar Heels go on the road. They must learn to acknowledge the player who made the assist after every score, be supportive on the bench, play defense, and acquire a sense of loyalty. And there never are any promises of starting as a freshman.
“When you get to practice, he’s on the freshmen more than other coaches probably are,” Rice said. “You have to do it on the defensive end and when you come out of high school many guys aren’t really good defensive players. You have a lot to learn. You don’t get thrown into the battles until you know how to play defense.”
Why does Smith shield his freshmen from the outside, yet push them so hard himself? To make them better players, of course.
“I’ve just seen so many high school guys with great reputations fail to live up to it,” Smith said. “They don’t need this additional pressure which is coming their way just because all five are coming to Chapel Hill in the same year.”
It’s a tribute to Smith’s program the Tar Heels were considered to be down last season when they went 21-13. Carolina has at least 21 victories every season for 20 consecutive years, and the Tar Heels have reached the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament 10 consecutive seasons. Smith has taken North Carolina to the Final Four seven times and won the national championship in 1982.
Yet in the past four or five seasons, it has been said that Smith has lost his grip on the ACC to Duke and Coach Mike Krzyzewski.
“Last year we beat Duke pretty badly both times (79-60 and 87-75) we played them,” Rice said. “Duke is a great team but I feel when we play head-to-head we usually come out pretty well. We’re not going to get caught up in that. We still feel we’re one of the top teams in the country.”
The Tar Heels have achieved success while upholding a clean reputation. Carolina’s basketball guide notes 175 of Smith’s 179 lettermen have graduated.
“Coach Smith was the main reason I came here,” said Rice, who grew up in Binghamton, N.Y., an hour from Syracuse’s Carrier Dome. “He didn’t make any promises except that I would graduate from college on time. I liked that. He didn’t tell me I would be starting or make all those other promises. He was just straightforward with me.”
Montross, Phelps, Reese, Rozier and Sullivan all heard the same promise. After 30 years, why should Smith alter his best recruiting pitch?
“If you look for a blueprint in college athletics,” Calhoun said, “Dean Smith’s program might be pretty close to that blueprint. A lot of coaches would say it’s the way to get it done. They treat their kids with respect, their kids conduct themselves the way they’re supposed to on and off the court. They run a first-rate program. It’s not perfect; no program is. But it’s close to the epitome for what college basketball can and should be.”