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© St. Petersburg Times, published February 17, 2002
Carolina Blue never meant this.
Not after an NCAA record 1,787 victories by University of North Carolina basketball fellows, four national championships, Michael Jordan, 31 consecutive 20-win seasons, 15 Final Fours, 15 ACC tournament trophies, Vince Carter, 39 all-Americans, 31 NBA first-round draft picks, nine national players of the year, 27 consecutive NCAA Tournament bids and the incomparable 879 coaching successes of Dean Smith.
How unfathomable as I watched, Tuesday against the Virginia Cavaliers, the Tar Heels lose their 16th game, the most in any of their 92 seasons. Twenty is reachable. In the previous 81 years, UNC was 114-30 against UVA, but is 0-2 this season.
Carolina's never been so blue.
Matt Doherty, a major 6-foot-5 contributor when UNC celebrated Smith's first NCAA championship in 1982, alongside the Jordan guy, came home 19 months ago as Chapel Hill hoops poobah and strutted to a 26-7 record. After his first season, Doherty was named Associated Press national coach of the year, an honor never accorded the dominating Dean in 36 colossal years.
Ten months later, Doherty is 6-16 and a national disaster. Suddenly, and painfully uncharacteristically, he not only gets whacked by mighty Duke and potent Maryland but also in most every ACC precinct with a 2-10 conference record that has Carolina wincing in the basement.
You knew, before New Year's Day, this would get ugly as the Heels lost to Hampton, Davidson and Charleston, small schools they traditionally have massacred. ACC rivals are getting plenty of jollies, most of them striking back at Carolina after being thrashed by Blue for generations.
UNC has dropped 11 of its past 12 games heading into today's bout with Florida State in the Dean Dome. FSU beat the Heels 81-71 four weeks ago at Tallahassee. At 40, Doherty's hair seems to get grayer as every L is added to the misery. In the most celebrated of college basketball leagues, he is strapped with the new identity of "Door Matt."
Doherty's kids do keep trying. They're outmanned, often overwhelmed, a strange feeling for a Rolls-Royce program that had forever been graced by high school All-Americans and loads of other gifted young men.
It's lost such headliners as Jordan and Carter and Bobby Jones, Mitch Kupchak, Phil Ford, Mike O'Koren, Brad Daugherty, Sam Perkins, James Worthy, J.R. Reid, Kenny Smith, Jerry Stackhouse, Eric Montross, Rasheed Wallace, Antawn Jamison, Joseph Forte and long-ago aces Len Rosenbluth, Billy Cunningham, Larry Brown, Bob McAdoo and Charlie Scott.
Rolls-Royce, having an Edsel year.
Carolina plunged into a 19-3 hole against Virginia but gnawed back, resembling the Blue of old for a few minutes in a 20-3 second-half run, with 12 scores in 13 possessions seizing a 56-55 lead with 9:23 left.
What followed was new-wave Carolina crumble. One field goal in the closing nine minutes with a load of garbage-pail ballhandling. Cavs, ranked 13th and 15th in polls but still not terribly imposing, pulled away 73-63. "We got careless with the ball," said Melvin Scott, who's no Charlie Scott. Yeah, like Enron got careless with the numbers.
Smith, five years into retirement, watches most UNC games on TV. Still living in Chapel Hill, his support is devout for coaching successors who were once his sidekicks. Bill Guthridge followed Dean, achieving records of 34-4, 24-10 and 22-14, reaching the Final Four twice. But there were no conference or national championships. Carolina boosters squirmed, many thinking Guthridge wasn't able to keep up Smith's work.
Nobody foresaw this.
"It's hard to go through" Smith told the Charlotte Observer. "I feel badly for Matt and his players. He's our coach. Our players are good people. They were recruited by a lot of schools. Matt is trying the best he can." Symbolic of the big-name teens who are underachieving for this season's Tar Heels is 6-foot-8 Jason Capel.
His brother, Jeff, was a 1993-97 standout at Duke; his father a respected coach, most recently at Old Dominion. Capel wanted to carve his own family legacy at UNC. He is Doherty's leading scorer at 14.8 points per game, but in that record 16th failure against Virginia, he shot 11 times from the field and made one.
Carolina could drop 20. Until now, the losingest seasons since 1910 basketball birth were records of 12-15 in 1951 and 1952. There hadn't been a sub-.500 year since Smith's first season (8-9) in 1961-62 when he took over Heels on NCAA probation.
This time, in the Doherty doldrums, there won't be a 32nd straight 20-win season or a 28th consecutive NCAA Tournament opportunity. Next season doesn't promise to be better, but Carolina Blue will be back. It's a blue, Heels always say, the color of God's sky. When you've been the greatest, most consistent NCAA operation of all, you don't stay lousy for long.
But, for now, being Blue means being bruised.
-- To reach Hubert, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or send mail to P.O. Box 726, Nellysford VA 22958).