North Carolina takes a spin in top-ranked revolving door


CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- North Carolina's Tar Heels finally made it back to the White House of college basketball, No. 1 in the Associated Press poll, this week, but there are no plans at this point to re-do the place in baby blue.

And, read my lips, don't put in a putting green for Dean Smith just yet.

People are in and out of that place so fast this season, they should put in a revolving door. Indiana, which had lost only to Kansas and Kentucky -- both former No. 1s -- fell from the top spot this week because it lost on the road in overtime to Ohio State after missing a free throw that would have won it in regulation time. This despite the fact that one of Indiana's star players was sidelined with an injury.

That's how precarious the top spot can be. You lost? Get outta here. You had won 20 in a row? Don't tell us your troubles, just move it. The new tenants will be here any minute.

The Tar Heels are the sixth No. 1 of the season after Michigan, Duke, Kansas, Indiana and Kentucky passed it around. It has been a while since they were No. 1 -- November 1987 -- but they don't look at all like intruders. They're good enough to have a turn this year. And nobody looks more at home in places of basketball prominence than North Carolina. Nobody.

Twenty times, Smith teams have finished in the Top 10, which is more than Adolph Rupp or John Wooden or anyone else has done. They've been No. 1 in the final poll three times -- in 1957, 1982 and 1984 -- and have been No. 1 during the season several other times.

Smith is not sure they should be there now, and he presents a good argument, but polls would be no fun if they were based solely on logic. Where's the sport if the No. 1 team loses and doesn't get tossed off the premises?

"Polls don't mean anything until the final poll of the season," contends Smith. "Then if you finish in the Top 10, it means you've had an excellent year.

"I think Indiana going through the Big Ten as it has, then playing at Ohio State and going overtime without Alan Henderson, one of its best players, still deserves to be No. 1. You would certainly have to consider Arizona, which has gone through the Pac-10 without a loss."

For all their glory, the Tar Heels had not been No. 1 since late 1987. That season, they opened by beating No. 1 Syracuse in the Tip-Off Classic despite the absence of starters J.R. Reid and Steve Bucknall, who had gotten into some devilment and were sitting in the corner.

That upset, viewed by a national TV audience, dazzled pollsters and earned them No. 1, but they lost the following week to Vanderbilt and that was that.

The 1957 team, coached by Frank McGuire, and the 1982 teams, both No. 1s, won NCAA championships; the other No. 1, the '84 team, lost to Indiana in the NCAAs.

It was a powerful team, one of the best Smith ever put together, with Michael Jordan, Brad Daugherty, Sam Perkins and Kenny Smith, all now in the NBA. But a broken wrist sidelined Kenny Smith for part of the season and, even though he returned, the injury disrupted the chemistry of that team and may have cost it an NCAA title.

This season's Tar Heels don't have that kind of glitter, but they do play the kind of defense that warms Smith's heart. It's primarily a junior and senior team and Smith has always said his best defensive teams were his older teams, those who had been around long enough to mature as players and to learn the system.

North Carolina uses its dreaded traps more this season than last and runs more defenses. It scores a lot of points, too, but it is up there at the top of the hill because it gets in your face and makes you crazy.

Indiana's Bob Knight says being No. 1 is like putting a bull's eye on your chest. The Tar Heels play Wake Forest tomorrow, Duke on Sunday. They are two of the three teams that have beaten North Carolina this season. They bring big guns and some pretty good rankings of their own. Hold up on that putting green.

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