CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- They have two of the best players in the country, not to mention college basketball's winningest active coach. They won their first nine games this season and are, for another two days, ranked No. 1 in the polls.
But going into tonight's game against seventh-ranked Maryland, the North Carolina Tar Heels suddenly look vulnerable. So vulnerable that they don't look like North Carolina.
Dean Smith was concerned about his team's lack of depth before the season began, but it took Wednesday night's 80-70 loss to Robinson's N.C. State team to turn it into a potential crisis. It only became a bigger story because it's North Carolina, a team accustomed to bringing high school All-Americans off the bench.
"We knew there was a lack of depth when we started the season," Smith said yesterday. "If you pick any team in our league and take two of their top players away, they're going to be struggling right now."
A back injury to and subsequent surgery for fifth-year senior Pat Sullivan, one of team's starting forwards, cost the Tar Heels the experience of a player who was part of two Final Four teams and one national championship. He is expected to miss the rest of the season.
A sprained ankle to senior swingman Dante Calabria, the team's most consistent outside shooter, caused him to miss Wednesday night's game and contributed to North Carolina's missing 13 of 15 three-point shots against the free-flinging Wolfpack, which made 14 of 38. Calabria practiced yesterday and is expected back tonight.
"We weren't outmanned, but State did throw a lot of bodies at us," said sophomore center Rasheed Wallace.
Said Maryland coach Gary Williams: "How healthy they are will have a lot to do with how they play. If Calabria plays, that changes things for them. If Calabria can play 35 minutes, it
pushes the other guys' [minutes] down. But this is the first time I've ever seen them get tired."
Despite the presence of Wallace and Jerry Stackhouse -- both are potential All-Americans as sophomores -- the Tar Heels are an otherwise ordinary team if senior guard Donald Williams goes into one of his shooting funks. Put it this way: Find another Top 10 team that starts a walk-on, as North Carolina has done in Calabria's absence.
But Pearce Landry, a 6-4 senior who played two years on the JV and was used last season to mop up, doesn't mind being the critics. Landry, who is on academic scholarship, readily agrees with the perception that the Tar Heels don't have enough depth.
"When people say there's a depth problem, they're absolutely right," said Landry, who committed five turnovers and fouled out against N.C. State, and who'll likely go back to being the team's sixth man if Calabria returns tonight. "When Dante's back, we don't have a depth problem."
While losing to the much-improved Wolfpack certainly raised the issue again, Landry said: "Even if we lost to a Top 25 team, people would have been saying the same thing. They were saying it when we were winning. It's ironic, because last year they were saying we had too much depth."
It was also said that the Tar Heels had a problem between the classes, in their case, the freshmen and the seniors. It contributed to North Carolina's premature exit from the NCAA tournament, when a 28-7 season ended with a loss to Boston College in the second round at USAir Arena.
But Wallace and Stackhouse showed toward the end of last year that they deserved the hype. Many believed if their roles and playing time had been expanded, the Tar Heels would have won back-to-back NCAA titles. Wallace's flashes were so brilliant that he was named to many preseason All-American teams this year. Stackhouse was voted the MVP of last year's ACC Tournament.
"Stackhouse is the best player at Carolina since Michael Jordan," Gary Williams said yesterday of the 6-6, 220-pound forward, North Carolina's and the ACC's leading scorer at more than 21 points a game.
"In Wallace and Stackhouse, they've got one of the best combinations of small forwards and big forwards -- or whatever you want to call Wallace -- in the country. They have a Final Four MVP in Williams. Put [sophomore point guard] Jeff McInnis in there. Not too many teams can do better than that."
But will the Tar Heels do more this year with less, at least in numbers, than they've done in many years? Will their bench, which consists of freshman guard Shammond Williams and little-used players such as 7-2 sophomore center Serge Zwikker and Ed Geth, a 6-8 senior, be able to contribute if the starters go out with fouls or injuries?
"I've always felt like eight [players] was the perfect number," said Smith.
Right now, North Carolina is trying to get there. One player, one injury and one game at a time.