On Tobacco Road, signs are good for UNC

THE BALTIMORE SUN

RALEIGH, N.C. - Maryland at Wake Forest, Georgia Tech at North Carolina, then Duke at North Carolina State last night.

Observations and thoughts after watching four of the nation's top eight ranked teams in the span of 48 hours, and eating too many hush puppies at Bullock's, the Durham barbecue joint:

Those who didn't predict No. 3 North Carolina to win the national championship underestimated Roy Williams' ability to turn a team that was selfish in his debut season with the Tar Heels into one on which teammates are holding hands, playing nice with each other and nasty with the rest of the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Exhibit A in North Carolina's new and improved attitude is Rashad McCants' stat line from Wednesday's 22-point pummeling of No. 8 Georgia Tech.

Coming in, the only departments in which he led the Tar Heels were shots attempted and personal fouls. He had blocked nine shots in the team's first 14 games. Against the Yellow Jackets, McCants had seven attempts, fewest among the starters, and four blocks.

The junior wing is known for his sweet shooting form and being a head case. If he has bought into the philosophy that Dean Smith handed down to Williams a long time ago - the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, etc. - then North Carolina will be a team to behold all season.

Junior center Sean May lauded McCants for not worrying about his points, and point guard Raymond Felton for getting everyone into the flow.

Melvin Scott, a senior guard out of Baltimore who went from the starting lineup to being the Tar Heels' eighth man, said he's gone "from being on a team that was so selfish into one that is so together."

As North Carolina's lead grew, you could almost hear Gary Williams 280 miles away, reiterating that the Tar Heels will embarrass a lot of teams.

The Terps' shooting may be off, but their boss' long-held argument that the ACC has a bias toward its Tobacco Road base gained credence with the early conference schedule.

Georgia Tech and Virginia empathize with Maryland, the first league team in 17 seasons to have to play consecutive road games against top-five opponents. The Yellow Jackets follow their game at North Carolina with one at North Carolina State on Sunday. The already doomed Cavaliers opened conference play at home against Wake Forest, then had to go to Georgia Tech.

It may be done clinically by a computer, but the unbalanced schedule forced by football expansion has put an asterisk on the regular season and a lot of weight on North Carolina's trip to No. 4 Wake Forest tomorrow.

After getting the Terps and Tar Heels this week, the Demon Deacons don't have to go to College Park or Chapel Hill this season. North Carolina, in turn, doesn't have to go Georgia Tech. It will all balance by, say, 2008, but the short view is askew.

How long before two young assistants with roots in Maryland get a shot at their first head coaching positions?

Steve Wojciechowski is in his second decade in Durham, first as a player and now as an assistant at Duke. "Wojo" says he needs more seasoning, as the Cardinal Gibbons grad is still only 28, but that kind of apprenticeship under Mike Krzyzewski landed Quin Snyder and Tommy Amaker high-profile jobs at Missouri and Michigan, respectively.

Cliff Warren is 36 but sounds patient. He went to Paint Branch High in Montgomery County, then played and coached at Mount St. Mary's before joining Paul Hewitt's staff at Siena in 1997. Warren went south to Atlanta when Hewitt took over Georgia Tech, and increased his exposure when the Yellow Jackets' went to the 2004 NCAA final.

"People told me when I got into this business, you associate yourself with good people and good things will happen," Warren said. "I haven't been offered any jobs. You've got to look at your options, but I'm happy where I am."

Just in time for Georgia Tech's Jan. 30 game at Maryland, senior wing B.J. Elder is expected to return late next week from the hamstring tear he suffered in a New Year's Day loss at Kansas.

The Yellow Jackets miss his 13.2 points per game, as the Carolina loss dropped them to 0-3 against ranked opponents.

Last night's Duke-State matchup was a contrast in injury response. Despite the continued absence of Shavlik Randolph and Reggie Love, the Blue Devils remained unbeaten. With inflammation of the colon sidelining point guard Tony Bethel, the Wolfpack dropped its fourth straight.

State ran plays, while the Duke veterans made plays.

Tomorrow's game at Wake Forest will be telling for North Carolina, which has won all of five times in ACC road games since January 2002.

Someone who hasn't been to Lawrence Joel Coliseum in five years would think it's a different arena. Between the middle-aged fans in tie-dyed shirts, the light show, the mascot rappelling down from the rafters and the music turned up to 11, the Demon Deacons have an atmosphere that matches their product.

Can Chris Paul and company bang bodies with Felton, May and the Williams "brothers?" The easiest way to distinguish senior Jawad Williams from freshman Marvin Williams is to study their builds. The rookie is the thin one who hasn't hit the weight room.

The Tar Heels don't have anyone built like Julius Peppers, but the veterans all appear stronger than a year ago - or maybe it's just their approach.

"Even when we were ugly," Roy Williams said after the Tech win, "we were fun to watch."

Planting seeds

Paul McMullen's weekly prediction of the top four seeds in each regional of the NCAA tournament:

Syracuse Austin

North Carolina Kansas

Kentucky Syracuse

Boston College Georgia Tech

G. Washington Michigan State

Chicago Albuquerque

Illinois Wake Forest

Duke Oklahoma State

Arizona Washington

Cincinnati Gonzaga

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