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So, what was wrong with North Carolina, anyway?

If you look at the record, 19-11 (8-6 in the ACC), you'd have to think plenty.And if you look at the rankings, you're certain something went haywire. The Tar Heels were in the polls for just four weeks, after a decade during which the Heels finished in the top 10 nine times. The Associated Press had 161 polls during the 1980s and the Tar Heels were listed in 158 of them.

As the ACC tournament approaches Friday, Carolina is still nowhere to be found in the top 25.

But if you check the way the Tar Heels finished the regular season, with wins over 11th-ranked Georgia Tech and fifth-ranked Duke, you'd have to say the Heels are back to their old tricks.

The Heels shot 68 percent in the second half against Tech and 64 percent for the game against Duke and looked like world-beaters. They go into the tournament on a high note, and no one in the league is counting them out.

Certainly this was not one of Dean Smith's finest teams, but it also was not one of his worst. You have to go back a long way to find a Tar Heel team that was really bad.

The one that enters this week's conference tournament is not as impressive as some Smith has fielded, but it is, as opposing coaches will tell you, dangerous. It will make the NCAA tournament for the 16th straight year, an NCAA record. They will be trying to make it to at least the sweet 16 for the 10th straight year. No school in America can approach that record.

This was a Carolina team that struggled from a lack of quickness, no consistent perimeter shooting and an inability to apply the kind of defensive pressure Dean Smith would like. It didn't handle the ball very well.

The Tar Heels had almost as many turnovers (524) as they caused (526). Normally, that figure is reversed by a considerable margin. It was not a good ball handling team. Smith said early in the season that was the case and that they would have to ``find ways to hide it.'

Sometimes they did. But sometimes, they did not.

Carolina played an extremely difficult schedule - facing Alabama, Georgetown, Iowa, Colorado State, Colorado and Kentucky on the road. The Heels played 11 games against teams that were ranked in the top 25 at some point, winning five times.

It's that tough schedule and the performance against it that assures Carolina of another NCAA bid, even though they still have high hopes of repeating their ACC title of a year ago.

When the Tar Heels were good, they were very, very good - such as during a five-game winning streak that turned a so-so 10-6 record into a 15-6 mark.

All five of the wins came against league teams, including a 22-point win over Virginia, a 19-point whacking of Duke, a 10-point road win at N.C. State and a 23-point victory over Clemson.

Just before the run, the Tar Heels had lost their league opener on the road at Maryland, prompting some to predict a sub-.500 record in the league.

During the winning streak, however, no one was asking what's wrong?

A key man during the stretch and for the season was 6-10 senior center Scott Williams. He shot almost 60 percent and averaged better than 17 points. He was active around the glass and played good defense.

Williams was the barometer for the team. When he played well, the Heels were their old selves. When he didn't, they were ordinary or worse.

And he and the team were very ordinary in a 102-75 loss at Georgia Tech. It was a game that could have wrecked the season. It was a confidence-shattering experience. Until that strong finish, Carolina was an up and down team, struggling to try and regain that mental edge. Before beating Tech and Duke, Carolina had lost three straight and four of their last five, including two at home.

They lost at home to N.C. State, on the road at Virginia, at home to Maryland and on the road at Clemson.

People were wondering which Carolina team would show up, and they still may. When the tournament opens, will the team that beat Duke twice appear or will it be the one that lost to Maryland twice?

This has been a season of question and criticism for Carolina.

The player who caught the brunt of the criticism was point guard King Rice. All he did was have about 2.5 assists for every turnover, an outstanding ratio. He did struggle with his shooting, making just 39 percent overall, but Rice has never been a great shooter. He made over 78 percent of his free throws and held his own against the league's best point guards.

The season also saw the emergence of Rick Fox. The 6-7 junior led the team in scoring and became the team's big play man. He was particularly outstanding in the last half of the season and in the second half of games. Over 60 percent of his points in the last 23 games came in the second half.

Fox made better than 41 percent of his three-pointers.

One of Carolina's trouble spots was second guard, where 6-6 senior Kevin Madden tried to fill the role. But Madden's perimeter shooting and defense was never quite up to the role, and sophomore Hubert Davis got more playing time.

Madden never put more than four double-figure scoring games together. His season high was 19 in the first game of the year and he reached double figures in rebounds only once. And he got to the free throw line less than 100 times, meaning he didn't get the ball down low where he is most dangerous.

Davis helped fill in, averaging 10.4 points, while shooting 46 percent. Davis also made 39 percent of his three-pointers. The Tar Heels launched almost 500 three-pointers, a good portion of them in desperation after falling behind.

The Tar Heels' quiet man was 6-9 junior Pete Chilcutt who averaged just over eight points and 6.8 rebounds. He had 18 games in which he had seven ore more rebounds.

Freshman George Lynch was Carolina's top frontcourt reserve, averaging better than eight points and five rebounds.

This was not, however, one of Smith's deeper teams.

True, this team had its problems, but you can bet no one in the ACC is willing to write them off just yet. Perhaps more so than in recent years, Carolina enters the tournament with wounded pride and a lot to prove.

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