Who killed the North Carolina Tar Heels?

The stadium scene.
Dec. 5 2001 3:03 PM

Tar Heel Meltdown

Who killed North Carolina? The team's star forward.

Jason Capel

The college basketball season is only a few weeks old, but one team is already in full-blown crisis mode: the North Carolina Tar Heels. UNC, one of the proudest, most storied programs in all of college sports, is off to a 1-3 start. All the losses have come at home, two to absolute cupcakes, Hampton and Davidson. Throughout college basketball, people are asking: What in the world is wrong with North Carolina?

So far, three theories have emerged, each of which lays blame for the slow start with one of Carolina's last three head coaches. The first targets the legendary Dean Smith, who retired as the team's coach in October 1997. Smith's mistake, the thinking goes, was to tap Bill Guthridge, his 60-year-old assistant, as his stop-gap successor. Top high-school players shied away from Guthridge, guessing correctly that he would retire before they finished school. (Guthridge left before the 2000-2001 season began and was replaced by Notre Dame's Matt Doherty.) As ESPN's Jay Bilas put it, "Had Matt Doherty taken over for Smith, given the fact that he is viewed as a long-term replacement, things would likely be much different for the Tar Heels right now."

The second theory holds that Guthridge, regardless of his age, bungled some recruiting decisions, especially at point guard. According to Brick Oettinger, a college basketball recruiting analyst for PrepStars.com, Duke's Jason Williams—now the best player in college basketball—wanted to come to UNC when he was in high school. But Guthridge, out of loyalty to his then-point guard, Ed Cota—who had a year of eligibility left—declined to recruit Williams. When it came time to replace Cota, who graduated in the spring of 2000, Guthridge lavished attention on a single player, New York City point guard Omar Cook. But Guthridge, after visiting Cook's home late in the recruiting process, was turned off by Cook's attitude toward his parents and decided to pass on him. With few options left, UNC had to settle for the slow-footed Minnesota point guard Adam Boone, whose limitations are now on full display.

Finally, there are those who blame Matt Doherty, the man who's actually been on the bench for Carolina's early season woes. Hired more for his pedigree (he's a UNC alum) than his résumé (he had only one year of head-coaching experience when he took over at UNC), Doherty's ruffled some feathers in Tar Heel country. He fired three of Smith and Guthridge's longtime assistants so that he could install his own staff. And, compared to his staid predecessors—who rarely, if ever, cracked smiles—the 39-year-old Doherty is positively manic: He yells at players; he jumps up and down on the sideline; last year, after one big win, he even broke down in tears on the court. To some Carolina fans—an admittedly stodgy bunch that Sam Cassel memorably labeled "the wine and cheese crowd"—all this emotion is positively gauche. Until Doherty goes, some of the faithful whisper, things won't get any better.

But none of these theories quite hold up. Guthridge may have been a stop-gap, but he was a stop-gap who took the Tar Heels to the Final Four twice in three years. A younger but less experienced coach, like Doherty, probably wouldn't have achieved those immediate results—thereby depriving UNC the greatest recruiting tool of all: success. As for Doherty, it's simply too early to judge him. After all, this isn't really even his team: Save for three freshmen, he recruited none of UNC's current players.

And it's one of those players who's the biggest reason for Carolina's poor start: Jason Capel. A 6-foot 8-inch senior and co-captain, Capel is the Tar Heels' best player. Which is exactly the problem: He's not that good. While Capel does a number of things well—he's a decent ball-handler, he has fairly good shooting range, he plays solid defense—he doesn't do any of them spectacularly well. In some ways, Capel's situation might seem a tragic one: a good player who's being asked to be great—and simply isn't up to the task.

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But it's hard to feel sorry for Capel, since this is exactly what he wanted. Last year, when Capel was the team's second or third option, he was unhappy, directing his displeasure toward Joseph Forte, the team's sophomore guard and undisputed star. Capel fussed when Forte missed a shot; he made biting remarks to reporters about Forte after games; there were rumors of locker-room confrontations between the two. Even when Carolina was rolling—winning 18 games in a row and sitting atop the national polls—Capel was steamed he wasn't the man. (A newspaper article that described him as an "indispensable role player" left him fuming.) There were a number of reasons Forte decided to jump to the NBA after his sophomore season (see this Sports Nut for a few of them), but Capel's unpleasantness made his exodus from Chapel Hill that much more attractive.

While most Carolina fans lamented Forte's departure, Capel seemed to cheer it. Last month he told the Raleigh News & Observer, "I've waited three years to be on center stage. Now I'm on it." Capel even predicted that his star turn would lead to his selection in the first round of next year's NBA draft. But so far, he looks more like a natural fit for the CBA. While he's averaging 15 points per game, he's shooting just 33 percent, including a hideous 12 percent from three-point range. Without Forte to draw the attention of opposing defenses, Capel finds himself smothered.

Things probably won't be grim at Carolina for too long. UNC has a good group of freshmen who will only get better with time. And, for next year, Doherty—whose energy and emotion actually play very well with young recruits—has signed three of the top 15 high-schoolers in the country. Needless to say, they can't get to Chapel Hill soon enough. And luckily for them, when they show up Jason Capel will be gone.

Jason Zengerle, an associate editor at the New Republic, lives in Chapel Hill, N.C.

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