The resurrection of North Carolina basketball.

The stadium scene.
Dec. 3 2002 4:30 PM

Carolina's Comeback Coach

How Matt Doherty went from dunce to genius.

A calmer Doherty prevails
A calmer Doherty prevails

For a while there, it looked like Matt Doherty's dream job had turned into a nightmare. Less than two years after being named the University of North Carolina's head basketball coach, Doherty was on the verge of being run out of Chapel Hill. During his first season on the Carolina bench, UNC ascended to its customary perch atop the national polls by midseason, but then the Tar Heels went into a tailspin, losing five of their last 10 games and getting knocked out of the NCAA Tournament in the second round. The late season collapse was a harbinger of things to come. In Doherty's second season, the Tar Heels went 8-20—the first 20-loss season in school history—and missed the NCAA Tournament altogether, ending a streak of 27 consecutive tourney appearances. They lost to nobodies like Davidson and Hampton and were absolutely overwhelmed by Duke and Maryland. The players looked confused on the court and Doherty in over his head on the bench.

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To make matters worse, the players started to leave. After not having had a player transfer out of UNC since 1994, in the span of six months last season, three Tar Heel players decided to go to other schools; several others threatened to do the same. The cruelest blow came in March when Dean Smith, the man who had built the Carolina program and who had coached Doherty at UNC in the early '80s, implied in the paperback version of his autobiography that he hadn't wanted to hire Doherty in the first place. North Carolina newspapers ran front-page autopsies on UNC basketball with headlines like "Heels Dynasty in Disarray" and "The New Color of Misery: Carolina Blue." Some fans began to call for Doherty's head. The feeling in college basketball circles was that he might be fired come March if Carolina repeated last season's performance.

Well, that doesn't look like it's going to happen. Five games into this season, UNC already has five wins—including a shellacking of the then No. 2 team in the country, the Kansas Jayhawks, and a convincing victory over Stanford in the championship game of the Preseason National Invitation Tournament. After beginning the season unranked, UNC debuted in this week's Associated Press poll at No. 12. The CNNSI.com power rankings currently have the Heels as the third best team in the country. The same fans and reporters who last season were saying Doherty was a dunce are now hailing his coaching acumen. So what accounts for UNC's and, more pointedly, Doherty's remarkable turnaround?

One explanation is that the Carolina coach has grown up. When Doherty was handed the reins of one of college basketball's most storied programs, he was 38 years old and had all of one season of head-coaching experience. (Indeed, Doherty got the Carolina job only after the more illustrious members of the UNC coaching fraternity—like Roy Williams, Larry Brown, and George Karl—had turned it down.) This was most apparent in the way he interacted with his players. A large, excitable guy, Doherty was a bundle of nerves on the bench—stomping his feet, screaming in his players' faces. Rumors circulated that he had tossed a ball at one of his players' heads during a practice. "The basketball program is not a respectful environment," the father of one of the transferring players complained. But, while no one would ever accuse Doherty of now being mellow, he has exhibited a new, more low-key approach this season. He still paces the sidelines, but he's quick to greet his players with high-fives during timeouts. Now, when one of his players makes a boneheaded play, he's more likely to roll his eyes and sigh than launch into a red-faced tirade.

Of course, Doherty hasn't had to do too much eye-rolling this season—which is the second reason for UNC's turnaround: The team simply has better players. Although the Tar Heels lost three starters from last year's team to graduation or transfer, Doherty replaced them with three outstanding freshmen: point guard Raymond Felton, center Sean May, and shooting guard Rashad McCants. The three freshmen bring not only talent but a certain confidencethat was sorely and conspicuously missing from Carolina teams in recent seasons; and their inspired play has, in turn, inspired the other Carolina players to raise their games. Sophomores Jackie Manuel, Jawad Williams, and Melvin Scott—all of whom looked overwhelmed last year—appear to be completely different players this year. The Tar Heels may be the youngest team in the nation—starting three freshmen and two sophomores—but they don't play like it. 

The biggest reason for Carolina's resurgence is that Doherty is now coaching his kind of players. While there are some coaches out there who can walk into a gym, pick five random players, and come up with a game plan that accentuates those players' strengths and hides their weaknesses, Doherty is not one of them. He seems capable of coaching only one system, which favors a relentless man-to-man defense and a fast-paced offense. But the players he inherited when he came to Carolina were not well suited to this style of play, and when he refused to adjust his system to match his personnel, the results were disastrous.

Now, though, Doherty is coaching players he recruited to run his system. And, within that framework, it turns out he is a pretty good X's and O's man, able to make small tweaks and adjustments to take advantage of other teams' weaknesses. Last week against Kansas, for instance, Doherty had the Tar Heels run their offensive sets with all five players above the foul line, which allowed for the speedy and powerful McCants to drive to the basket at will on his overmatched defender. He scored 25 points against the Jayhawks and was later named the Preseason NIT MVP.

Doherty has lamented that UNC's fast start means that the Tar Heels will no longer be underdogs. But the victories really couldn't have come soon enough. In today's college basketball world—where coaches are constantly having to replenish their rosters since they can only count on having their best players on campus for a couple of years—one bad season can have lasting repercussions, even for a school like UNC. (This year's talented freshman class committed to UNC before the 20-loss debacle.) A good performance this year means that Doherty will be able to convince some top-notch players to come to Carolina in the fall of 2004—just about the time McCants and company will be bolting for the NBA. By that point Doherty won't even remember what it feels like to be an underdog.

Jason Zengerle is a senior editor at the New Republic.