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The Daily Tar Heel

Tar Heels Make Case For No. 1

UCLA 79, No. 1 Stanford 73.

Combined with the Tar Heels' defeat of No. 2 Duke on Thursday and No. 3 Kansas' loss to Missouri on Monday, UNC was in prime position to claim its first top ranking in nearly three years.

Of course, there was still 15:54 left in its game against Georgia Tech.

"Who announced that by the way?" UNC coach Matt Doherty asked during his postgame press conference. "That was terrible timing, terrible timing. I got mad because I noticed it; some of our players' eyes darted up to the scoreboard. That's the kiss of death right there."

Fortunately for the Tar Heels, who held on for a 82-69 win, they were able to kiss and tell.

UNC now seems assured of its first No. 1 ranking since finishing the 1998 regular season on top.

It debuted as the top team in the ESPN/USA Today coaches' poll Sunday night and should receive the same distinction in The Associated Press poll when it is released today.

The Tar Heels (19-2, 9-0 in the ACC) boast the longest current win-streak in the country at 16 and are 9-0 in the ACC for the first time since the 1986-87 season, but with two losses, are they really the best in the nation?

"Oh, definitely," Joseph Forte said. "No doubt about it. There's only one way to prove it -- to keep winning."

"Hard to say who's the best team in the country right now," Brendan Haywood said. "Even if we are the best team in the country right now, being the best team in the country right now doesn't mean anything."

UNC is clearly a different team then it was at the beginning of the season.

The two losses to Michigan State and Kentucky came before football players Ronald Curry and Julius Peppers stepped on the hardwood.

Curry has cemented himself as the team's starting point guard, adding a physical defensive presence on the perimeter, carrying a 1.4-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio and shooting just under 40 percent from the 3-point line.

Peppers is arguably one of the most athletic big men in the nation, putting up 6.4 points and 4.3 rebounds per contest and giving the Tar Heels an intimidating inside presence off the bench.

UNC also showcases a leading candidate for player of the year honors (Forte) and a big man who makes up for his inconsistency on the offensive end with his size and shot-blocking (Haywood).

Throw forwards Kris Lang (13.2 points, 6.4 rebounds) and Jason Capel (10.4 points, 6.7 rebounds) into the mix with a bench that can legitimately run four deep, and the team that many picked to finish third in the ACC this season suddenly looks like a true national contender.

But the Tar Heels have to overcome their poor free throw shooting (Capel and Forte are the only two starters shooting better than 80 percent from the line) and avoid the Arizona-like arrogance that can come with being the top dog.

Haywood knows what it's like. He was a freshman the last time UNC was No. 1, when Vince Carter and Antawn Jamison patrolled the Smith Center, and said this year's Tar Heels are giving him that old nostalgic feeling.

"With Vince and 'Tawn, when we lost, I was really really shocked just because of the work ethic and how good those guys were," Haywood said. "Over the years, we've had pretty good basketball teams, but we haven't had a team as good as that. And right now, we're getting back to where we were."

James Giza can be reached at giza@email.unc.edu.

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