The Daily Tar Heel

Serving the students and the University community since 1893

Friday December 2nd

Checking In With the Nation's Most Talented Trio of Signees

Raymond Felton, message board messiah, Tar Heel savior du jour, wanted to leave for his girlfriend's place in Florence, S.C., a half hour ago.

But late on a Friday afternoon, hours after being dismissed from Latta High School for the weekend, the 2002 Naismith High School Player of the Year is back in the parking lot, coolly nailing every last question.

How often do you talk to Coach Doherty?

Have you played against LeBron James?

Have you seen Hoop Dreams?

If Felton's good at dealing with situations like this, it's because he's used to them by now.

He was first noticed at about the age of five, when he would pour in 40 points in youth league games. It continued through his adolescence, during which he's given more interviews and been courted by more schools than he can name (when asked which colleges targeted him, Felton deadpans, "All of them.")

Thirteen years after terrorizing his kindergarten class, the 6-foot-1 point guard's slipped a bit. He averaged only 29.5 points per game his senior season -- but it was good enough to lead Latta High to its second consecutive state championship.

"He's basically head-and-shoulders above the rest of the guards in the country," said Clint Jackson, a recruiting analyst for TheACC.com. "He can shoot the 3, he can take it to the hole, he can dunk, he can absorb body contact. He's very mature in his mindset that he really doesn't need to show off or make someone look bad. He just does what it takes to win."

According to those who have seen him play, he does it when it counts.

"When it comes down to crunch time, he answers the bell," said Dave Telep, director of basketball recruiting for TheInsiders.com. "And that's not something you can measure."

When the bell tolls midnight come a crisp night this October and UNC begins its practice season, the freshman will face the most formidable challenge of his career. Felton will be responsible for restoring marks that prior to last season seemed like layups.

One straight 20-win season. One straight top-3 finish in the ACC. One straight NCAA tournament appearance.

Of course, he won't exactly be on his own.

He'll be joined by Rashad McCants, an explosive, chiseled, 6-3 wing forward out of New Hampton (N.H.) School with a disproportionately wide wing span and a mean streak cut from the Rasheed Wallace mold.

"He intimidates a lot of people," Jackson said. "McCants is the type of player that I think all of the other teams are going to hate and Carolina fans are going to love. He's got that on-court personality that's just cocky and mean and nasty."

And they'll be joined by Sean May, a 6-8 power forward from Bloomington, Ind., with a wide body and a soft touch.

"Sean May is an important piece of this puzzle because he is the true low-post scoring option that they need," Telep said of the Bloomington North High School senior, who averaged 22 points and 14 rebounds per game this season.

The three are only half of the six-man recruiting class set to join the Tar Heels in the fall, yet they receive almost all the attention. As well they should.

While interior players Damion Grant and Byron Sanders have already been labeled projects, and walk-on swingman David Noel is an ex-football recruit, Felton, May and McCants are three of 10 Parade Magazine first-team All-Americans -- for the entire country.

"To be honest, it really wouldn't matter what way it was," Felton said. "I don't choke under pressure. Pressure doesn't bother me."

Said McCants, who averaged 25 points and seven boards per game at New Hampton this season, "We don't really have to say anything. Just let our games do the talking."

May is not as brash, but he is just as enthusiastic about coming to Chapel Hill.

Or maybe it's leaving Bloomington.

His father Scott is a Hoosier legend. He was a two-time All-American and the 1976 Player of the Year on Indiana's unbeaten championship team. After choosing UNC instead of IU in November, Sean suffered a backlash that included phone calls and letters, comments from friends at school and strangers at shopping malls -- and that continues five months later.

"I just went out yesterday, went to get a bite to eat, and I at least had four or five people come up to me," said the 265-pounder two days after Indiana disposed of Kent State in the Elite Eight. "And they're like 'What about those Hoosiers? They're in the Final Four. I bet you wish you would've went there.'

"I don't think there's any way that this year could have been any harder on me."

Said Scott May: "I think that he's grown up since the decision, and I think it's opened his eyes about people, about people that he thought were his friends. As far as next year and the pressure, being a freshman on a team that had a losing record, I tell him all the time what a great situation he's going into as a young player."

Next year's "great" situation will likely entail Felton seizing the role of the team's starting point guard, May starting at either power forward or center and McCants with a chance to earn a starting spot at either shooting guard or small forward. In addition to minutes and points, they'll be counted on to drive up the intensity of an 8-20 team that at times looked lost last season.

"What you forget is, when you bring in guys like this, there's guys like Jackie Manuel who are going to go, 'Whoa, wait a minute,' and all of a sudden, hopefully, that competition will raise everyone's level of play," Telep said.

Felton might have already made his presence felt in UNC gyms.

"I remember hearing stories about him coming down as a junior and playing pickup games with the Tar Heels and you know, just taking it to Joseph Forte," Jackson said. "Forte was the best player on the Tar Heels at the time. He could come in there as a 16-year-old and just go right at Forte without even thinking about it."

Recruiting analysts do their jobs by spreading stories like that one. Basketball coaches keep theirs by doing the opposite, deflecting the hype and letting young players develop.

Enter Matt Doherty, who has begun shielding his three McDonald's All-Americans from the supersized pressure that comes along with "saving" North Carolina basketball.

"I think they might hear that from other people, but they don't hear that from me," said Doherty, who himself played in the McDonald's game in 1980. "I hope that people listen, people listen to me. Some people are realistic and say next year could be a rough year, too, because we are so young and so inexperienced. Our most experience post man next year will be Sean May. Scary."

Still, some of the Tar Heel faithful have already made up their minds.

"He's just like Stackhouse," spouted one spectator to no one in particular while watching McCants will his way to 30 points in a Feb. 23 scrimmage against an overmatched UNC junior varsity team. "Only stronger."

And three inches shorter than the 1995 first-team All American.

And 28 pounds lighter.

McCants, echoing advice he said he's received from Doherty and UNC forward Jawad Williams, best sums up the heralded trio's situation.

"We're going to have to grow up fast."

If they do?

"For us to come in, and if we turn the program back around to what everyone's used to seeing it as," May said, "it just makes all of us, and the coaching staff, and the players that are already there look so much better."

And if they don't?

For now, it's a possibility that everyone involved with the program, including Felton, would rather not think about.

"It's not going to be what everybody's thinking. It's not going to be easy. I'm not going to say we're going to go there and beat 'em," said Felton, referring to Duke, staring down at the concrete, shaking his head -- then grinning.

"But that's the plan."

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