The Daily Tar Heel

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Monday September 20th

Stepping Out of the Past & Into The Future

Taking a Look Back at UNC's Memorable, Forgettable Year

Dean Smith was fidgety and uncomfortable on July 11, 2000. He stood in a corner as Matt Doherty was named North Carolina's next men's basketball coach and Doherty answered questions.

When reporters surrounded Smith, who had sat by Bill Guthridge's side 11 days earlier when Guthridge announced his retirement, he expressed that he didn't want to be there and looked for excuses to leave the circus.

"It's a new beginning for Carolina basketball," Smith said of the program he and Guthridge had spent the previous 39 years building.

"There's a celebration, and there's a funeral."

Smith was speaking of the young replacing the old and the departure of three ex-player assistant coaches. He likely had no idea how prophetic his words would prove to be.

At first, the changes were subtle.

That Tuesday, Doherty set for himself and UNC five annual goals. The first two, to get better every day and to win the next game, were basic coach-speak. The others -- to win the ACC regular season and tournament championships and the national title -- seemed a little change of pace from Smith, who won but rarely stressed the need to do so publicly.

"If I start changing those goals, it's time to look for a new coach," Doherty said that day.

The Tar Heels kicked off practice that fall with "Midnight with Matt." In contrast, Smith considered retiring earlier than he did to avoid the personal attention that would come with breaking Adolph Rupp's wins record.

Then UNC won 18 straight games, achieved a No. 1 ranking, tied for the regular-season crown, and Doherty was named the national coach of the year. Back to normal in Chapel Hill, despite losing half of the last 10 games, including a second-round exit from the NCAA tournament.

Sophomore All-American Joseph Forte left for the NBA, and suddenly people started wondering what would become of UNC basketball. The answer didn't take long.

Without Jason Capel, the Tar Heels lost an exhibition by 31 points.

"Obviously, that kind of alerted the fans that this may not be a typical season for North Carolina," Doherty said last week in his Smith Center office before going to Atlanta to see his former boss, Roy Williams, coach in the Final Four. "And to lose to Hampton and Davidson kind of confirmed that. I always felt we were going to get better and improve and be in position to win ballgames, and we never got to that point on a consistent basis."

The 8-20 season included a last-place tie in the conference at 4-12, the most losses ever, the most home losses ever, the most ACC losses ever, the two worst Smith Center losses, a six-game losing streak and the most points given up in a single game. It also marked the end of the streaks of top-three conference finishes, 20-win seasons and NCAA tournament appearances. The Tar Heels weren't even close to qualifying for the consolation NIT, which requires a .500 record.

The season's low points each had different meaning to different members of the team.

"That was the worst thing I've ever experienced," Jawad Williams said of the Hampton and Davidson losses. "We kept getting a win here or a win there, but we just couldn't put it together."

Doherty mentioned the psychological damage Hampton's unexpected zone had on the team -- three months later and unsolicited. However, he said the games that kept him up at night were Wake Forest at home, at Maryland, at Connecticut and at Wake Forest, which the Tar Heels lost by a combined 111 points.

"Those four games were the games where I was the most frustrated, most discouraged, most depressed," Doherty said. "I felt in those four games we didn't play up to our abilities and we didn't fight. Those were depressing moments during the season."

Many players became short of words and long on frustration. After the 29-point home loss to Duke, the worst in Smith Center history, Capel's exchange with a horde of reporters on deadline at his locker went like this:

Q: What happened when things got out of hand in the second half?

A: You all watched the game. They made shots. We turned the ball over.

Q: Are they the best team you've played this year?

A: Yup.

Q: What did they do out there that gave you guys trouble tonight?

A: Everything.

Q: What did Coach Doherty tell you after the game?

A: Get ready for Georgia Tech.

Q: How does this team put this behind it and go on?

A: It's just something you've got to do.

Poor defense contributed to many of the ugly losses. Next year, with an even younger squad, Doherty intends to concentrate three-fourths of practice on defense and run more motion offense as he did later this season. He had similar plans in mind last off-season before something, well, changed.

"I went into the season thinking that we'd run more freelance and not have as many set plays," Doherty said. "Then just before practice started, my mind frame changed a little bit toward that. I wish I would have stuck with my original plan because I think that would've helped our team." He said he didn't "care to share" what changed his mind.

"Regrets, to me you make the best decisions you can at the time with the information you have. Hindsight's always 20/20. If it works, it's great. If it doesn't work, you say, 'I wish I would have tried it differently.'"

There were moments of celebration, but they came in odd forms.

Picking up Win One in Game Four against Georgia Tech and being 1-0 in the ACC for the next month. A last-minute win against Binghamton. A three-game winning streak against St. Joseph's, N.C. A&T and Texas A&M in December to pull to a .500 record for the only time. Playing a tight, slow-down game with Duke in the ACC Tournament. The biggest of all was winning on Senior Day and denying Clemson's bid for its first win in Chapel Hill. Doherty and the players danced and sang with the student body and band before they left the court for the final time in a season when many of the things that have come to mean North Carolina basketball ended.

"I realized with all the streaks that we broke this year, that was the one that people would have made maybe the most of," Doherty admitted the next week.

Throughout the 2001-02 soap opera, Doherty repeatedly thanked the crowds for their fan support during a most difficult time. The only capacity showings were against Duke and N.C. State, when the red-clad spectators roared much loader than their counterparts.

It was a strange season for sure and a peculiar four years for Capel and Kris Lang, who entered school with Ronald Curry as McDonald's All-Americans.

"It's everything I expected it to be and more," Lang said. "And what I mean by more is this season. You never expected North Carolina to be in this situation, but they were and so I'm glad I was a part of it with these guys."

Some of the guys didn't stick around.

In December, 7-foot-5 redshirt freshman Neil Fingleton transferred. In January, football players Curry and Julius Peppers announced they wouldn't return to Doherty's team. Capel wore their basketball numbers on his shoes throughout the season. During Spring Break, sophomore guard Brian Morrison decided to transfer. Now three juniors and seniors will be here in the fall -- Adam Boone, Jonathan Holmes and Will Johnson.

"Players transfer all the time," Doherty said as he turned around to point out pictures on the wall -- much like in a fraternity house -- of former players who had transferred in the past. "Was that a cause for concern? No. I think kids come here and realize for whatever reasons they want to leave. In some cases, it's a good decision, and I understand that."

Arguably, the biggest change after everything has been said and done has been how the hardships these players went through changed them as a result of losing while wearing that "North Carolina" name on their jerseys.

"It's hard, but life's tough at times," Johnson said in Winston-Salem. "It's just something where you've got to be tough and keep going."

Where the Tar Heels go from here as they again lose their top and most experienced players is what everyone will ponder until the next round of answers comes next year.

"I think the future is going to be great for this program just for the fact that they've learned so much this season," Lang said after already shedding tears following his final collegiate game. "They've built a lot of character with what's happened this year, so that's one great thing with what happened."

Capel, who probably has more pride than any of his teammates, fouled out of that game against Duke and left the floor with emotional goodbyes and hopes that when he's gone, things might change yet again.

"I know he's hurting inside, and he just came to us and hugged every last one of us and told us, 'Don't let this happen again,'" freshman Melvin Scott said. "We told him that we love him. It was a very emotional point in the game, and he just told us to keep playing hard. And then he said that we almost had them.

"Those were his last words, and then he went to the bench."

The Sports Editor can be reached at sports@unc.edu.

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