Originally created 02/28/97

Winning seasons just don't excite Smith anymore



CLEMSON, S.C. - A 20-victory season has long since lost its luster for North Carolina's Dean Smith.

After all, he's done it 27 years in a row.

"It's not something I think about," said Smith, whose eighth-ranked Tar Heels turned the trick with a perfect 8-0 February, capped by Wednesday's 76-69 win over No. 12 Clemson.

"I think because of baseball and baseball people with 20 wins by a pitcher, that may be why it became so important."

Or maybe because if a team wins 20 two years in a row, it's considered a major milestone. Look at the hysteria in South Carolina this season when the state's two major universities - Clemson and South Carolina - achieved 20 wins.

At Clemson, it was a seven-year first. South Carolina, coached by Smith protege Eddie Fogler, hadn't won that many since 1991.

Smith says he learned long ago not to get excited midway through a task. His focus is the Final Four, which he's reached 10 times since coming to North Carolina.

Everyone contributed for the Tar Heels (20-6, 10-5 Atlantic Coast Conference), who stood just 12-6 and 3-5 in the league at the end of January.

Vince Carter scored 20 points, Shammond Williams had nine of his 16 points in the final two minutes and freshman point guard Ed Cota had a career-high 15 points.

North Carolina's turnaround has been fueled by hot shooting. The Tar Heels hit 15 of 26 shots in the second half and finished at 50 percent or better from the field for the 10th time in 12 games.

"We're not a great team, we're not content with the way we're playing," Williams said. "But we're hard players and everything is within reach for us."

But then things always seem to come into Smith's reach. The NCAA championship in 1982 that took seven Final Four appearances to achieve; the second national title in 1993; and, with six more wins, the all-time victory mark of 876 held by Kentucky's Adolph Rupp.

Smith could overtake Rupp this year. If the Tar Heels stay this hot, they could reach several other goals as well.

They close the season at home against Duke on Sunday with a chance for Smith's 18th ACC regular-season title. The next closest active coach is Duke's Mike Krzyzewski with four.

Next comes the ACC Tournament - again, Smith is far and away the record holder with 12 titles.

Then comes the NCAA Tournament.

"Right now we have a lot of confidence in ourselves and are playing 40 minutes every night," Cota said. "I think we were only playing 25 minutes and then letting up."

Smith just acted as if he knew it was coming. It always has in the past, he said.

But why such a dramatic turnaround?

"Maybe this team had more room for improvement," he said.

Williams said it makes him smile that he can show his team's 20 victories to those who wrote off the Tar Heels a month ago.

"Even though we were losing in the beginning, we stayed focused throughout the whole thing," he said. "We're just optimistic about the whole situation. If we continue our hard work, the sky's the limit."