GREENSBORO, N.C. - There are five guys laughing at Antawn Jamison, and not because he's been firing off winning one-liners. They are laughing at his game, giggling as though they are schoolboys and one just taped a ''kick me'' sign on Jamison's back.
He should be above this, right? He is college basketball's player of the year, already clearing room in his parents' home for the Wooden Award, the Naismith Award, the Oscar Robertson Trophy. Jamison should not have to put up with his North Carolina teammates teasing him about how he plays the game.
It's that jumpshot, though. What jumpshot? Good question.
''It just goes in,'' said Tar Heels forward Ademola Okaluja. ''It doesn't matter. It can be pretty. It can be ugly. You can't really describe it.''
You can't really defend it, either, which is why North Carolina finds itself one step short of a record-tying 14th Final Four and fifth this decade. The Tar Heels (33-3) must defeat Connecticut (32-4) tonight at 6 at the Greensboro Coliseum to win the NCAA Tournament's East Regional and earn a trip to San Antonio and the Alamodome.
Jamison has carried the Heels through the tournament with 56 points and 40 rebounds in three victories. How he rules the boards is no mystery: He has great quickness, remarkable leaping ability and a hunger for the ball. How he scores all those points requires some explanation.
Rhode Island 74,
TODAY'S GAMESArizona (30-4) vs.
Utah (28-3), 3:40 p.m.
North Carolina (33-3)
vs. UConn (32-4), 6 p.m.
Jamison will shoot turnarounds and jump-hooks from just about anywhere within a 12-foot radius of the basket. And he sometimes appears to catch the ball, leap and launch his shot in one motion, the whole apparatus operating so fast the defense cannot hope to react.
''Sometimes, I amaze myself. That is something you can really say,'' said Jamison, who is 6-foot-8, 230 pounds and a native of Charlotte. He scores the majority of his points without ever looking directly at the basket as he catches the ball, but also without working to establish the customary low-post position, in or near the lane just a few feet removed from the goal.
''Most people try to prevent me from getting right there on the low block, but I can go out on the baseline or toward the free throw line, and it's almost the same thing,'' he said.
Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun was astonished to see Jamison dunk off a badly thrown lob pass in the Heels' 73-57 regional semifinal win against Michigan State. Calhoun saw him pull the ball off the top of an opponent's head, elevate and then slam. He insists few other players could have made the catch or finished the play.
Calhoun, with six Sweet 16 appearances but still working toward his first Final four, has to devise some means of stopping Jamison with a fullcourt press that has been sporadically effective and without a recent history of playing zone defense.
''I don't think you beat them, with their talent level and experience, unless you bring an incredible energy level to the game,'' Calhoun said. ''We must do that.''
When Jamison and fellow junior All-American Vince Carter arrived at North Carolina, Carter had to endure comparisons to all sorts of gifted wing players, primarily Michael Jordan. Few thought enough about Jamison to compare him to anyone, and now that he's become the nation's No. 9 scorer (22.9 points) and No. 16 rebounder (10.2), it's hard to find anyone he resembles on the court.
''I felt sorry for Vince,'' Jamison said. ''They were projecting him to be the next this or that, and they put a lot of pressure on him. ''I kind of feel for some of the guys when they say, 'His game is like so-and-so.' You can't really do that with me. Nobody else uses their quickness the way I do.''
If he chooses not to play a final season of college basketball, Jamison could be the first player selected in June's NBA Draft. He is one of the few elite underclassmen who has said the league's uneasy labor picture could affect his decision, and he is unsure enough about leaving Carolina to have consulted such players as Keith Van Horn of the New Jersey Nets and Tim Duncan of the San Antonio Spurs to get advice about how staying in school for four years affected their careers.
If he sticks around, he might even have time to develop a conventional jumper. He has pulled the trigger on a few this season, including 13 three-pointers. His .462 percentage is tops among the Carolina regulars, which ought to keep the other Heels from laughing as they do.
''I can recall the first time I got here, they said I had the mechanics to be a great shooter,'' Jamison said. ''They said, 'You're struggling now, but you can learn to be a great shooter.' Dean Smith wasn't laughing when he said this.''