College basketball, perhaps more than any other sport, lends itself to the drawing of parallels. Whether it be in the comparison of players, coaches, or teams, fans are always looking to weigh the present against the past. This is completely understandable, especially given the highly cyclical nature of the sport. For elite programs, the difference between a successful season and a sub-par one is often dictated by how much talent can be retained from one year to the next. With the flashing lights and prodigious paychecks of the NBA serving as constant temptations, the nation’s top college players annually make a decision to stay or go that determines whether the upcoming season will be boom or bust for their respective alma maters.
Of course, as Carolina fans we all know where this season fits in the college basketball cycle. The departure of four of the starting five players from last year’s squad to the NBA has left a tremendous void to be filled on the hardwood in Chapel Hill. What’s worse, Tar Heel fans everywhere are still trying to rid themselves of the sour taste leftover from an incredibly frustrating and unfortunate turn of events in last year’s NCAA tournament.
But for Roy Williams, trying to rebuild from scratch after a mass exodus of talent is far from a novel concept. This season marks the third time in eight years that the Heels have faced sweeping on-court personnel changes as a result of migrations to the NBA. In the wake of national championship runs in 2005 and 2009, the Heels found themselves in circumstances that almost perfectly mirror those of today, boasting few experienced scorers and plenty of fresh faces.
In 2006, a young Carolina team led by charismatic senior David Noel surprised just about everyone with their success. With Noel holding the reins and a tenacious freshman named Hansbrough doing the heavy lifting, the 2006 squad fought their way to a 23-8 overall record and, in my mind, will always be synonymous with their upset victory over Duke in Cameron Indoor on J.J. Redick’s senior night. What made that team all the more fun to watch was the fact that they lacked any burden of expectation. Having lost seven of their top nine scorers from the previous year, the ‘06 Tar Heels faced something that UNC fans very rarely set: a low bar. Satisfied to have a fresh banner hanging in the rafters, the Carolina faithful viewed each of the team’s 23 wins as icing on the previous year’s cake.
In stark contrast, the 2010 Tar Heels struggled mightily to coalesce into a functioning unit. Though the individual pieces were there (the team’s roster featured seven McDonald’s All-Americans), young talent couldn’t make up for a complete and utter lack of definitive leadership. The team floundered in conference play and ultimately limped to a 20-17 record. Accepting a bid to the NIT, the Heels saw flashes of brilliance from a baby-faced John Henson during a four game win streak that put them in the tournament final against Dayton. The Flyers, though, would prove too much to handle as they sent the boys in blue packing and graciously ended the need for murmured discussion of just what to do with an NIT banner in the Dean Dome.
So now the question asks itself: Will the ’13 Tar Heels emulate the successes of David Noel and company by shaking things up in the ACC? Or will they allow early conference losses to Virginia and Miami to set the tone for the rest of the season and struggle to find any true identity? Many Carolina fans are more than ready to proclaim that the sky is indeed falling and that this year represents “2010 all over again”. After witnessing the toughness demonstrated by the Heels in the final minutes of their recent win in Tallahassee, however, I beg to differ. This team has shown a will to win and a level of composure far greater than that of the 2010 squad.
This is not to say, by any means, that we are where I would like us to be. Though Roy’s boys put on a rebounding clinic during Saturday’s game at FSU, they still struggled with turnovers and poor free-throw shooting. What’s more alarming, they still seem to have no idea how to guard the perimeter or fight around a screen to close out on a 3-point shooter. But on the bright side, these are things that can be worked on.
Despite a lackluster start to the season, I’m far from panicking over this year’s Heels. As fans, we need to be patient as our team endures necessary growing pains. With what they lost in the offseason, it’s completely understandable that this group is a little rough around the edges. I still have confidence in them because I see glimpses of something the 2010 team never displayed: chemistry. In watching our team play you can’t help but sense their camaraderie and feel that they genuinely understand what it means to wear Carolina blue. I believe the Heels will right this ship. But then again, I’m an optimist. I remember 2006.
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