Together We Are Carolina

After getting blown out by 26 against Miami on Sunday, expectations for Wednesday night were low…well, as low as possible for a game against Duke. Rivalry games are special, and no rivalry is more special than Carolina-Duke. The records don’t matter, the rankings don’t matter; nothing really matters except those forty minutes on the court. Each game is the manifestation of generations of mutual hatred, and in our extreme loathing of that school eight miles down the road, we consistently anticipate winning, no matter the odds.

But boy, did the odds seem against us on Wednesday. Gathered with roughly ten of my good friends in the back of the Varsity Theater on Franklin Street at about 8:15 PM, I was a bundle of nervous apprehension. It seemed a potential recipe for disaster: A young, inconsistent Carolina team that has struggled on the road going into Cameron Indoor to take on a Blue Devils squad that was ranked either number one or number two, depending on which poll you prefer. The theater grew marginally more crowded as game time drew closer, but the fear of getting destroyed and having a depressing walk home probably kept students from going out on a chilly weekday evening. As tip-off neared, the theater was maybe half-full and fairly quiet, providing a stark contrast to the Cameron Crazies on screen that were screaming and yelling (obscenities at the Carolina players, I’m sure).

And right at that moment, Twitter alerted me to a shocking surprise: “@KButter5 Varsity theater. we live.” After doing a quick scan, we quickly realized that Kendall Marshall, the former Tar Heel point guard/legend and a first-round pick in the most recent NBA Draft, was sitting alone at the front of the theater. Naturally, we did what any self-respecting UNC basketball fans would do and asked to sit with him during the game. He graciously obliged, perhaps because the majority of our contingent was female, but graciously nonetheless.

Taking in the biggest game of the year thus far with Kendall was an amazing experience. Though we tried not to bother him too much, it was hard not to basically interrogate him given his experience with the rivalry and his special place in Carolina basketball history. With Cameron rocking per usual, we asked him if it was really as hard a place to play as people make it out to be. Apparently so, as he replied that, “It’s just so loud. You don’t even understand. I could be sitting next to you talking just like this, and not only could you not hear me, but I couldn’t even hear myself.”

As the game began and we settled in, I did my best to restrain my curiosity with the campus celebrity and to just watch the game. The Tar Heels were making that easy for the first time all season. In arguably the biggest coaching move of the year, Roy decided to start a four-guard lineup against Duke, with PJ Hairston replacing Desmond Hubert. Part of the team’s early success may be attributable to the adrenaline rush of playing in such a big game, but the lineup switch appeared to greatly improve floor spacing and really open up the offense. Guys had lanes to attack the basket, which gave shooters the room to catch kick-outs and shoot, which in turn got defenders to bite on pump fakes, opening up more lanes…I think you get the picture. The end result was a number of early dunks and threes for the Tar Heels that fueled a hot start. Meanwhile, Duke struggled at the offensive end, hitting just one three-pointer in the first half. Even inside, where Duke should have conceivably had an advantage against a small UNC lineup, star forward Mason Plumlee struggled against the suddenly-spirited defense of James Michael McAdoo. Fifteen minutes of solid basketball combined with five mediocre ones as the half was drawing to a close left Carolina with a four point lead at the break.

Everyone knows what happened in the second half, as Duke eventually started knocking down outside shots and the Heels had difficulty scoring, especially from the free throw line down the stretch. There were some bad calls from the referees, to be sure, but you couldn’t expect anything less with the game being played in Durham. We had every opportunity to win, but just couldn’t take full advantage, which made it particularly frustrating to lose. Still, I was happy to be upset about the reasons that we actually lost, as opposed to the reasons about which I was expecting to be upset. I’m not a big believer in the idea of moral victories, but this was one if there ever was. UNC showed a great deal of heart and a lot of promise heading into March, with PJ’s emphatic dunk at the close of the game serving as a warning to future opponents that this is really a different team from the one that started the year.

As the final score flashed on the bottom of the screen, I couldn’t help but allow my thoughts to drift back to Kendall. I found myself surprised by the degree to which he was an ordinary fan. He raised his arms in anticipation of threes going in. He groaned in frustration at missed jumpers and layups. He cursed out the officials for not calling violations on Duke. He superstitiously told everyone to stay in the same seats after halftime to maintain the good karma we had for the first half. He jumped out of his seat on McAdoo’s ridiculous reverse dunk near the start of the second half, whooping and hollering in excitement. He was nervous and tense during the final minutes, urging his boys to play defense, to score, to push the ball, to find a way to win. He was on edge for every play, just like every other Carolina fan. Most importantly, when it was all over, he stood up with everyone else, put his arms around our shoulders, and sang the alma mater. Truly, in that moment, he was one of us.

I’ve written previously about the bond between the Carolina basketball team and the student body. It’s hard to define it or explain it to someone that hasn’t experienced it, but it exists. You could feel it in the theater that night as we shouted “Go to hell, Duke” at the top of our lungs, even if no one could hear us. It was palpable again on Saturday at the Dean Dome as we applauded Tyler Zeller in recognition of his jersey in the rafters, honored Lennie Rosenbluth for his impressive efforts in the NCAA Tournament, and cheered thunderously for Marshall, John Henson, and Tyler Hansbrough when they were shown on the Jumbotron.

There was even something in the air as PJ Hairston continued his ascent to leadership with a spectacular game against Virginia. As he was sparking the second-half charge to clinch a huge conference win, you could feel fans adopting him as a hero, preparing a place for him in Carolina lore. It’s an extremely unique relationship, one that only takes place when fans and players come together just so. That’s why together, we are Carolina.

image by todd melet

A Hot, Snowy Day On The Hill


Maybe it has to be freezing outside for the Tar Heels to get hot inside. That was certainly the case on a cold and snowy Saturday, when Carolina played perhaps its best game of the season and, at long last, shot the lights out in the second half of a 93-81 win over Virginia.

Great entertainment before an appreciative full house that braved the bad weather to make the high noon tip at the Smith Center. Not quite the journey made by Roy Williams, who flew to Minnesota Friday night to offer a scholarship to  6-5 recruit  Rashad Vaughn  and got back at 2:30 in the morning.

A second straight start for P.J. Hairston could not avoid another slow start for the Heels, who fell behind by 10 with some very casual defense before Williams read them the riot act during the first two TV timeouts.

But while the clamp-down “D” produced eight points off turnovers and a 5-0 dominance on the offensive board put Carolina ahead, Virginia finished its own torrid first-half with a 35-foot heave to tie the game at the horn. Get this: it was Jontel Evans’ second three-point attempt of the season and it may very well be his last. That’s how hot were the Wahoos.

The showcase event had already introduced UNC’s national championship indoor women’s tennis team, and at halftime Tyler Zeller received the 2012 Patterson Medal, the university’s highest student-athlete honor and then had his No. 44 jersey retired to the rafters as ACC Player of the Year, All-American and 2009 national championship team member. Clearly, a 7-foot thrill for the Cleveland Cavaliers rookie, who made his own late-night flight from Houston where he had played in the NBA Rising Stars game Friday.

Zeller’s parents also flew from Indiana to watch him be feted, missing their youngest son Cody’s game (IU against Purdue). On NBA all-star weekend, rookie cohorts Kendall Marshall and John Henson along with Tyler Hansbrough were     in the house, with the original Tyler and UNC legend of lore Lennie Rosenbluth receiving honors of their own for being, well, themselves.

Whatever, it was a great day – as they say – to be a Tar Heel.

In the second half, after the Tar Heels opened with an 8-0 run, it was basically Carolina by committee versus Virginia’s splendid Joe Harris, who came across the country from a town of 400 with his coach to play in the ACC. Harris scored 13 of his team’s first 17 points.

Hairston chaired the committee to finish with 29 points, a personal college high and the most any Tar Heel has scored this season. But he was only one of the group that countered Harris’ best college game (27 points on 10-for-13 shooting). While Harris scored 20  in the second half, he was answered by Hairston, Reggie Bullock, Marcus Paige and Dexter Strickland each time. As the temperature  dropped  outside, the Heels got hotter, hitting 7-of-11 three-pointers that helped them climb to just under 50 percent for the game.

Defense- and tempo-minded Virginia gave up the second most points since coach Tony Bennett left his heart almost a     thousand miles north of San Francisco (Pullman, Washington, actually) and 24 more points than his Cavs have allowed in any other game this season.

In fact, the Tar Heels scored one more point in the second half (53) than they did in the entire 61-52 loss in Charlottesville last January. The 53   were  also more points than Virginia allowed in 10 other complete games this season.

The Cavaliers came to town No. 2 in the nation in scoring defense, but finished hanging their heads in discouragement as Carolina kept pouring it on, leading at one point by 18 on Hairston’s last of six three balls, another college career high. In two straight starts, the 6-6 sophomore from Greensboro has totaled 52 points and 15 rebounds.

Check out the box score and you will find more impressive numbers besides four Tar Heels in double figures and James Michael McAdoo scoring 9 to go along with his 10 rebounds. Paige is officially no longer playing like a freshman and senior Strickland had six assists, one turnover and several coast-to-coast sprints to nifty lay-ins. With J.P. Tokoto down to three minutes and Desmond Hubert on the court for only one, Williams may have found his eight-man rotation, which includes Leslie McDonald, Brice Johnson and  Jackson of-all-trades Simmons.

All the analytics have shown the Tar Heels are better the longer Bullock and Hairston play together, so for now it looks like four guards and JMM, even though the hunky Hairston is far more than a guard. He goes to the glass like a power forward as well as firing his quick-trigger three. And his defense apparently has reached the level ol’ Roy wants it.

Before the game, Carolina was the “last one out” in the latest NCAA bracketology. But the win and Kentucky’s loss not only makes the Tar Heels an NCAA team (for the moment) but gives them an inside track on a top-four finish in the ACC, which means they would get Thursday off at the tournament in Greensboro. Still conjecture, of course, there is  much work to be done this week.

First comes a trip to Georgia Tech Tuesday night, where top-four teams should beat bottom-feeders, and then the anticipated rematch with the Wolfpack on more friendly footing. Warmer weather is forecast Monday-Friday, but maybe it will start snowing again by 4 o’clock Saturday. The Heels will have to be just as hot as they were a week before – and not  so generous on defense — to send State home howling in agony.

“You can’t let a team shoot 58 percent against you and win very often,” Williams said in a serious understatement. It was the highest percentage allowed by the Tar Heels in  victory since he’s been back in Chapel Hill. 

Photo by Todd Melet

Bye Bye, Big 10 Terps

Amidst the chaos that has become college athletics, Carolina defeated Maryland Saturday in truly a tale of two halves. The Tar Heels played perhaps their best 20 minutes of basketball to begin the game and ended with perhaps their worst.

Depending on when they officially bolt for the Big 10 and the 2014 basketball schedule, this could well have been the Terrapins’ last trip to the Dean Smith Center as a member of the ACC. Maryland coach Mark Turgeon, a Kansas protégé of both Larry Brown and Roy Williams, took what he considered to be one of the best jobs in the country two years ago. When the Terps, along with Rutgers, join the Big 10, who knows what kind of a job it will be.

For sure, trips to Columbus, Ann Arbor and Iowa City will never match those January games in a warm climate on Tobacco Road. And the load of talent in the Metro Washington-Baltimore area will surely have second thoughts about playing in an unfamiliar conference as opposed to the rivalries they’ve been watching all their lives.

But it’s all about money these days, and Maryland’s athletic department had to stave off bankruptcy by dropping seven varsity sports before opting out for the Big 10, which has guaranteed the university at least $20 million more per year than the ACC in television revenues beginning in 2017. The Terps promptly reinstated four of those sports.

So when the near-capacity crowd at the Smith Center began cheering “ACC! ACC!” at the end of Carolina’s 62-52 victory, it was clear that Maryland is a lame duck. And Turgeon’s Terps were pretty lame in the first half, committing 15 turnovers that the Tar Heels converted into 14 points while Reggie Bullock was single-handedly outscoring them.

Bullock came out firing, hitting two “3s” and a regular field goal before Maryland could even hold onto the ball long enough to attempt a shot. Bullock had UNC’s first four field goals as his 21 points in the first half were more than Maryland’s team total (42-20) and had the fans amped for a blowout and perhaps a chance to get out into the spring weather a little early.

The Tar Heels also duplicated the aggressive defense they played three weeks before against UNLV, stealing the ball from the shell-shocked Terps nine times. Maryland made nine field goals, went 0-7 from the arc and, frankly, was lucky to be down just 22 at the half. The crowd got further aroused by an appearance from the 2012 UNC football team, which is calling itself the ACC Coastal Division champions after finishing in a three-way tie with Miami and Georgia Tech.

Having already printed up t-shirts boasting as much, it seemed a little defiant since NCAA sanctions kept the gridders out of the post-season. But there is so much unrest and speculation about the future of the ACC these days, reminding UNC that it wasn’t eligible to win anything last season seems like a waste of time and energy. Will there even be an ACC title to compete for in the next few years? If not, maybe Maryland made the right decision to get out while the getting was good. Aside from the money, the Terps can resume their once-heated football rivalry with Penn State, which has won 35 of the 37 games they used to play. Ouch.

The second half was a reversal of fortunes as Carolina made just one more three (from Bullock, his only points of the period) and missed 26 of its 34 shots. Maryland kept clawing around and turned it over only six times, allowing the Terps to make a moderate late run. In fact, if P.J. Hairston had not rebounded James Michael McAdoo’s missed free throw and fired it out to Marcus Paige for his sixth assist to JMM underneath, Maryland might have really made it interesting.

The Tar Heels are improving individually but as a team still look pretty lost on offense. When Bullock is getting his college high (24) and McAdoo is recording a double-double (19 and 11), they can be “pretty doggone good,” as Roy Williams said afterward, choosing to focus on the first half and not the second. But when the shots stop falling and the offense bogs down, the 35-second clock is their enemy and the lane starts to look like the subway at rush hour.

Freshman J.P. Tokoto hit his only shot and was the lone Tar Heel to make more than he missed. They continued their dogged defense, especially against Ukrainian seven-footer Alex Len, who was held to 10 points and five rebounds. The pivot committee of Desmond Hubert, Joel James and Brice Johnson managed to contain Len, who will be playing in the NBA some day.

The pro draft could bypass Carolina completely, which only bodes well for those regulars returning, those substitutes improving and those recruits coming. The Tar Heels are scrapping for their lives as they try to make scoring easier than hitting from outside. As the hot-cold Bullock proved, it’s still a game where the sum must be better than the parts.

Image by Todd Melet

A Whole New Year

One of the most difficult aspects of being a sports fan is growing accustomed to change. Professional athletes frequently switch teams as opportunities for more money, better nightlife, and nicer weather present themselves; rare is the player that remains in one city for his/her entire career. As player movement during free agency has increased, it’s become more problematic for fans to invest in the relatively one-sided relationships that they form with players.

College sports are unique because a student or an alumnus can form a bond with players and teams without such concerns. With the exception of transfers, college players can’t change teams. They are forever a part of the university that they attend. Because the college experience is so special for most students, many identify strongly with their alma maters, even in adulthood. Some of the best memories that students have relate to sports, and it’s consequently natural for alumni to feel so powerfully about their schools’ sports teams.

Being a UNC fan is no exception. Carolina is a place with tremendous school spirit and a rich tradition of athletic successes, particularly on the basketball court. It is no wonder, then, that fans cheer loudly during timeout videos in which former stars introduce themselves and then declare “I’m a Tar Heel.” The history and the sense of community associated with UNC basketball are nearly unmatched, and students of the last two years have been fortunate in watching a team featuring four first round picks in the most recent NBA Draft. Kendall Marshall, Harrison Barnes, John Henson, and Tyler Zeller will always be a part of us. They are Tar Heels.

The problem with making those eternal bonds is that while certain players may live forever as Tar Heels in our hearts, they can’t play for UNC anymore. The recent departure of the aforementioned draft picks has meant that a number of relatively inexperienced players are now receiving a lot of playing time. Watching freshman benchwarmers mature into upperclassmen superstars, parallel to one’s own personal development during college, can deepen the connection that binds students to athletes; just look at Tyler Zeller, who went from injury-prone role player to fan favorite, ACC Player of the Year during his career.

Unfortunately, that development process can also be frustrating, especially if a whole bunch of guys are going through it together. This seems to be the present state of affairs, with underclassmen Marcus Paige, Joel James, Brice Johnson, and Desmond Hubert attempting to adjust to the speed and intensity of the college-level game. At a place like Carolina, where expectations are always high, many students and fans are quick to criticize the team when things are not going perfectly. This year is no exception. It’s easy to get upset when ESPN flashes the “Guys Who Left A Gaping Hole in Carolina’s Team” graphic, showing the four players that left last year. This is a new season, though.

UNC has shown us both sides of the coin as we’re set to begin conference play. Beating a good UNLV team in December with Reggie Bullock sidelined by a concussion, the Heels demonstrated that they are capable of playing with any team on any given day. Unfortunately, this squad is also remarkably inconsistent. In losses to Butler, Indiana, Texas, and Virginia, UNC has struggled with sloppy turnovers, poor shooting, bad perimeter defense, poor communication, and a seeming lack of effort at various points.

For fans accustomed to dominating at the highest level, the growing pains have been unsurprisingly difficult to cope with. It’s not easy to be patient when NC State is better than they’ve been in years and when Duke is the top-ranked team in the country, but only time will tell how good this team truly is. For now, the perspective I hope students will adopt is this: Sometimes you need to struggle in order to achieve success.

You can follow Andrew on Twitter @andrewdarvin

(image by Todd Melet)

Heels Lose ACC Opener

This one stuck to the script. Virginia’s slow pace and physicality on defense gave UNC’s young players the trouble most analysts predicted as UNC tallied their lowest total of the season, attempted only 50 field goals (20 less than their average), shot 37% from the field and generally looked lost.

But it would be wrong to blame all of that on Virginia. With the way they were playing, the Tar Heels wouldn’t have scored on anyone, Tony Bennett-coached or not. “I don’t think I want my 6’10 freshman big man taking fade-away jumpers,” said commentator (and former Dukie) Jason Williams, making the understatement of the century after a Joel James miss.

But it’s hard to blame James when his senior leader, Dexter Strickland, is doing the same. UNC’s best slasher but also a possible candidate for weakest shooter, Strickland jacked up fifteen footers all night. Down three with two and a half minutes left (in what now feels like the biggest play of the game) Dexter again decided it was best to employ his shaky fade-away jumper. The shot bricked off side iron and Virginia responded with eight straight points to put the game out of reach. Strickland—UNC’s only hope to get ever to the rim in the half-court set—finished his twenty-eight minutes without drawing a free throw.

If the Tar Heels continue to execute this poorly, cries for PJ Hairston and Brice Johnson to see more playing time are only going to grow, as both scored on their first shot immediately after coming into the game. The player currently keeping Brice on the bench, Desmond Hubert, did match Johnson in almost every statistical category, but that doesn’t mean much when you consider Johnson spent half as many minutes on the court. Brice remains one of Roy’s most productive players (by far) when he can get in the game — leading the team in points scored per minute on the season.

The common argument for Johnson’s lack of playing time has been his inconsistent defense, but that reasoning begins to erode when the rest of the Tar Heels aren’t holding their own on that side of the court either. UNC’s defense allowed easy points at the basket all night and Roy’s Boys haven’t been this devoid of a shot blocker since at least 2008.

The Heels are going to have to make up for their lack of defense at the rim with some semblance of toughness if they want to make any noise this season. “Tough” is an intangible buzzword that gets thrown around too much these days, but when you’re outrebounded, out-stealed, out-blocked, and out-free-throwed, it’s hard to argue with.

No one expects a young team to play tough on the road this early but players like McAdoo and Strickland are going to have simply play smarter basketball. The Tar Heels are plenty talented—dangerous at times even—and can still make a run if they start doing the little things.

One Tar Heel who seems to get it at this point is Reggie Bullock, who validated Roy Williams’ statement last week that he has been the Heels’ best player. Bullock was on fire from the beginning and finished with 22 points on 7 of 9 shooting, five rebounds, no turnovers and huge bucket after bucket down the stretch.

The Tar Heels cannot afford weak games out of the junior wing. Period. Bullock has shown a propensity to hit some big shots in his career, and that’s going to have to continue.

Sunday night was foreshadowing for what can happen to a young team, but that doesn’t have to follow the Tar Heels all season. This one is as cliched as it is true: UNC just has to play better. All the talent is there. In the end the Tar Heels’ fate will be determined by their decision-making.

You can follow Jordan on Twitter @BlackFalcon_net

(image by Todd Melet)

The Skinny Boys

During the most critical stretch of UNC’s alphabet soup win over UNLV Saturday, the Tar Heels denied the Running Rebels three chances to take back the lead they had held only once briefly earlier in the second half.

Thrice the Rebs had the ball down one point and, thrice, the Heels denied them the go-ahead basket before Marcus Paige widened the margin with a pair of free throws.

At the time, Carolina was giving up about 25 pounds per man to the beefy ballers from Sin City. The “skinny boys” held forth until their star James Michael McAdoo recovered from a leg cramp that had the UNC medical staff pulling and stretching and kneading his right leg at the end of the bench.

McAdoo’s return gave the good guys a little more girth but, in general, it was the heavies from Vegas versus the middleweights from Tobacco Road in pretty much a must-win situation for a team playing without its best player (according to Coach Roy Williams after the game).

“People close to our program know that Reggie (Bullock) has been playing better than anyone on the team,” Williams said, coughing through a press conference during which ol’ Roy insisted he felt better than he sounded.

Bullock sat out the game in a dark suit that looked funereal, considering the 20th-ranked Rebels came to town with a better team than the one that shocked the unbeaten and top-ranked Tar Heels 13 months ago just off the strip.

Without the 6-7 Bullock, their best outside scorer and perimeter defender, what chances did they have of avoiding a 9-4 record that would have included disheartening defeats to all the decent teams they played?

But, as The Legend used to say, Dean Smith liked his chances for the first game after a key player went out because the team would band together to make up for his loss. No more than one game, mind you, and thankfully Bullock’s mild concussion will be healed by the time Carolina goes to Virginia next Sunday for the ACC opener.

In Bullock’s absence, and with 270-pound Joel James essentially sitting after his two foul-two-turnover-two-minute stretch in the first half, the skinny boys had to find a way. And they did, hoping the 79-73 victory in a jammed-packed Smith Center will give them the confidence to defend their legacy when league play commences for 18 straight ACC games.
Williams acknowledged what everyone watching had to notice, the most active, aggressive, arm-waving defense of the season in the first half and a similarly special brand of toughness in the second half to stave off the Rebels’ run from a 15-point deficit late in the first period.

P.J. Hairston, who at a rock-solid 220 is anything but skinny, was the key cog in this exciting victory, UNC’s first over a ranked opponent this season. Hairston started his first college game, played the most minutes (32) ever in Carolina blue and made big shot after big put-back after big steal to demonstrate this sophomore swing man is ready to shine.

As Smith once reasoned, the pick-me-up player will gain and retain confidence when the absent player returns in what he termed a “good injury”. Short but sweet for the guys who stepped up. And a happy Hairston wasn’t the only one.

Let me count the pounds.

Desmond Hubert, who is listed at 220 which must be soaking wet with ankle weights, had his best college game – relatively speaking. Hubert may begin but he never finishes if the team has to protect a lead because he makes about one free throw every full moon. During his 20 minutes, the player who starts because (according to Williams) no one has taken the five spot away from him, actually made one rim-rattling free throw and an actual back-to-the-basket semi-power move from the low post, plus he recorded a college high of three blocks (two on UNLV’s first possession).

The skinniest boy for his 6-9 size, freshman Brice Johnson, again made the most of his 15 minutes of fame. The wispy 187-pounder shot 6-for-8, grabbed four rebounds (three on the offensive end) and added three steals by sticking out a chicken wing at the right time. He is already more polished on the offensive end than, say, John Henson was as a freshman, and he looks less lost on defense with every game.

Fellow freshman J.P. Tokoto, who is 6-5 and tips the scale at 185, had a memorable 11 minutes, hitting his only shot on his one offensive rebound and also fed Johnson for one of his hoops. Tokoto will be a player someday if he splits his time between practice, the weight room and training table. Plus, late night pizza wouldn’t hurt.

The skinniest minny is southpaw Paige, who is listed at a generous 157 pounds. But he’s getting better by the ounce and had a helluva game with a couple of sweet tear drops, six free throws, four assists and a dogged defensive effort on UNLV senior point guard Anthony Marshall, who had 15 points and eight assists but did not dominate like last year. And every little bit helped.

Underrated Dexter Strickland, who weighs 185 which is okay because he’s only 6-3, continues to advance as a senior leader, scoring (game high 16 points) and sharing the point guard duties as an improving ball handler who gets to the free throw line (6-8).  Strickland had five field goals, including perhaps the most critical hoop of the game when he recovered the ball after a steal attempt and hit a 12-footer in the lane that pretty much sealed UNLV’s second loss of the season.

No, no, I haven’t forgotten props for McAdoo, who scored six straight points after Vegas had taken its ONE lead of the game. JMM, who needs more muscle to be a truly effective power forward, missed 7 of his 8 shots in the first half while trying to contain UNLV’s Anthony Bennett, who is 240 pounds and looks like a 40-year-old freshman already being compared by Rebel fans to Larry “Grand MaMa” Johnson from the Tark the Shark era.

McAdoo came back to make 4 of 5 in the second half, all of them needed because Vegas was getting hot at the craps table, tossing in 5 of 7 three-pointers while trying to double down with a win the Rebels fully expected to get when they arrived.

Obviously, they did not count on the skinny boys carrying their weight.

Abuzz About Basketball?

It’s not unusual for Chapel Hill to be abuzz this time of year over several local sports teams. It is, however, weird that Carolina Basketball is not one of them.

UNC field hockey played for yet another national championship two weeks ago, losing to Princeton 3-2. The Tar Heel men’s soccer team is a solid favorite over 16-seed Indiana tonight on Fetzer Field at 6 p.m. (on WCHL) to reach the College Cup and try to defend its 2011 NCAA championship. The women’s team is already in the soccer Final Four, facing top-seed Stanford in San Diego later tonight (on ESPNU) for a chance to play for UNC’s and Coach Anson Dorrance’s 22nd national championship Sunday afternoon.

And Carrboro High School football, the modern-day version of Remember the Titans, has this town atwitter (even if you don’t tweet). The Jaguars, 15-0, are more like the Mighty Mites with only 28 players on the varsity roster, many going both ways for Coach Jason Tudryn’s tough guys. They’ll try to complete their dream season Saturday night at Carter-Finley Stadium in Raleigh over South Iredell to win the state 2AA championship. And, remember, Carrboro High has been around only seven years and lost like its first 20 games.

Usually in late November, the big story on the back burner is Carolina Basketball, which has carved up several turkeys on the early season schedule and posted a notable win or two. So far the Tar Heels are 5-2, heading into Saturday night’s home game against UAB, coached by Roy Williams’ former player and long-time assistant Jerod Haase. But after their heroes were blown out by Butler in the first half in Maui and at Indiana in the second half, Tar Heel fans at best are taking a wait-and-see attitude about their 2012-13 team.

Unlike local rivals Duke, which has vaulted to 7-0 and No. 2 in the country behind three senior starters and one great freshman, and N.C. State, which has lots of talent if not toughness at this point of the season, Carolina lacks both leadership and a leathery attitude on the court. Not to mention a low-post game and outside scoring. The Tar Heels are looking far more like the 2010 NIT team than the 2006 surprise, both of which followed national championship clubs that lost most of their scoring, rebounding and passing to graduation and/or early NBA departures.

It’s not like we expected less. More than 50 years of unrealistic expectations around here makes anyone who puts on that light blue and white uniform look good – until they look otherwise on the court. And this team has more problems than either of the aforementioned leftovers. So far, it cannot score much from inside, settling for lower-percentage jump shots, and is guilty of the worst outside shot selection I can remember of any Williams team.  

While the overall stat sheet is respectable, the box scores from the two losses are more telling. In the first half against Butler, when Carolina fell behind by 29 points, the Heels shot 32 percent; in the second half at Indiana, when they missed 17 of their first 18 attempts, they wound up shooting 28 percent. In both games, Carolina had more turnovers than assists, a sure sign that something is amiss. “Good kids trying to do too much,” Williams offers.

Maybe his 10th Tar Heel team can get healthier and happier over the six-game stretch (five at home) heading into ACC play on January 6 at Virginia. After the UAB Blazers (4-3) come East Tennessee (1-3); undefeated but untested East Carolina (5-0) coached by former UNC star Jeff Lebo; a trip to Texas, which is 4-2 but lost to the two teams (Mississippi State and Chaminade) that Carolina blew out in Maui; McNeese State (2-3) and a rematch with UNLV (4-1), which dealt then-undefeated and top-ranked Carolina its first loss last season in Las Vegas.

Of concern is sophomore P.J. Hairston, who missed the Indiana game with a sprained knee and is uncertain for the immediate future. Although Hairston shot only 24 percent from 3-point range last year, he is off to a better start this season, shooting higher percentages from near and far and putting up better numbers in the clutch. He also gives Williams the best option in the small lineup that forged a nice comeback against Butler and helped pull away from Long Beach State on the way to Maui. Otherwise, Roy goes with green freshman J.P. Tokoto.
While Marcus Paige looks like he will develop into a nice point guard, who can score more than departed Kendall Marshall, his wing men have to get their roles down better.  Senior leader Dexter Strickland is a great defender and absolute blur on the break, but he is not an outside jump-shooter. He has missed 7 of his 8 three-point attempts, otherwise is shooting close to 50 percent. And junior Reggie Bullock IS the outside scorer who has to, well, score more from outside. So far, Bullock is hitting 47 percent of his 3s but is 2-for-9 in the two losses against better defenses. He’s also nursing a sore right (shooting) hand from the IU game.
Inside scoring may be the unfixable problem, at least for this season until big Joel James and smooth Brice Johnson mature and recruiting reinforcements arrive next fall. Sophomore Desmond Hubert is getting the start at center but has taken only seven shots and missed all seven of his free throws. Obviously, he’s not in there at the end. And James Michael McAdoo, though more talented, could be facing the same problems that befell Deon Thompson in 2010 after losing his NBA drafted teammates. Getting all the attention in the post as opposed to the fifth scoring option means having to elevate your game and aggressiveness. Thompson could not make the conversion from role player. So far, McAdoo runs the floor and shoots the face up far better than putting his butt to the basket and making a spin or power move.

“Check with me in 60 days,” Williams said before the embarrassment at Indiana. That takes us near the end of January and deep into ACC play. Former coach Bill Guthridge used to say, “If you don’t have it together by February, you probably aren’t getting it together.”

So there is time. But it looks like the learning curve is longer than the Chapel Hill cheering section is used to.

Smoldering Ruins III

Let’s compare the Carolina basketball team that opens the season tonight to the last two that followed mass NBA exoduses. Are the 2012-13 Tar Heels younger and/or weaker than the 2006 and 2010 teams?
The 2006 team that lost the top seven players off the ’05 NCAA champions had one returnee – David Noel – with any considerable experience, if not numbers. Noel did play in all 37 games for Roy Williams’ first national champs as seventh or eighth man, averaging 3.9 points. So Noel was their best returning player.
Byron Sanders and Wes Miller were the only other seniors, and Miller turned out to be a big surprise, sharing the backcourt with freshman Bobby Frasor for much of the season and hitting 44 percent from 3-point range. Obviously, the 2006 team had no returning All-ACC players.

What it did have was a 5-freshmen class headed by Tyler Hansbrough, who turned out to be the most decorated Tar Heel in history – the school’s all-time leading scorer and rebounder, four-time All-ACC first-teamer and pretty much a consensus All-American his entire career. He was also a leader nonpareil.

So with Psycho T stirring that drink, it is now easy to see why the 2006 Tar Heels shocked the world by going 23-6 overall, 12-4 in the ACC including the first of four straight wins at Cameron Indoor Stadium before bowing out to Cinderella George Mason in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

The 2010 team is not fondly remembered for the way it played the last half of the season but, going in, it had higher expectations than the 2006 team. Huh? Yes.

It was young, too, with only two senior scholarship players and 9 freshmen and sophomores. But, relatively, it had a lot more experience than the 2006 team.

Deon Thompson was a returning starter from the 2009 champs. Ed Davis was the ’09 sixth man who, supposedly, could have been a lottery pick had he gone out, too, after his freshman year. Marcus Ginyard, who missed most of the 2009 season, allowing Danny Green to emerge as a star, was back and counted on to join Thompson as the heart and soul of the net-cutting leftovers.

Ginyard never regained any offensive touch, but junior Will Graves turned in a solid season, starting 34 of 36 games as the team’s third-leading scorer and rebounder and its best regular from the 3-point line.

The team was 12-4 at one point, but after blowing a big lead at College of Charleston, went 8-13 the rest of the way, missed the NCAA tourney completely and drove Williams to the brink of suicide even though it did somehow reach the championship game of the NIT. Hardly any consolation there.

Looking back, with more objectivity, what happened to that team is pretty clear. Thompson and Davis seemed like formidable post players, especially with sophomore Tyler Zeller and the Weird freshmen (twins Travis and David Wear, actually). But Davis, the leading scorer and rebounder at the time, missed the last 14 games, Thompson never stepped up to be a tough guy in the paint and sophomore Zeller was still filling out. Larry Drew II was the point guard everyone relied on, unreliably so. Drew II was gone less than a year later, and the Weirds went even sooner.

Williams rebuilt quickly, once the 2010 nightmare ended and the new freshman class arrived. John Henson, Leslie McDonald and Dexter Strickland looked less lost as sophomores and while Graves’ career ended prematurely with a suspension it allowed Williams to settle on a lineup that eventually won two ACC regular season titles and reached the Elite Eight game each year.

The 2012 team, like the ’05 and ’09 national championships, stayed in the top five and only untimely injuries to Henson and Kendall Marshall kept Carolina from what might have been a dream Monday night match-up with eventual national champion Kentucky. Despite not winning it all or even reaching the Final Four, three Tar Heels opted for the NBA draft and joined senior All-Everything Zeller as first-round picks.

So how does what’s left stack up against the smoldering ruins of the 2005 and 2009 national champions?

Well, the team that tips off against Gardner Webb tonight is every bit as young, with only one senior (Strickland), two juniors (Reggie Bullock and returning red-shirt McDonald) and nine freshmen and sophomores. Besides the underrated 6-7 Bullock, there are two sort-of starters back, Strickland before he was injured last season, and sophomore James Michael McAdoo, who replaced Henson while he tried to heal the long left arm of the lane. With the four first-round studs gone, no All-ACC players return.

And while there are no sure-shot pros (except maybe McAdoo) to compare with Hansbrough and Green from 2006 and Davis, Henson and Zeller from 2010, there is plenty of room for ample contributions from the young’uns.

P. J. Hairston will get plenty of minutes, more if he can improve on his dismal 3-point shooting as a freshman. You will love sophomore Luke Davis, a secret weapon transfer from Gardner Webb (hope Davis doesn’t go to the wrong bench tonight) who will share point guard duties with freshman lefty Marcus Paige. And Desmond Hubert will get his shot in the post rotation.

Besides Paige, the other frosh will have to play perhaps before they are ready. Joel James, at 6-10 and a slimmed down 260, is the eventual hope inside, while the much-leaner Brice Johnson has a ways to go. J.P. Tokoto, a 6-5 athlete still learning to play basketball, could be a wild card as a possibility at the 4 spot along with Hairston when Williams decides to “go small” as they say.

Though no one has said anything, my guess is the lineup that runs out to the drum line tonight will be Paige, Strickland, Bullock, McAdoo and James. But at least five others will get significant minutes. The expectations should be tempered while a young team figures it out, but this is Carolina Basketball and last year did not end the way the previous two seasons of mass exodus did. That will make fans more anxious to be good sooner.

The first game with Duke is a lucky 13 weeks away. So there is plenty of time.

The Name Game

Sorry, sports fans, it’s no longer about the name on the front of the uniform. It’s about the name on the back. That has been the case in professional sports since free agency began, but now it has become endemic to college basketball as well.

And who can blame the kids? Look at the numbers for the first round of the 2011 NBA draft:

Selected Guaranteed Rookie Salary Selected Guaranteed Rookie Salary
No. 1 $5,305,080 No. 16 $1,696,920
No. 2 $4,746,480 No. 17 $1,611,960
No. 3 $4,262,520 No. 18 $1,531,440
No. 4 $3,843,000 No. 19 $1,446,440
No. 5 $3,480,120 No. 20 $1,404,000
No. 6 $3,160,800 No. 21 $1,347,320
No. 7 $2,885,520 No. 22 $1,293,840
No. 8 $2,643,480 No. 23 $1,242,240
No. 9 $2,563,320 No. 24 $1,192,440
No. 10 $2,308,320 No. 25 $1,144,800
No. 11 $2,192,880 No. 26 $1,106,880
No. 12 $2,083,320 No. 27 $1,074,840
No. 13 $1,979,160 No. 28 $1,068,240
No. 14 $1,880,280 No. 29 $1,060,560
No. 15 $1,786,080 No. 30 $1,052,760

For that kind of jack, few 19- or 20-year-olds are staying in school, even if they spent a year or two or three with NORTH CAROLINA written across their chests. The two Tylers at Carolina might, as did Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler at Duke. For them, the college experience may have been too rewarding to leave early, or maybe they didn’t need the money as much as most young stars and their families.

But, clearly, the game is changing and only those programs that change with it are going to stay strong or get stronger. Right now, Carolina and Duke look like they are using obsolete plans.

Both have lost one-year players – Carolina Marvin Williams and Brandan Wright, Duke Corey Maggette, Kyrie Irving and probably Austin Rivers. But neither is now restocking fast enough to keep pace, and the Tar Heels or Blue Devils may not be picked to win the ACC next season for the first time in a long time. N.C. State, with young talent already on the roster, is adding more next season.

And it’s not about where a player may be drafted this season; it’s also about where he might go next year if he stays in school.  The domino effect forces some kids to go before they may really want to.

In 2005, Sean May and Roy Williams did not have the conversation that Raymond Felton, Rashad McCants and later Marvin Williams had with their coach during the regular season. They were all dedicated to winning a first national championship for Coach Williams, but Felton and McCants particularly knew that was also their best route to being high first-round draft picks. Though he never started a game as a freshman, Marvin’s talent and potential were obvious to the pro scouts who had him rated as a first-rounder all season. Meanwhile, May insisted he was staying in school.

Then May got on a roll in late February and March, finishing the regular season with 26 points and 24 rebounds against Duke in the nationally televised finale at the Smith Center. His pro stock kept rising through the NCAA Tournament, where he won the MOP in the Final Four after Carolina beat Illinois.

THEN May and his coach had a conversation. Considering he had come off his first completely healthy season in college and he would be returning to a team without a proven point guard and no other incumbent starters, May wondered how his pro stock could possibly be as high as a senior. So he went out, too, and made Carolina the first team to ever have four lottery picks in the same year.

The Tar Heels recovered quicker than expected after losing their top seven players, mainly because they had an incoming freshman named Tyler Hansbrough, and a top-rated recruiting class the year after. An Elite Eight season (2007) was followed by a Final Four (2008) and another national championship (2009).

Carolina lost four starters from 2009 and the next season missed the NCAA Tournament completely. Fortunately, Williams followed up with two more good recruiting classes and only untimely injuries kept the 2012 team from getting back to the Final Four and perhaps winning another NCAA title.

It may not be as quick of a recovery this time, because the model is changing. Kentucky has proven it can compete for a Final Four berth every season with virtually a new team. The so-called one-and-done high school stars, who only go to college because they have to, are no longer labeled as bandit outcasts.

They are simply basketball players who are not revered because they make good grades, but are star ballers. So that is making it okay for players to watch their draft status through their careers and go when it looks like they can maximize their guaranteed first-round money.

Maybe Kendall Marshall doesn’t go out this year if all three of his fellow starters weren’t leaving, threatening his perceived value on a less-talented team next season. Marshall is this year’s May, climbing the draft board late to the point where he almost had to go.

Harrison Barnes stayed a second season and probably hurt himself, because his limitations were exposed as a sophomore and, despite making first-team All-ACC, leaves as a widely considered overrated player compared to his enormous expectations coming in to college. He needs to be careful about his pre-draft workouts or perceived weaknesses could leave him sitting in the green room until late in the first round. According to the chart above, that could cost him a couple of million bucks.

John Henson could have stayed and perhaps improved his current top 20 draft status next season, but debilitating wrist and ankle injuries during the tournaments surely gave him pause. If he got hurt again, he might have been branded as too fragile for the rigors of the NBA.

Carolina now waits on what would be the most devastating loss, freshman forward James Michael McAdoo, who got to shine ironically due to Henson’s injuries. Many pro scouts think he has the most upside of any Tar Heel player already declaring for the draft.

McAdoo’s departure, which could be announced next week, would leave Carolina with zero experienced big men and a front court of raw sophomore Desmond Hubert and incoming recruits Joel James and Brice Johnson. The Tar Heels may be all right at point guard with incoming freshman Marcus Paige, not quite the passer but a better scorer than Marshall, and Dexter Strickland returning to back him up.

But, clearly, UNC is not seen in the same light as Kentucky, where it’s become a haven for one-year stars on their way to the NBA. Coach John Calipari gets them to play together and showcase their talent, which are both assets put toward winning a national championship and getting drafted early.

Two still-unsigned players who fit that mold eliminated Carolina from their consideration – Las Vegas 6-5 forward Shabazz Muhammad and 6-11 center Nerlens Noel from Connecticut, the top two high school stars in the class of 2012. They will wind up at Kentucky or another school that not only supports one-and-dones, but now actively recruits that path.

Carolina and Duke may have to rethink their recruiting strategy or start overstocking their rosters. Because, in the short run, it’s no longer about the name on the front of the uniform.