Former UNC Star John Henson Slams NCAA on Twitter

CHAPEL HILL– Former Tar Heel basketball standout John Henson has let the NCAA know exactly how he feels about the delayed decisions on the eligibility of current Carolina players P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald.

Henson, an NBA forward with the Milwaukee Bucks, used Twitter Thursday to criticize the college sports governing body that is working with UNC-Chapel Hill to resolve the eligibility issues involving two of Carolina’s biggest contributors on the court.

A couple of Henson’s hashtags included #TERRIBLE and #ItsGottaStop.

  1. Ok I’m done .. Lol ✌️

  2. …NCAA dangles kids collegiate careers over their heads with no sense of urgency .. #ItsGottaStop

  3. Love how the NCAA picks and chooses which cases to drag their feet on … #TERRIBLE

Kansas, Kansas, Kansas (Ugh!)

It had to be Kansas. Kansas. Kansas.

Roy Williams may be over the heartbreak and heartache his leaving Lawrence caused in 2003, but it’s just getting worse with me. The tweets, emails and blog posts are already out there, claiming that Bill Self has built a better program at KU than ol’ Roy has at UNC over the last 10 years.

Statistics don’t show that (they’re pretty damn even, in fact), but the fact that Tar Heels have now gone home at the hands of the Jayhawks in three of the last six NCAA Tournaments makes it seem that way to a lot of basketball fans.

Both programs have been great all the way back to the Phog Allen and Frank McGuire eras, each having blip periods that caused them to change coaches. But the last 10 years have been basically even-steven, certainly close enough to disavow any notion that one guy has out-coached the other.

Kansas and Self have won more games and have a better record (300-58 for 84%) than Carolina and Williams (282-79 for 78%), but that is largely due to several factors over that 10-year span.

One, Self took over a Kansas team that Williams left in sounder shape than the one Roy inherited from Matt Doherty. Two, the Tar Heels had one dreadful season in the last 10 years, the 20-17 debacle that followed losing four starters off the 2009 national champions. And, three, Carolina’s overall pipeline to the pros has been better than Self’s at Kansas, which ironically has made it worse for UNC.

Thirteen players have been drafted in the first round during the Williams era, 11 of them who left a total of 17 seasons on the Tar Heel table. Compare that to Kansas under Self, which has produced nine first-round picks,   one who left after one year, two who left after two and another two who left after three seasons. If you add Mario Chalmers, the MOP of the 20008 Final Four who was drafted in the second round, the Jayhawks have lost 10   seasons of eligibility in the last 10 years.

As for the NCAA Tournament, Self and Kansas have been there all 10 years but with less results than Carolina and Williams in nine trips. KU has one national championship (’08) and reached another Final Four (2012) and could still improve on those numbers this season. The Jayhawks have gone out in three regional finals, one Sweet Sixteen (and counting), one second round ouster and two embarrassing first-round upsets (Bucknell and Bradley in 2005 and ’06).

Carolina under Williams has those 2005 and ’09 NCAA titles, one other Final Four and three Elite Eight game goners. Sunday’s loss to KU was the third second-round ouster for UNC and Williams, who holds the record of 23 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances with at least one victory. Both Self and Williams have won three national Coach of the Year honors at their current schools.

Their conference records are pretty close, with Self winning a few more regular-season and tournament titles in the Big 12 than Williams in the ACC. But, over that 10 years, the ACC has been the better league top to bottom and won three national championships to KU’s one for the Big 12.

So don’t give me that hoo-ha that Kansas has a better program than Carolina. They are both great. What skews the pooch are those three losses to KU in the three NCAA match-ups, and each one has a story to itself.

At the 2008 Final Four at San Antonio, the Tar Heels were a slight favorite over Kansas after winning both the ACC regular season and tournament and losing only two games all season. But this was the first time Williams faced Kansas, the still-angry KU crowd and all the storylines took away from the game itself.

The Heels played horribly, fell behind by 40-12 in the first half and made a late push that fell short in the 84-68 crusher. Williams (wearing the infamous KU sticker) stayed to watch the Jayhawks win the national championship two nights later, only after Memphis did not foul Kansas with a three-point lead and Chalmers’ dramatic bomb sent the game into overtime.

When the 2012 NCAA brackets came out, Carolina was on another collision course with Kansas in the Midwest Regional, hoping to have John Henson back at full strength from the wrist he sprained in the ACC Tournament. Of course, it got worse after Kendall Marshall went down in the second-round win over Creighton. With back-up point guard Dexter Strickland already sidelined by a knee injury, the Tar Heels were left with freshman reserve Stilman White, who played admirably in the 13-point loss to the Jayhawks in St. Louis.

The committee did it again this season, when it was an even worse scenario for Carolina, which lost two sophomores, one junior and one senior from its 2012 starting lineup that when whole was the only serious threat to Kentucky’s national championship. And the suits sent the Tar Heels to Kansas City (which is like playing Carolina in Greensboro).

By then, UNC had made the NCAA Tournament only due to perhaps Williams’ best coaching job of his 25-year career. Reluctantly, in early February, he scrapped his two low-post offense for a small lineup of four guards and little presence in the paint. The Heels launched and made enough three-pointers to turn their season around and get another NCAA bid, but they went to the Dance living by the long bomb, which was enough to give Williams the hives.

And, yes, they died that way, shooting barely 30 percent for the game and giving in to Kansas’ best half of the tournament thus far. So Carolina under Williams is 0-3 against KU and Self. And, since they will never play in the regular season by mutual consent, it will stay that way until the next time they meet in the NCAA tournament.

With at least five guys 6-9 or bigger next season, Williams will go back to the way he likes to play and, sooner or later, he’ll see his old school again. The NCAA committee seems to like that kind of theater for TV.

Even though, as of this moment, we hate it.


All photography in Hoop It Up is provided 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

Just A Little Bit of History Repeating

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.

You can follow Alexon Twitter @ajcollette

image by todd melet

Art's Angle: A So-So Season Going Nowhere


Looks like it’s another Year of Living Dangerously. In other words, expending our energy rooting against Duke.

We’ve had these seasons before (i.e., 2010), although rarely. When our own basketball team is so young or weak (literally) or mediocre that it is not a safe use of our emotions to pull FOR the Tar Heels as it is to root AGAINST Duke. After losing their second straight ACC game to open 0-2, the Tar Heels obviously are not going very far in the unlucky ides of March ’13. So why not channel our frustration and anger where it can be better utilized: trying to keep the Blue Devils from winning another national championship.

Look at Thursday night’s home loss to Miami on paper, and I don’t mean the stats. The Hurricanes’ roster of 13 players has 10 seniors and juniors. And one of the seniors has been trolling South Beach for five years, another is on the six-year plan! So, as a shell-shocked Roy Williams said after the 68-59 defeat, a lively near-capacity crowd in Carolina blue at the Smith Center wasn’t going to make any waves with the well-seasoned ‘Canes. And their biggest and maybe best player, center Reggie Johnson, didn’t even suit up!

Meanwhile, if there was no such thing as the NBA, John Henson would be a senior, Harrison Barnes and Kendall Marshall juniors. James Michael McAdoo wouldn’t be lost somewhere between post player and small forward and the rest of the Tar Heels wouldn’t be so upset  after only the second time in 16 years (including the completely forgettable 8-20 season) that the Tar Heels opened 0-for-2 in the ACC. History buffs have to go back to 1997, Dean Smith’s last season on the bench, to find an 0-3 ACC start. But that team had future pro names Carter and Cota and Antawn and Shammond and seven-footer Serge who wasn’t afraid to go under the basket and throw someone around. (By the way, that team righted itself by winning 16 straight games, cutting down the ACC Tournament nets and reaching the Final Four. Footnote, don’t make your travel plans for Atlanta this season).

That Tar Heel team also had a couple of guys who went out early (Vince and AJ) but not until the next year. When was the last time Miami lost someone prematurely to the NBA? Hell, the Hurricanes’ greatest player ever — Rick Barry — not only stayed four years, he married the coach’s daughter!

After the game, ol’ Roy continued his flimsy reasoning about his players not transferring what they do on the practice court to the game floor. Listen, if your first seven or eight aren’t up to Tar Heel standards, they are in jeopardy of building false confidence trying to get better against worse players. So, it’s like a cat chasing its tail. Whatever success McAdoo has against Joel James and Jackson Simmons in practice isn’t going to help much when Miami’s 6-11, 242-pound senior and future pro Kenny Kadji is shooting his herky-jerky jumper over them or steamrolling down the lane for a slam. Or keeping guards Deron Scott, Rion Brown and Shane Larkin (The U’s only sophomore) from making 6 of their team’s other 9 treys.

And when the pressure of a tight game over the first 30 minutes grabs them by the throat, their three best players — McAdoo, Reggie Bullock and P.J Hairston — fire up enough bricks to start a small house and wind up missing 23 of their 37 shots that contributed to the fatal five-minute stretch in which the Tar Heels managed only three points and went from a tie game to watching the crowd head for the Chapel Hills early. This was such a bad ending that the team gets penalized with one practice before a quick trip to Tallahassee where the Seminoles smacked a much-better Carolina club by 33 just about a year ago.

As ugly as the numbers were, they do show HOPE for the future, but probably not this season that will be fortunate to end with a low seed to the NCAA Tournament. In fact, I now have to agree with some Duke dufus who called a local talk show Thursday and said the Heels aren’t going dancing in March. Maybe he’s not such a dumb Duke dufus after all. While senior Dexter Strickland was struck with a zero line in 26 minutes (check the box score if you dare), skinny but skilled freshmen Brice Johnson, Marcus Paige and J.P Tokoto put together their best collective game and helped the Heels stay alive until the dreaded drought down the stretch. Brice’s basket, Tokoto’s tap-in and Paige pretty three from the top of the key kept Carolina in it before it began to counter pressure-packed clangers with Miami’s wide-open 3’s born from defense that hopefully did not translate from practice. Surely they don’t work on staying with the double team so long that the pass recipient gets the ball, looks down at the three-point line to make sure his toes are clearly behind the stripe before draining one of five treys that buried the Heels in the second half.

No, they did not have the injured Lesley McDonald, which gave more minutes to Strickland, Bullock and Hairston, who were all either near tears in the locker room or non-communicado with the media. They all know they have a lot work to do before the flight to FSU and so little time to do it. Meanwhile, two hours prior to the Saturday 2 p.m. tip-off, No. 1 and undefeated Duke plays at No. 20 and offensively gifted N.C. State in Raleigh, a game pitting clearly the two best teams in an otherwise-average ACC this season.

The Blue Devils will be without starting senior forward Ryan Kelly (injured foot), so the Year of Living Dangerously could actually be fun since the Wolfpack should be favored in the game. And State might win, which wouldn’t be a bad way too start would could be another terrible afternoon in Tallahassee.

You can follow Art on Twitter @ArtChansky

Image by Todd Melet

Reason For Optimism

With the 2012-13 season well under way, it’s safe to say there’s a lot to discuss about Carolina Basketball! I look forward to the opportunity to share my perspective on our program, as well as offer a different point of view on other NCAA programs around the country. First of all, let’s start with a few observations about our Tar Heels.

This team is young with a LOT of potential: Joel James is a 6’10” Freshman with raw talent that will improve quickly alongside the coaching staff at UNC. Marcus Paige, a phenomenal player/scorer at the high school level, is adapting his playing style to Coach Williams’ system. It’s tough to compare him to a PG like Kendall Marshall because their styles are so different. Brice Johnson, a 6’9” Freshman out of SC, is incredibly athletic with room to “grow.” J.P. Tokoto is a high flyer that shows sparks of greatness in his limited minutes this year.

The stability on this team stems from Reggie Bullock, Dexter Strickland and a young James Michael McAdoo. Keep in mind that McAdoo came off the bench last year to relieve, arguably, the best frontcourt in college basketball from 2011! When opponents put together their scouting reports last year they were trying to stop Tyler Zeller, John Henson, Kendall Marshall and Harrison Barnes (4 of the top 17 draft picks in last year’s NBA Draft). No one was watching out for the crafty big man that could guard the top of the key for easy steals and break away dunks! Now that every team is gunning for McAdoo, he will have to adapt his game to continue to produce, both offensively and defensively.

Really, the point I’m trying to make is simple… calm down! We haven’t started off undefeated and we haven’t run anyone out of the gym this year, but it doesn’t mean we have a bad team. In casual conversations with friends and colleagues (..and reluctantly checking the message boards…) people are questioning whether it’s time for Coach Williams to step down. Quite frankly, that’s silly! College basketball, specifically recruiting, has changed so drastically in the last 20 years that it’s difficult to have the consistency you saw from teams and programs in the late 80’s and early 90’s. When Dean Smith, Rick Pitino and Mike Krzyzewski were walking into kids’ homes, they were recruiting high school seniors to BACKUP players like George Lynch, Eric Montross, Tony Delk, Antoine Walker, Christian Laettner and Grant Hill. You didn’t see nearly as many freshman having an immediate impact on the court (yeah, I know Michael Jordan won a championship his freshman year so there are exceptions to the rule).

With Social Media, YouTube and all internet news sources nowadays, college fans know more about an incoming freshman than ever before. The expectations are set so high that it can be nearly impossible to live up to the hype. And in reality, most “5-Star” recruits ultimately want to end up in the NBA, and they use the NCAA as a stepping stone to reach their goals. Kids aren’t typically recruited to top programs these days and expected to stay for 4 years.

A perfect example is UK’s National Championship team from last year that started three freshman and two sophomores, all of which declared for the NBA Draft following the season (this season they are 9-4 and we are 10-4: Striking similarities)! Take a step back and realize that when you have 4 of the top 20 NBA prospects on your team and they leave, you most likely won’t follow that season with a National Championship. Coach Williams and his staff are still doing a great job, and the bar should still be set higher than any other program, but the reality of college basketball is – You can’t win it all every year!


image by Todd Melet

Too Early To Call It

Man, oh, man, let’s not give up on our freshmen and young players. After my first few games at Carolina, some of the newspapers were writing, “Is this Ford an Edsel?”

Anytime you lose four players from your team who were drafted in the first round, it’s going to affect the team that is coming back. And that’s not age as much as the contribution they’ve made in the past.

We really don’t have anyone back who was counted on to make the big basket, the big assist, or get the key rebound. Transitioning from a role player doesn’t happen overnight, and developing chemistry with a new group takes some time.

If Kendall, Harrison or John Henson all came back, the chemistry would have been evident from day one, but starting over from scratch takes time. James Michael is getting a lot more attention than he did when playing with Harrison, Henson or Zeller.

We have the talent, and they’re all good kids who want to win. But they were all role players or substitutes in the past. Becoming a leader or go-to guy has to develop over time, especially if you have players were once great scorers in high school who might say, “I’ve done this in the past, so I can do it again.”

I do think we have the pieces — people who can defend, rebound and shoot, although we didn’t shoot well Sunday night at Virginia. But we run good stuff offensively and defensively, and we’ve been winning for a long time so you know it works.

We won’t lose confidence. Roy and his assistants are too good as coaches to let the team lose confidence. As I said, we have the system that has worked in the past and they will find a way to make it work again.

You have to give the other team and THEIR defense credit. It depends who we have in the game. With some of our big guys, teams are going to give them the outside shot. And that makes it more difficult to get the ball closer to the basket, which is always our first option.

Coach Smith used to say, “The other team has coaches, too.” What he meant by that is that they are scouting us and know our strengths and weaknesses, and Carolina is always going to get the other team’s best shot on the road, whether we’re winning or ranked or not.

Another thing Coach Smith always said was we’re creatures of habit. So we have to develop good habits and then react to the situation. If you have to think too much on the basketball court, you’re going to get beat. And Coach Williams has always been about just playing and reacting to the situation.

He does what he does, likes the high tempo and to push the ball up the court. But if you realize your team can’t do that as well as you want, do you change the way you play and try to win games now or try to keep getting the players to improve so it will pay off in the long run? I know this: Coach Williams doesn’t like to lose, so he’ll make some adjustments. But up-tempo is still his game.

And, remember, it’s a long season and Carolina teams always get better as season goes along, unless there is an unfortunate injury like we had at the end last year.

We’re also playing four freshmen, who take in so much at the beginning and have some success while they’re learning. But with most freshmen, that plateaus when competition gets tougher and some hit a wall. Going into other arenas in the ACC is always tougher, whether your team is good or bad, young or old. It comes down to a matter of poise, playing consistent defense and scoring enough points.

We have capable scorers in McDonald, Hairston, Strickland and Bullock, and I think Marcus is a good shooter. But except for Reggie, they haven’t shot it well yet consistently. If one kid has it going that night, we will look to get him the ball with screens and plays and try to ride him.

And we definitely need to get to the basket and get fouled. It’s hard to win games without shooting free throws. In our history, we’ve lived on making more free throws than the other team attempts. It’s an important part of our history, and I’m sure we’ll get back to that.

But it’s still early, so let’s all be patient.

Phil Ford was a three-time All-American at UNC, 1978 ACC Player of the Year and went on to be the NBA Rookie of the Year and an NBA all-star.

(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.

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.