This Saturday morning found me as most have in recent weeks: huddled with my friends in a line outside of the Dean E. Smith center. Congregated under my roommate’s oversized golf umbrella, the half-dozen of us waited beneath a gray Chapel Hill sky and watched as puddles encroached. It was cold and my bed was much too far away for my liking. But everyone present knew that foregone sleep in a dry bed was simply the going rate for a much sought after commodity: revenge.
The Heels had an ax to grind on Saturday and certainly played like it, finally bringing a level of intensity worthy of the name on the front of their jerseys. Though it was far from a perfect performance, the boys in blue made further strides along what has been a steady learning curve as of late.
Freshman Marcus Paige continued to show improvement at the point, notching 8 assists against 0 turnovers and putting up 14 points. Paige looked comfortable running the show in the game’s closing minutes and once again proved himself to be a valuable asset at the charity stripe, knocking down 4 late free-throws to keep the wolfpack out of striking distance.
Of course, Paige’s progression seems to have been expedited by Roy Williams’ decision to go with a smaller lineup. With fewer big men crowding the paint, both Paige and Dexter Strickland have excelled in finding open driving lanes to the basket. Also of note is the sudden reappearance of the fast break. In the 4 games since P.J. Hairston was inserted into the starting lineup, the Heels have fought their way to a 77 to 38 advantage in points off turnovers, indicating that Coach Roy’s four guard experiment has not only paid dividends in the half-court, but in the transition game as well.
The most noticeable transformation on Saturday, however, took place off the court rather than on. Carolina played in front of an absolutely electric crowd that was hungry for payback. For the first time this season the risers behind the basket were filled to the brim, each step stacked two people deep. Student turnout was so high that the cheerleaders (who were somewhat surreptitiously implemented in the front row of the risers during Winter break games and who have, much to the chagrin of the students who wait in line hours before each game’s tipoff, remained there throughout the conference schedule) resumed their original post along the sideline to make room for the horde of blue-painted and, in many cases, rain-soaked undergrads.
The capacity crowd was voracious, exploding with each Tar Heel bucket and making its presence known during each crucial defensive stand. When James Michael McAdoo picked off a lazy pass by Lorenzo Brown at the top of the key and took it the length of the floor for a reverse jam late in the first half, the Dean Dome shook at its foundations. It was the loudest I’d heard the Smith Center since witnessing Harrison Barnes throw down a filthy put back dunk against Kentucky two years ago.
And the noise wasn’t limited to the regular die-hards found along the home baseline. In fact, one of the game’s loudest moments occurred midway through the second half when a “Let’s go Tar Heels!” chant erupted from the student general seating behind the home end-zone and was echoed by just about every Carolina fan in the building.
Stay focused, but stay angry. I like us when we’re angry.
“Big-time basketball” made another stop in Chapel Hill Saturday, and though it isn’t always this way the shaking Smith Center gave nothing up to crazy Cameron, maniacal Maryland and the Wild West venues of the Big 12 that Roy Williams occasionally pines for.
From the moment you saw far more fetching fingers in the air than tickets for sale in the afternoon mist outside, you knew this was going to be some scene inside. If only the game would live up to the hype between these old foes that seem to have a hoops rivalry again after years of domination by UNC, which came in with a 9-0 home record against N.C. State in the Williams era and won 13 of the last 14, 19 of the last 21 and 36 of the last 45 games against the revived Wolfpack.
Far from the half-empty upper decks that drive Williams nuts for lesser games, this resembled Duke’s annual visit in that the seats were filled to the top rows of the biggest on-campus basketball arena in the country. With every tough ticket being had, this crowd was ready to go long before the 4 p.m. tip.
And, as well as the atmosphere, the game between more bitter enemies than respectful foes did not disappoint. For more than two hours on a second straight bad-weather Saturday on the Hill, Carolina was the School of Rock. Even more so than last week’s great win over Virginia, the old girl with the Teflon top that is now 27 years young never shut up.
Sure, it helped that the opponent wore the red-trimmed black unies of a State College that has continually inserted itself into the recent troubles at UNC by hacking into websites, making the message boards buzz with obnoxious opinions and absurd accusations and playing freelance researchers for the local newspaper.
So the early video of Gio Bernard’s touché touchdown return that stunned State last October did not seem like just another football promo to launch 2013 ticket sales. It was far more an up-yours reminder, much like Duke kept showing the Austin Rivers’ dagger for weeks after it cut out Carolina’s heart last season.
The Smith Center itself is having a welcome metamorphosis. Athletic Director Bubba Cunningham found $800,000 to install the electronic ribbon board all the way around the upper deck fascia, where the graphics are pretty cool if not the most creative. And PA announcer Tony Gilliam has finally given UNC that deep, dramatic voice of intonation during introductions and scoring calls that has long been needed and really revs the crowd.
There is no question that, with one lineup change, Williams has made this a much more lovable Tar Heel team. It’s no coincidence that catalyst P.J. Hairston gets the loudest roar during starting lineups, and the fans are both hyped and hopeful that the four-guard alignment so contradictory to Carolina basketball will still produce the expected result come March.
After all, here is a double-post program that did not shoot a free throw for the first 30 minutes and four seconds of the game but had opportunities, albeit missed, to blow State out in both halves of what turned out to be a taught, tense, back-and-forth game. Williams has disdained trying to pound the ball inside to big guys who cannot score from the blocks consistently in favor of a West Coast style of offense that spreads the field, er, the floor.
Alignments aside, ol’ Roy’s young pups are definitely getting better and with three straight victories find themselves one from the magical 20 mark and i n third place (9-5) of the ACC race. This so-called quality win, 76-65, will go a long way toward assuring another NCAA tournament berth for the Tar Heels. Running the table would leave them 13-5 and with a possible top four seed.
They are still not beyond silly mistakes that stop runs and send Williams into sideline gyrations. But the plays they do make are both gutty and great-looking. Like tipping out missed free throws, a lost art with most teams invented by Dean Smith that provide precious extra possessions. And the sneaky overplaying defense that resulted in consecutive steals and snowbirds that opened up a seven-point lead in the first half.
When Carolina widened a six-point advantage to 10 with the first four points of the second half — but missed a chance to make it 16 by blowing two chippies and throwing it away with numbers on the break — Williams unnerved the crowd by using it as a teaching moment. Though he is essentially down to a six-man rotation, he answered the careless stretch by a bizarre bench-clearing with so little firepower that State astutely went to a zone and dared Carolina to shoot.
Marcus Paige, the only starter left on the court who had a stellar day with 8 assists and no turnovers after playing like a true freshman in the first game in Raleigh, answered with one of his two three-pointers. But before Williams could get the regulars back in the game the lead had become a four-point deficit to the extremely talented Wolfpack. The main men had gotten the message, though.
They regained the lead for good on Paige’s second three-pointer and took control of the game with the help of their first trips to the foul line and more big baskets by Paige and Reggie Bullock, who continues his vastly underrated season and looks more like a potential pro every game. The 6-7 Bullock’s 13 rebounds and 3 assists to go with his 5 three’s and 22 points made him the player of this game.
Sir Reginald had eight points in the 18-4 run that settled it, a stretch during which State and particularly C.J. or Calvin or Fester Lester (6 points, 4 rebounds in 30 minutes, for which Hairston’s defense has to get much of the credit) played like a true pack of dogs. Their real star, senior center Richard Howell, and freshman T.J. Warren combined for 23 points and 27 rebounds, and sharpshooter Scott Wood had drained both wide-open and contested treys, but State basically threw in the towel by not pressuring or fouling when the outcome was still in doubt.
By now, the home crowd was roaring its approval for the team with more heart than height and an alternative style of play that would make a retired coach and mathematician proud.
It was also time for the way-cool video that begins with former UNC stars ticking off the number of ACC titles, Final Fours, national championships, etc., and ends with them repeating “THIS. . . , THIS . . ., THIS . . .” and Smith himself completing the phrase:
“THIS is Carolina Basketball.”
On a beautiful, if not sunny, Beat-State Saturday, it certainly was.
This is far more about what Miami did than Carolina did not Saturday afternoon in Coral Gables.
But, don’t kid yourself, what the Tar Heels couldn’t do contributed heavily to their 87-61 blowout to the ACC-unbeaten Hurricanes who, frankly, keep playing like their nickname bearing down on the Final Four in Atlanta. If there is a better college team in the country than Miami, I haven’t seen it. And probably won’t.
Still, it would have helped if Carolina had made more than one of its first eight shots while the ‘Canes were going 5-for-6 out of the blocks. And getting back on defense would have been nice, especially when 6-11, 242-pound Kenny Kadji beat all of the half-hearted Heels down the court for a snowbird.
Fighting through screens instead of giving into them, and getting out on the shooters, might have held Miami to under 58 percent shooting from the arc (15 of 26). And, after proving he’s still not big enough and strong enough to play with true college post men, maybe James Michael McAdoo ought to try a two-handed dunk since his flying one-handers get blocked by real men.
Carolina has a freshman point guard who’s learning the college game. Miami has a sophomore point guard who went to spring training as a kid until Shane Larkin told Barry Larkin he liked basketball more than baseball. The kid has his dad’s athletic DNA and has become the motor that makes Miami a devastating transition team.
The Heels were completely outclassed, the same way the ‘Canes drubbed Duke back in January, and it now looks like the March 2 trip to Durham is the only thing separating Miami from going undefeated in the ACC’s first 18-game regular season. The team that hasn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 2008 and only once in the last 10 years will be one tough out in the Big Dance.
Bronx-born Jim Larranaga, who took George Mason on that magical run to the Final Four in 2006 (beating UNC on the way), has the coaching chops to get his new team back there. The 63-year-old sideline journeyman may have taken one look at the upper class-laden Miami roster and deduced that taking his talents to South Beach was good way to end his coaching career.
The veteran ‘Canes can ’em from outside, bank ’em from the elbow and dunk ’em from down low. And they made it hard for the Heels to get any good looks inside of 20 feet, where Carolina avoided complete obliteration by hitting 5-of-11 three-pointers (three from P.J. Hairston) in the first half. But Miami scored 12 points on Tar Heel turnovers, and once the lead was in double digits, there was no comeback coming. We knew it. Carolina knew it and Miami would not allow it.
The U moved to 10-0 in the ACC by shooting 55 percent and holding Carolina to 39, limiting the Tar Heels to a season-low six trips to the foul line by keeping them out of the bonus in both halves of a fast and physical game. As discussed ad nauseam, Carolina has no low post play and cannot create the usual number of free throw attempts.
With Lebron James and D-Wade watching from the stands, suiting up the Heat stars could not have made it any more one sided.
It was a close to a perfect game as you will see in basketball, great shooting and defense that kept Carolina from executing most anything. Reggie Bullock remained the most consistent Tar Heel with 14 points and seven rebounds, but Bullock wouldn’t start and might not get many minutes for Miami. That’s how suddenly disparate the talent is between the two teams.
Marcus Paige and McAdoo, who have played so well of late, went 4-for-21 and both of them were as much out of their element as Miami usually is against the Tar Heels. Paige missed all five of his treys and McAdoo could not contend with Kadji, Reggie Johnson or Julian Gamble, the ‘Canes massive front line.
The game marked the beginning of the second half of the ACC season for the Tar Heels, who have to go to Duke Wednesday on Mike Krzyzewski’s 66th birthday and still have to visit Clemson, Georgia Tech and Maryland. They also have Virginia, State, Florida State and Duke at home, none of which will be easy.
So if they awake Thursday with a 6-5 ACC record, how hard will it be to get the 10 conference wins and 20 overall needed to insure a bid to the NCAA Tournament? After all, this is a season of mediocrity in what is usually the best basketball league in America. Only two teams are ranked and have proven themselves true contenders for the ACC and national championships.
Carolina is neither of them, but plays both of them within a span of four days. From the eye of the Hurricane to the chaos of the Crazies.
Marcus Paige has really been thrown into the fire this season. With the early departure of Kendall Marshall to the NBA, Paige was asked to be the starting point guard at Carolina from day one. If that wasn’t a big enough task, he’s been forced to run the team with two of its best players sitting on the bench for the majority of most games. Under the circumstances, Marcus Paige has been pretty good.
Paige had his best game of the season against Virginia Tech last week, dominating the overtime period to help the Tar Heels avoid a disastrous loss at home. His 19 point, 5 rebound, 5 assist performance against the Hokies displayed the talent that earned him the No. 1 point guard ranking coming out of high school, and it gave UNC fans a glimpse of the player he can be. The next step is consistency.
Paige has been hesitant and tentative for much of the season, but it seems his confidence is growing. He’s shown the ability to beat defenders off the dribble to finish around the rim or find an open teammate. He’s also displayed a very nice shooting touch when he’s open and set, but he’s had a tendency to take some bad shots. The easiest thing Paige can do to improve and reduce his indecisiveness is to ratchet up his aggression level. He has good basketball instincts, and he simply needs to stop thinking so much and trust them.
It’s amazing what aggression will do for you in the game of basketball. Attacking the rim puts the opponent under lots of pressure, forcing them to react rather than harass. The defense will inevitably break down, and a high-percentage shot will ensue. Aggression on the defensive end disrupts the opponent and takes them out of their comfort zone.
Marcus Paige needs to bring this mentality on both ends of the floor and set the right tone for this Tar Heel team. Ideally P.J. Hairston should be the guy delivering this dynamic to the Carolina lineup this season, but for some reason Roy Williams continues to hold him back. If Hairston remains in Williams’ doghouse, Paige’s evolution as a leader will likely decide UNC’s postseason fate.
You can follow Josh on Twitter @HoopVisions
The hashtags started flying like PJ Hairston’s jump shots in Chestnut Hill on Tuesday night.
Hairston was finally blossoming into the player Roy Williams called “the best shooter he has ever recruited” in the first half against Boston College, and seemingly every UNC student with a Twitter was taking notice. Igniting the team with fourteen points in just twelve minutes of action, Hairston was making a strong case to replace Dexter Strickland in the starting lineup at shooting guard as an offensive catalyst. Then, disaster struck.
It was an incredibly odd scene to watch unfold. At UNC, we consider the basketball players to be demigods. They are stronger, faster, and more athletic than is seemingly imaginable. To steal a line from Austin Powers, women want to be with them, and men want to be them. Seeing one of these superheroes hurt so badly, unable to walk without support, was jarring. If you aren’t reminded every once in awhile, you can sometimes forget that basketball players are human, too. That reality, that athletes are also vulnerable, was all too apparent on Tuesday.
Tasteless jokes that Strickland hit PJ on purpose to save his job aside, the outpouring of support for Hairston was tremendous. Everyone quickly grasped the severity of the injury and the implications for the team. Without Hairston, our bench is reduced to Leslie McDonald (coming off injury and suspension), freshman forwards, and Blue Steel. For this team to finish strong and make a run in the NCAA Tournament, Hairston’s return will be key. Without him, Carolina will struggle, as they demonstrated with a lackluster effort in the second half against a weak Boston College team. Even with McDonald returning against Virginia Tech, the UNC bench managed just thirteen points, one fewer than Hairston alone had in his limited action at BC. That it took the best performances to date by James Michael McAdoo and Marcus Paige to beat the middling Hokies (at home, in overtime, no less) is both troubling and promising. While McAdoo and Paige are unlikely to play at such a high level on a consistent basis for the remainder of the season, the knowledge that they might is what UNC fans can hold onto until Hairston is back.
As someone who suffered a mild concussion earlier this year (intramural soccer is a dangerous business), the after-effects can linger for a long time after the injury. Physical ability may not be hindered after the first few minutes, but mental thought processes are often slower and reaction time to new information can suffer markedly. While everyone responds differently to brain injuries, the trauma that Hairston suffered is very serious. He probably doesn’t have the most beautiful countenance on the team to begin with, but his vacant stares from the bench are indicative of a player that won’t be fully recovered for some period of time. Even if he does recover quickly, there is an increased risk for a more severe concussion if he is hit again.
The trainers at campus health recommended that I not resume physical activity for at least three weeks following my concussion, though I get the feeling that PJ may be pressured to play sooner. The mysterious and somewhat subjective nature of brain injuries makes it possible that Hairston’s own evaluation of his injury and his desire to play will partially dictate when he returns to action, a potentially dangerous proposition.
For everyone’s sake, I just hope that #PJBeHealing.
By not competing, Carolina committed the cardinal sin of UNC basketball Saturday night at N.C. State.
Whether underdog, undermanned or under intense pressure from a crazed crowd, the Tar Heels have rarely not been ready to fight from the opening tip.
They weren’t this time, perhaps thinking their sky blue uniforms would settle a red storm and be good enough against an opponent they had defeated 13 straight times and pretty much dominated for the last 20 years.
But that was then and this was now. And arrogant quotes in the preseason and silly dances in the runway before taking the court don’t automatically make them good enough against what is clearly a better team.
Carolina’s mantra under Roy Williams is transition basketball, but it was State that scored 20 fast break points in the first half compared to none for the visitors who were beaten badly at their own game.
It may have been the first time in the 100-year-old rivalry that the Wolfpack started better players at every position. Even the Tar Heels’ best hope foolishly fouled State’s C.J. Leslie twice in the first two minutes (although the second was probably a play-on that never should have been called).
Regardless, James Michael McAdoo did not return until 11 minutes remained in the first half and his team already down by 12 points. After his two free throws and a follow by Jackson Simmons finished an 8-0 spurt that whittled the deficit to four, State scored the next eight points and finished the first half on a 23-8 run that was wrought with dreadful defense and forced shots out of a chaotic Carolina offense with nothing coming easy against the determined Wolfpack.
Down 45-26 at the break, Williams actually thought his team could win the game – undoubtedly reasoning it could not play any worse. Before long the deficit was 28 points with such calamities as Dexter Strickland missing a wide open layup on a 5-on-4 break after State’s Rodney Purvis was lying on the floor with a sprained ankle.
“Carolina can’t get the shots to go down!” exclaimed Dick Vitale from the ESPN broadcast location. That’s because most of them were wild, horrible shots, babeeeee!
Freshman Marcus Paige was so undone from the pressure applied by State senior Lorenzo Brown that he missed his first eight tries badly and finally gave way to seldom-used transfer Luke Davis. Paige personified a basketball team that basically could not pass, catch, dribble or shoot – occupational hazards for the game it was attempting to play.
The eventual 91-83 defeat wasn’t the issue, since State figured to win anyway. When you lose four players to the first round of the NBA draft, you are automatically in a rebuilding mode since the only way to replace them would be with one-and-done high school stars who go to other schools.
But after almost 20 games, most teams have learned what they can and cannot do and try to stick with that. The late comeback upheld the Carolina tradition of never quitting no matter how badly they’re playing. But, truth is, State teams do let up when they have a big lead and, according to Coach Mark Gottfried, “got tired” in the second half.
So, with the outcome obviously decided, turnovers were easier to force and three-pointers began going down for the Tar Heels.
Suddenly, it was only a nine-point hole and State might have actually choked it away. But down 11, Reggie Bullock’s wide-open trey from the top of the key hit back rim and Strickland fouled State sharpshooter Scott Wood after he drained his three-pointer falling into the Wolfpack bench. What could have been eight points with four minutes left was instead 15. Game over.
At the end, the only Nervous Nellies were those who bet on State to cover the 5 1/2-point spread. And P.J. Hairston, who got hot in the second half and finished with five three-pointers and 19 overall, could have ruined the night for those who thought they had a sure thing for 35 minutes. However, his last shot that would have made the final margin five points missed and even those wagerers went home happy if not fully satisfied by a blowout it looked to be earlier.
Williams snapped at the notion that his team might have learned something from the second half rally, acknowledging how things aren’t for real on both ends when the game is basically over. Back to .500 (3-3) in the ACC, the Tar Heels will face similarly insane venues at Miami on February 9, Duke on February 13 and Maryland on March 6, if not three other road trips beginning at Boston College Tuesday night. And there are also dates with State and Duke at home, which hasn’t exactly produced easy wins this season.
Ol’ Roy saw few redeeming qualities in the un-Carolina-like effort in Raleigh, saying it was a miserable night for everyone in a blue uniform and every coach in purple sneakers (the color he chose for the Coaches vs. Cancer footwear game for his buddy Ted Seagroves, who has pancreatic cancer).
The shoes are normally some variation of pink, but Williams was still seeing enough red when he boarded the bus back to Chapel Hill.
Image by Katie Bailey / DTH via DailyTarHeel.comhttp://chapelboro.com/hoop-it-up/ford-corners/seeing-red-in-a-sea-of-red/
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.
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
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!
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