Roy Williams Remembers Dean Smith

As Chapel Hill and the nation mourns the passing of former UNC Coach Dean Smith, tributes from notables are pouring in from far and wide.

Current Tar Heel Head Coach Roy Williams reflected at a press conference on Sunday.

The Tar Heel “Circle of Life”

The sun rises bright and high each morning over the African desert, much the same as it should hang over our own Dean E. Smith Center this winter. As King Mufasa once ruled over all of the animals while nurturing his son, Simba, so Coach Roy Williams will resume his quest to once again rule the ACC Kingdom by preaching the UNC Point Guard “circle of life” to his own Simba: point guard extraordinaire Marcus Paige. The question lies in whether or not Simba can get a little help from his friends this year, with the departures of James Michael McAdoo and Leslie McDonald.

Coach Roy Williams (UNC Athletics)

Coach Roy Williams (UNC Athletics)

It may be the easy conclusion to say that it all starts and ends with number five for the Heels, but that kind of pressure is unwarranted for Marcus Paige. Recent history under Roy Williams and his fast-breaking offensive style has proven time and again that yes, he needs a star up-tempo point man, but that player, whether it be Raymond Felton in 2005 or Ty Lawson in 2009, is not going to win a conference or national title alone.

In order for Paige to avoid passing out in the desert like Simba, and for him to reach the lofty goals set out for the team this year, he’ll need some help from his Timon and Pumbaa. J.P. Tokoto and Kennedy Meeks will each need to take a big leap forward to ease some of the burden on their leader. If Paige is going to take on the Felton/Lawson role in Williams’ scheme, Tokoto and Meeks should aim to fill roles previously filled with names like Rashad McCants and Danny Green or Sean May and Tyler Hansbrough. Tokoto has the size and athleticism to be an NBA wing player, but is still lacking confidence and consistency with his outside jumper. Meeks also looks to be a prototypical pro-level stretch power forward. With the 6’9” 270 pound body and strength he possesses, he should increase his rebounding production this season, but it’s his offensive potential, and his three-point range, that gets scouts talking about what this kid could grow up to be. The exact statistical production won’t necessarily be replicated simply because each season’s team is different; but it seems that for Roy Williams, his title teams have adhered to a distinct blueprint.

Roy’s national title teams had a few clear factors in common. Point Guards Felton and Lawson had each spent their first two years on campus proving their talents while failing to meet tournament expectations. Each of them was also surrounded by proven and talented players all over the floor, just as experienced. Seniors even earned significant playing time with those squads, which seems to be becoming rarer by the year in college basketball. By the time of each point guard’s junior year, their respective teams were both talented and experienced enough that opponents essentially had to pick their poison every time they played the Heels; production could come from anywhere on any given night. There was just that much talent and consistency on the court.

Marcus Paige (Todd Melet)

Marcus Paige (Todd Melet)

Fast forward to this year’s bunch, and what we have is one element that lines up and most others that don’t quite fit. We have Paige, the talented junior point guard, ready to make the leap and seize control of his kingdom. However, as talented as we know Tokoto, Meeks, and Brice Johnson can be, they have yet to demonstrate consistency throughout a full season. Incoming high school McDonalds All-Americans Justin Jackson and Theo Pinson will also play key roles on the wing. Jackson, a talented and rangy 6’8” offensive player from Texas, and Pinson, an athletic 6’6” small forward hailing from nearby High Point, are without a doubt high class talents. Talent does not always replace age and experience, which is the main ingredient this group will lack.

As the season progresses the key for the Tar Heels’ run at the ACC and potentially national crowns will rest with Mufasa’s development of his cubs. Coach Williams will teach and Simba will lead. Whether or not expectations are met will likely be determined by how well the rest of the pack learns and develops together.

Meanwhile, across the triangle in Durham, Mufasa’s brother Scar seems to have grown jealous of Simba’s potential claim to the throne. Coach Mike Krzyzewski has added his own uber-talented protégé this offseason in center Jahlil Okafor from Chicago, and the Blue Devils appear to be reloading.

Although Louisville and Virginia may have other plans, the ACC crown looks like it could easily end up mirroring a couple of alpha-male lions dueling it out in the desert (or on Tobacco Road) at the very end. It would only be right to have it all come down to Simba versus Scar, March 7th inside the Dean Dome. We’ll all hope for our sake that it plays out just like the movie, with Simba on top looking down at his kingdom (and returning for a senior season).

Drug Case Delayed For Ex-UNC Player Will Graves

HILLSBOROUGH — The misdemeanor drug case against former North Carolina basketball player Will Graves has been delayed until July.

Graves was scheduled to be in court Monday, but Orange County assistant district attorney Jeff Nieman said the case was continued until July 1 because Graves is playing professionally in Argentina.

Police in Chapel Hill cited Graves with simple marijuana possession and drug paraphernalia on Dec. 6 while he stayed at a residence owned by Tar Heels coach Roy Williams.

A team spokesman said at the time that Graves was paying rent to stay there while working toward his degree and as a part-time video coordinator for the team during the fall semester.

Graves, who wasn’t arrested, issued a statement apologizing to Williams, the school, family and friends.

Will We See The Old McDonald?

It’s difficult not to notice that as Leslie McDonald has gone of late, so have the Tar Heels.

McDonald, who returned to the lineup on Dec. 18 vs. Texas after missing the first nine games of the regular season for receiving impermissible benefits, had a solid game vs. the Longhorns with 15 points.

Photo courtesy of UNC Athletics Communications

Photo courtesy of UNC Athletics Communications

Like his teammates, however, McDonald struggled through a 3-of-8 effort at the free throw line in the 86-83 loss to the Longhorns. The Tar Heels were a dismal 24 of 47 at the charity stripe.

He went on to play fairly well in the next three games, netting a total of 34 points in wins over Davidson, Northern Kentucky and UNC-Wilmington. McDonald hit a respectable 11 of 23 field goal attempts, including 5 of 12 trey attempts.

McDonald has slumped severely in his last three tilts, though, failing to reach double-figure scoring in ACC setbacks to Wake Forest, Miami and No. 2 Syracuse.

He totaled just 19 points in all while hitting just 7 of 30 field goals. McDonald hasn’t stopped launching three-pointers, but hit just 3 of 17 attempts.

McDonald recently said he won’t be afraid to shoot, however, despite his struggles.

“You’ve got to keep looking forward and keep being aggressive. That’s the one thing. If your shot is not falling or you’re not very confident, keep being aggressive. As a team, we need to do that,” McDonald said.

McDonald, the lone scholarship senior on this season’s North Carolina roster, averaged 7.2 points and 2.1 rebounds in a reserve role in 2012-13. He was suspended for three games during his junior campaign for academic reasons.

UNC vs UNC Pembroke 001McDonald seemed contrite about his actions for the most recent ban, but was excited about his return.

“I feel blessed to play again for Carolina,” McDonald said in a UNC release at the time. “I truly regret putting my family, UNC and my teammates and coaches through this. I apologize to everyone who cares about the University of North Carolina and will do what I can to make up for it. You never know how much you love to play the game until you are not allowed to…”

Although head coach Roy Williams lost P.J. Hairston for the season in a similar matter when the program didn’t seek his reinstatement, he was pleased to have the talented McDonald return.

“Leslie has been a sensational teammate and worked hard in practice to help our team. He understands what he has already lost and wants to really enjoy this second chance. Leslie has one more semester to contribute to our team and finish his degree. I feel sure he will be truly dedicated to accomplishing both of those goals.”

The Tar Heels will need more from McDonald and his teammates as they take on Boston College Saturday afternoon at the Smith Center and hit the road for Monday’s tilt at Virginia. UNC returns home the following Sunday for a matchup vs. Clemson.

Chansky: The Fed-Up Factor

Frankly, who could blame Roy Williams if he got so fed up that he quit after the season?

Fans who are quick to criticize Ol’ Roy and those inside the university who have made his job harder and his life miserable ought to think about that.

royWhere would UNC be if another casualty of the three-year scandal was losing its Hall of Fame coach who is as sensitive as he is hard-nosed? He has enough problems with a 10-6 basketball team whose talent level is lower than in any other of his previous 10 seasons at Carolina, with no apparent pros on the roster.

It is conjecture, but how the P.J. Hairston story unraveled sure looks like Williams took one for the team in the decision to bounce his leading scorer for good. Both Williams and Athletic Director Bubba Cunningham had said publicly that they expected Hairston back sometime this season, but they could no longer fight the mounting evidence.

After the announcement that UNC would not apply for Hairston’s reinstatement, Roy said he could understand the various points of view. And P.J.’s family expressed displeasure with the university’s decision. Both of those reactions would support the theory that it was not merely the NCAA’s call.

A more plausible explanation is that Hairston was heading for a substantial suspension until more damning evidence came to light while the UNC Board of Governors kept pushing for a stronger stand to demonstrate it was getting tough on athletics. So it looked like a Carolina basketball player was thrown out of the program for the first time in more than 50 years.

Then, of course, came the regrettable hyperbole by UNC learning specialist Mary Willingham that one of Williams’ players could not read or write. While most Tar Heel athletes are not Rhodes Scholar candidates, one of them being completely illiterate seems patently impossible. UNC admissions director Steve Farmer said as much.

On most campuses, there is a segment of the faculty that is either over-protective of the academic mission or anti-athletics, or both. At UNC, that segment has a louder voice than at many schools playing Division I sports, perhaps because former Athletic Director Dick Baddour came from the faculty side and did not do much to control the volume.

A constant push-pull between admissions and athletics does little to underscore the fact that big-time college sports is really a self-sustaining corporation that, in UNC’s case, balances a $75 million budget without financial help from the university. In fact, athletics often sends money across the street to South Building.

In its worst iteration, such an ongoing conflict can chase coaches away. That is NOT what UNC wants to do with Williams and Larry Fedora, whose high-profile programs are seen as the front porch of the university that help fund-raising, the applicant pool and branding through national exposure to the largest subculture in America.

When Willingham and faculty members like Jay Smith, who apparently have been concerned for years, take their cases to the regional and national media instead of trying to affect change from within, the question of motive arises.

Willingham supposedly gets off on being “ranked” on several whistle-blower websites. And Smith seems to like the role as ad-hoc spokesman for the faculty, appearing on sports talk shows and as one of the first sources the media contacts. Now he says he’s writing a book.

At the heart of this matter is the small percentage of “less prepared” athletes who are mostly black male football and basketball players. All schools who want to compete at the highest level in those sports must take some of these special admits.

And it seems logical they would be drawn to African-American history, like Jewish students take courses at the Center for Jewish Studies, musicians major in music, burgeoning actors take drama classes. It is their heritage, so why not study it?

What is wrong with admitting these kids, most of whom are being given the chance of a lifetime and come from communities that help them become great athletes but do not prepare them for college? Where would they go if they never received college scholarships? Probably nowhere.

There are likely as many 4.0 students who don’t graduate as these less-prepared kids who might have undiscovered learning disabilities or who just test poorly. With the proper help, they can improve their lives dramatically by getting athletic scholarships. A few will become pro athletes, but others will benefit from the socialization they receive on campus and make alumni contacts that could lead to good jobs when they get out of school. Some may even go back to their communities and help the next generation of kids get better prepared for college.

Isn’t that a mission of a state university?

So what do we have here? Some academic procedures and principles that were violated and have since been corrected. And a continuing controversy that the national press has jumped all over to report on issues they really know very little about. Mostly, a prevailing feeling that the story will never end and keep hurting our reputation and attempts to move beyond it.

Photo by Todd Melet

Photo by Todd Melet

About this time in Roy Williams’ 15-year tenure at Kansas, he had some problems with an administration that had turned over. It led him to break his pledge to remain at KU and eventually come back to UNC, where he has had even more success as a coach than he did in Lawrence.

At 63, he is unlikely to go to another school or an NBA team. But with grandchildren he adores, more money saved up than he could ever spend and on-again, off-again health issues, Williams could reach the point where he feels under-appreciated and decides to walk away.

A long shot, probably, but a scenario worth thinking about for some people who are letting ego, grandstanding or their prejudices toward athletics and athletes dictate some destructive actions.

Coach K's Great, But . . .

Now that the ACC has failed to reach the Final Four for three straight years for the first time since 1961, let’s set the record straight about Duke and Coach K.

Krzyzewski is a terrific coach, called “the John Wooden of this era” by Sunday’s vanquisher, Louisville’s Rick Pitino. Certainly with four national championships, 11 Final Fours and two Gold Medals with the U.S. Olympic team (which Wooden never coached), you can make a case for the man with the most major college victories in basketball history as the best sitting head coach.

But compared to the perception that Duke is in the Final Four every year, the Blue Devils have hardly lived up to that reputation. There are so many cable sports center shows (ESPN alone has too many to count), young announcers seem given to hyperbole. For example, one late Sunday said this before going to a clip from Coach K’s post-game press conference.

“So the Final Four will go off without the man who is there year after year.”

Let’s get real, people. Duke has been to exactly TWO Final Fours since 2004 — hardly “year after year.” Yes, Krzyzewski has been amazingly consistent in accumulating those 957 career victories. But his NCAA record over the last 10 years is less than sterling. It doesn’t even compare to Roy Williams, who beat K and Duke in the 2003 Sweet Sixteen in his last season at Kansas (and second straight Final Four year for the Jayhawks). Here are the numbers since Roy’s return to UNC:

Duke’s Last 10 Stops Carolina’s Last 9 Stops
1 NCAA title (6-0) 2 NCAA titles (12-0)
1 Final Four (4-1) 1 Final Four (4-1)
1 Elite 8 (3-1) 3 Elite 8s (9-3)
4 Sweet 16s (8-4) 0 Sweet 16s (0-0)
1 Round of 32 (1-1) 3 Round of 32 (3-3)
2 Round of 64 (0-2) 0 Round of 64* (0-0)

NCAA record: 22-9 NCAA record: 28-7

While playing in more NCAA games (35) than Duke (31), Carolina under Williams has a better post-season record. And (*) never losing in the round of 64 in his 25 years as a head coach, Williams holds the active NCAA mark of 23 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances with at least one victory.

The Tar Heels did miss the NCAA Tournament in 2010, following the loss of four starters and stars off their 2009 national championship team. As written here before, UNC has had 13 NBA first-round draft choices over the last nine years, 11 of whom went out early to cost Carolina a total of 17 seasons of eligibility.

Duke, by contrast, has eight first-rounders during that same period, with early departures costing the Blue Devils 10 seasons of eligibility. This June, they will likely have three more seniors drafted in the first round – Seth Curry, Mason Plumlee and Ryan Kelly.

But, based on Sunday’s one-sided loss to Louisville, none of those players is a sure-shot pro, compared to Cardinals Gorgui Dieng, Peyton Siva and Russ Smith, who have the hops and speed to have made Duke look slow and cumbersome. In the second half, when Louisville began setting high ball screens a little farther out, Siva and Smith blew by the Blue Devils still trying to get out to help on the screens.

The game, of course, was halted late in the first half by the tragic injury to Louisville sophomore Kevin Ware, who landed awkwardly on his right leg and snapped the bone in two places. The scene was so gruesome, driving Cardinal players, coaches and fans to tears, CBS did not to show a replay of the incident over and over. The cameras concentrated on the emotion of the moment.

It was difficult to say how the injury would affect both teams, and Louisville appeared unglued until a late 10-4 run that provided a 35-32 lead at halftime. And when ahead at the break this season, the Cardinals are now 29-0. Much of that can be attributed to Pitino’s halftime adjustments and his teams amazing speed and skill and its depth to cover for sixth-man Ware’s loss.

Duke, meanwhile, appeared slow and slow to adjust to Louisville’s isolating Siva and Smith at the top of the key. Once either of those speeding bullets got into the lane, the Blue Devil big men could not contend. When Duke lost control of the game, it lacked the speed on defense and firepower on offense to get back in.

Louisville represents how the college game is trending, and those teams that cannot compete in recruiting and style will be left behind. The Cardinals apply relentless pressure on both ends of the court, trying to wear opponents down with their speed on offense as well as defense. They usually press in the backcourt and then fall back into changing man-to-man or zone defense, which Duke was slow to recognize and attack. The second half was no contest.

Pitino got a measure of revenge from his Kentucky team’s last-second loss to Duke in the 1992 Regional Final in Philadelphia, the famous game in which Christian Laettner did not miss a free throw or field goal, including the buzzer beater from 18 feet as time expired. Pitino, now at UK’s arch rival, continues to carve out his own Hall of Fame career, matching Roy Williams’ seventh Final Four.

Where college basketball, particularly in the revamped ACC, goes from here is unknown. More conference realignment may be coming, but for now Louisville, Pitt and Final Four-bound Syracuse are headed for the ACC. And even with Duke’s over-hyped post-season performance, it looks like all the movement meant to help football will give slumping ACC basketball a much-needed boost.

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.

Heels-'Nova Have History

Carolina and Villanova have played 14 times in men’s basketball, with the Tar Heels holding a 10-4 record, 4-1 in the NCAA Tournament. But almost all of the games have been significant. To wit:
Their first meeting was in 1956, when Frank McGuire’s eventual (1957) national championship team was playing together for the first season. The Tar Heels, who finished 18-5 that year, defeated Villanova in their Dixie Classic opener in December. Carolina won by 23.
Their next meeting was in the final Dixie Classic in December of 1960, before UNC President Bill Friday shut down the eight-team holiday tournament due to the point-shaving scandal that emerged after the season. Carolina beat the Wildcats in the second round by 20 this time.
The teams met again in what had become the most famous Christmas tournament, the Holiday Festival in Madison Square Garden. Dean Smith succeeded McGuire and by December of 1968 had built the second-best program in the country behind UCLA. The Tar Heels and four-time national champion Bruins were in the Festival field, along with Villanova, St. John’s and Princeton. Carolina defeated Villanova in the opening game, 69-61, in a rough-and-tumble affair that included near fisticuffs between UNC’s Charlie Scott and Villanova’s Howard Porter. The Heels missed their chance to face-off with Lew Alcindor and UCLA when they were upset in the semifinals by hometown St. John’s before a roaring capacity crowd at the Garden.
The Carolina-Villanova rivalry really got interesting when the schools next met 12 years later. The top-ranked Tar Heels with freshman Michael Jordan, sophomore Sam Perkins and junior James Worthy, played  Rollie Massimino’s Wildcats in the Elite Eight game of the NCAA Tournament in Reynolds Coliseum. In a regional where all five UNC starters scored in double figures in both games, Carolina held off freshman star Ed Pin   ckney and ‘Nova, 70-60, and moved on to New Orleans where they defeated Houston and Georgetown for Smith’s first national championship.
The following year, the teams played a regular-season game at Carmichael Auditorium. No. 12 Villanova stunned No. 1 UNC, which had won 18 in a row   going in. The 56-53 shocker turned the season around for the Tar Heels, who lost three straight and dropped to No. 11 in the rankings. Carolina went 7-5 over its last 12 games, including two upsets to Cinderella N.C. State and a loss to Georgia in the Elite Eight of the 1983 NCAA Tournament, which denied them another shot at the Cardiac Pack in the Final Four. And you know what happened there in Albuquerque.
The most historic loss to Villanova came in the South Regional final in Birmingham two years later. The Tar Heels, who had rallied through the 1985 NCAA Tournament without injured guard Steve Hale, actually led the Wildcats by eight and were holding the ball for the last shot of the first half. Kenny Smith got tied up for a jump ball, Villanova took possession and Harold  Jensen made an old-fashioned three-point play at the buzzer. Unranked ‘Nova outscored Carolina by 17 in the second half, moved on to the Final Four in Lexington and pulled off the biggest upset in NCAA history by shooting 79 percent for the game (22 of 28) and beating “unbeatable” defending champion Georgetown and Patrick Ewing for the school’s only national title.
Carolina defeated Villanova in the 1989 Maui Classic and at home during the 1992 season. In between, the Tar Heels beat the Wildcats in the 1991 East Regional on the way to the Final Four. The top-ranked Heels won the next meeting at the Smith Center in 1995, but then dropped TWO games to  Villanova the following season, one in Maui and the other in Philly.
Who can forget the East Regional sweet Sixteen at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse in 2005? Certainly not ‘Nova fans. With Carolina clinging to a three-point lead late, Villanova’s Allan Ray drove, scored and appeared to be fouled by Melvin Scott. But Tom O’Neill’s whistle was not to signal the “and one” that could have tied the game. It was for travelling on Ray, which when looking at the clip  does not appear to have occurred.

Anyway, Carolina won the game, went on to win the national championship and, four years later, beat Villanova easily in the Final Four at Detroit on the way to Roy Williams’ second NCAA title. The rich, and controversial, series between the two schools resumes Friday night in Kansas City. My guess is that O’Neill, who was voted 2012 national official of the year, will not be calling the game.

A First Time (Well, Kinda) For Everything

Surprising? Unfair? Conspiratorial? These words all probably flashed through the minds of Tar Heel fans across the country when it was revealed on Sunday evening that the UNC had earned an 8-seed and a potential second-round matchup with Kansas in this year’s NCAA Tournament. Many felt that UNC had done enough in beating FSU and Maryland and playing Miami evenly for about 36 minutes in the ACC Tournament to warrant at least a 7 and possibly even a 6-seed. Based on RPI, strength of schedule, and record vs. the Top 100 in the RPI, Carolina was better than each of the teams placed one slot higher. Even in advanced per-possession metrics (, which are supposedly now utilized by the tournament selection committee, UNC is rated better than both Notre Dame and Illinois, who both received sevens. None of these statistics even consider the fact that UNC has been a much better team since moving PJ Hairston into the starting lineup. Fans of other schools are probably rolling their eyes at the complaints of Carolina’s supporters given that UNC has traditionally been a powerhouse. Nevertheless, some Heels fans think it a strange coincidence that the Tar Heels are seemingly under-seeded and slated to meet Roy Williams’ former team in Kansas City should they beat Villanova…a realllllly coincidental coincidence that would make for excellent television.

But maybe the selection committee was simply down on the ACC this year. Neither Duke nor Miami received a 1-seed in spite of seemingly-deserving profiles, especially since no team has ever been denied a spot on the top line after sweeping the ACC regular season and tournament titles. Maybe the committee realized that the Heels have beaten only two NCAA tournament teams this season, NC State (8-seed) and UNLV (5-seed), and both games were at home. Maybe the committee looked at UNC and saw a team that recently got smacked by Duke on its own court…a team that couldn’t defend Miami’s scorers when it needed to get stops to win the ACC Championship…a team that wasn’t ranked for most of the year because it just wasn’t one of the twenty-five best teams in the country. Or maybe the committee is made up of a bunch of idiots. It’s hard to say right now.

Regardless, this has been a crazy year in college basketball. None of the teams at the top of the polls have been truly dominant; heck, a team from the WCC (that’s the West Coast Conference, for those of you that haven’t heard of it) ended the regular season with the #1 ranking. The beauty of March Madness lies in the upset, the electricity that grabs hold of the audience as an underdog is matching the favorite shot for shot, the thrill of seeing the unexpected happen, the success of those that were written off early on or never given a chance to begin with. With the favorites less than a sure thing this year, the tournament seems ripe for excitement and magic.

This year, Carolina has its lowest seed in history (tied with 1990 and 2000) and is taking on the mantle of underdog/Cinderella for one of the first times ever. But for this team, this year, the slipper might just fit. Statistical analysis by Jordan Brenner and Peter Keating at ESPN has shown that the teams most likely to stage major upsets (difference of five or more in seeding) have high variability in performance; the wider the range of possible performances, the more likely it is that a team puts together the type of special performance required to beat a giant. Some of the key characteristics that they’ve identified for “Giant Killers” include making a lot of three pointers and forcing turnovers. Jacking up long distance shots and gambling for steals are the kinds of high-risk, high-reward strategies employed by the most dangerous low seeds, and the Heels are starting to get pretty good at doing those things, based on their performance over the past few weeks. Obviously, if the shots aren’t falling, the result can be really ugly (just watch the highlights from the Duke game in March if you can stand to), but if Hairston and Reggie Bullock can continue their torrid shooting from outside, the Heels have a shot against anyone.

The odds are seemingly stacked against Carolina to do something special in this year’s tournament, but each of the previous two times they were an 8-seed, the Heels took down a top seed and advanced to at least the Sweet Sixteen. Maybe there’s a little magic left in store for this team. We’ll find out starting on Friday.

All Photos in Hoop It Up are provided by Todd Melet.

Too Little Too Late

Carolina’s improbable run from mediocrity ended literally two minutes too early, as the Tar Heels lost their third consecutive ACC tournament championship game and this time face a much stiffer penalty than merely  the heartbreak of defeat the last two years.

After a third loss to “old” and talented Miami this season, the crime of beating only two teams that likewise reached the NCAA Tournament probably fits the penalty of receiving an eighth seed and the prospect of having to beat Kansas in Kansas City to make the Sweet Sixteen.
Had Carolina been able to finish what, for much of the Sunday afternoon in Greensboro, looked like a major upset in the making, the Heels likely would have moved up a line or two in the seeding and if so avoided playing Kansas for a third time since Roy Williams returned from coaching at KU 10 years ago. And, if you bear to remember, the first two were losses in the 2008 Final Four and last year’s Elite Eight game of the Midwest Regional.
Nevertheless, the Tar Heels rebounded from a disjointed poor start of the season (10-5) to win 14 of their last 19 games and get off the NCAA tourney bubble. Their only two so-called “quality wins” over UNLV and N.C. State rendered advancing to the ACC championship game almost useless unless they could have cut down the nets for the first time since 2008. After a sensational first half by both teams, Carolina led Miami with 6:38  remaining and was still only three points behind at the 2:40 mark. The 87-77 final was un-indicative of this battle royal.
Losing to the Hurricanes, who drew a No. 2 NCAA seed, was certainly no insult. Being banished to Kansas City as a No. 8 seed and a date with top-seed Kansas if the Tar Heels can defeat Villanova in their first game was also no just reward.
The transformation from an unlikeable basketball team to a lovable one began with the emergence of sophomore P.J. Hairston, who remained the central figure right through toughing out a pretty gruesome injury after scoring 21 points in the quarterfinal win over Florida State. Playing with a heavily taped hand from a stitched-up laceration, Hairston teetered on legendary status by making his first two 3’s against Maryland and then encoring with 28 against Miami, including six three-pointers from vast locations on the Greensboro  C  oliseum court.
Indeed, Hairston and his teammates will have to at least match their performance next weekend for any chance to reach the Sweet Sixteen in Arlington  , Texas. But for what was clearly a rebuilding venture after losing four starters to the NBA draft, they have at the very least created excitement and momentum going into the NCAA tourney and, more importantly, looking ahead to next season.
It’s a bit odd that UNC, which along with Duke has dominated the ACC tournament over the last 60 years, played a part in making two schools from the Sunshine State one-and-done wonders in the event. With defensive player of the year John Henson injured last season, the Tar Heels lost to Florida State’s first ACC title team. The 18-15 Seminoles were pretty horrible for most of this season and basically quit midway through the second half of their loss to UNC Friday night.
Miami, which has five seniors averaging 23 years old and the best player in the league in sophomore guard Shane Larkin, could in fact win the national championship in three weeks. But next season, the ‘Canes will have an entirely new starting lineup and likely revert to their middling status in the ACC after winning their first conference title.
But, oh what a game Sunday! The teams combined to make 15 three-pointers in a spectacular first half, trading long-range howitzers from well beyond the arc. Hairston had four of Carolina’s eight, while Larkin and unsung Trey McKinney-Jones had three each for Miami. The pace was frenetic but the play so splendid that only eight turnovers were committed.
The second half started the same way, with Carolina turning a three-point deficit into a five-point lead nine minutes in. The light blue-clad capacity crowd that gobbled up all the available tickets for the final was roaring like it was Duke in the Dean Dome. But both teams, which won rugged semifinal games Saturday, slowed it down over the last 10 minutes and you knew whoever kept knocking them in from outside was going to wear the crown.
That, unfortunately, was Miami, which made the last four treys of the game to regain the lead and protect it by hitting eight free throws down the stretch, six by Larkin who will be an NBA lottery pick this coming June. The son of baseball Hall of Famer Barry Larkin, the 6-2 point guard has an uncanny command of the game from knowing when to shoot, pass or drive and executing almost flawlessly.
Carolina still might have won if McKinney-Jones hadn’t made three more bombs in the second half, the backbreaker from the deep corner after a UNC defensive lapse that gave Miami an eight-point lead with 98 seconds remaining. The Heels managed only eight points over the last 4½ minutes as the game slipped away.


Roy Williams had nothing but praise for his team’s gallantry and said he had never been prouder during the recovery process of season that once appeared to be going nowhere. Now, it’s going to Kansas City and another possible date with Kansas, which kept Carolina from the Final Four last season only because the banged-up, top-seeded  Tar Heels had lost their first two point guards to injury.

Maybe Hairston and Co. have an unused miracle or two.

All Game Photos By Todd Melet